David Arnow, a Wexner Heritage alum from New York, recently co-edited My People’s Passover Haggadah (Jewish Lights, 2008) with Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. He is the author of Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities (Jewish Lights, 2004). He can be reached at darnow@aol.com

The notion that an “authentic” Passover Seder does not necessarily require a precise recitation of an unchanging text year after year is in vogue these days. Witness the plethora of new Haggadot that provide alternative readings and the increasingly common custom of families creating their own “loose leaf” Haggadot that they modify from one Seder to the next. Far from a newfangled “craze,” today’s practice taps into older traditions with roots in the earliest descriptions of the Seder and in the evolution of the text of the Haggadah itself. Let’s explore this by means of two examples. First let’s consider the Mishnah, the source of one of the most ancient outlines of the Seder. Then we’ll look into the origins of the very phrase in the Haggadah that explicitly encourages spontaneity at the Seder: “. . . It is our duty to tell the story of the Exodus and all who elaborate on telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt deserve praise.” 

The Mishnah is a law code or teaching manual compiled in the Land of Israel about eighteen hundred years ago. Its description of the night of Passover prescribes an array of rituals that bind us together across time and geography, such as drinking four cups of wine, dipping bitter herbs and charoset, eating matzah, and reclining. But when it comes to telling the Passover story, the Mishnah leaves room for flexibility. Rather than requiring a recitation of biblical verses that recount the Exodus, the Mishnah instructs the father to make a midrash—to draw out new meanings, to expound—on a succinct version of the Passover story contained in Deuteronomy (26:5-8). It is doubtful that the Mishnah had in mind a fixed midrash because it expressly states, “According to the child’s understanding, his father instructs him” (Pesachim 10:4). As children grow and gain understanding the parents’ rendering of the story should evolve commensurately. Similarly, the Mishnah encourages children to ask their own questions. Only if they failed to do so would parents—the father, according to the Mishnah—draw them out by asking ma nishtanah, how does this night differs from all others.

Alas, what began as a changing midrashic exposition on the Exodus and unrehearsed questions from children both became scripted as the Mishnah’s exquisite balance between elements that were fixed versus those that were free shifted decisively toward fixity. Those seeking to revitalize the Seder should draw encouragement from the fact that they are helping to restore the original balance between ritual and creativity that had been central to the Mishnah’s design of the evening.

Now to the second example, the origins of the Haggadah’s statement that “all who elaborate on telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt deserve praise.” Originally this passage did not refer to elaborating on the story, but simply read, “it is our duty [i.e. we are commanded] to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt and all who tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt deserve praise.” This raised a problem for medieval commentators. If telling the story is a commandment, doing so should not be especially praiseworthy since fulfilling a commandment merely involves doing one’s duty. Natronai Gaon (Babylonia, ninth century) had resolved the issue with an emendation: “all who lengthen (kol ha- ma’arich) telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt deserve praise.” Maimonides concurred. 

But David ben Joseph Abudarham (Spain, fourteenth century) argued for a different emendation: “all who elaborate (kol ha-marbeh) on telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt deserve praise.” Beyond marveling at his freedom to reject the approach of towering authorities the likes of Natronai Gaon and Maimonides, it is worth considering why he may have done so.

I believe Abudarham preferred his own emendation for two reasons. First, the word marbeh has a strong intra-textual resonance within the Haggadah itself. It shares the root (reish-vet-hey) of a number of key words in the Haggadah’s midrash on “My father was a wandering Aramean.” These words (e.g. va’yirbu, ‘increased’, Exod. 12:17 va’tarbi, ‘I made you abundant’ Exod. 13:1 yirbeh, ‘multiply’ Exod. 13:6) describe the extraordinary fecundity of the Israelite population in Egypt—even amidst oppression—a central feature of the Haggadah’s narrative. In the Bible and the Haggadah this root is generally associated with the flowering of life. 

Second, “all who elaborate…deserve praise” has a particular inter-textual resonance in mishnaic and Talmudic sources which the formulation of Natronai Gaon and Maimonides lacks. We don’t find any cases in these sources that read “all who lengthen . . . deserve praise.” Abudarham’s “all who elaborate . . . deserve praise” seems to appear only twice in rabbinic literature, but the contexts are revealing indeed. “All [judges] who elaborate [on the prescribed] questions when examining [witnesses in capital cases] deserve praise” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 5:2) and “Whoever elaborates on the mourning rituals for his parents deserves praise” (Jerusalem Talmud, Moed Katan 18b). In both contexts, the central figures (the accused and the deceased) cannot act on their own behalf and must trust others to preserve their life or the memory of it. Analogously, the story of the Exodus, so full of hope and promise, cannot preserve itself. The task falls to us. “In every generation we should see ourselves as if we had come out of Egypt.” Whether the story will be remembered or forgotten, whether it lives or dies, depends on the passion with which we tell it.

It took almost two centuries for Abudarham’s novel formulation to find its way into the text of a Haggadah. Initially commentators referred to it, but it wasn’t until the printing of what has come to be known as the Constantinople Haggadah between 1515 and 1535 that it actually appeared in the text itself. And it took several more centuries until Abudarham’s emendation gradually became part of the “standard” Ashkenazic and Sephardic texts of the Haggadah. (See http://www.livelyseders.com/id77.html for a more extended treatment of this subject and for images of Haggadot that reflect different formulations of this passage.) 

If the Mishnah’s approach to the Seder and Abudarham’s courageous emendation of the Haggadah help inspire you—free you—to create an especially lively Seder this year, Dayyenu!