The Haggadah: A New Telling of the Exodus Story
Introduction: Pesach Then and Now
The onset of the holiday of Pesach is now characterized by the seder, a symposium-like feast at which friends and family gather and recite the haggada, a sort of rabbinic guidebook that takes the seder participants through the rituals of the evening and the telling of the exodus story.
The Biblical Haggada
Although the Torah has no requirement to conduct a seder or to read any particular text, it does require that the next generation understand the reason why we bring the Paschal sacrifice (Exod 12:26-27):
And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to Yhwh because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’
This mitzvah, which functions as the inspiration for the rabbinic haggadah, has virtually no resonance in Second Temple literature, nor is there any mention of the most basic mitzvah that we associate with the Pesach seder–the eating of matzah (with the Paschal sacrifice). Instead, during the Second Temple period, Pesach was marked by the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb in the Jerusalem Temple and the communal feast during which families joined together to eat this sacrifice.
Adding Torah Study and Interpretation to the Seder
The shift from sacrificing the paschal lamb to the seder, with its rituals of matzah, marror, four cups of wine, the recitation of the Hallel and the telling of the exodus story reflects a fundamental adjustment regarding what the night is about.
The following article traces the origin of the rabbinic seder and suggest that whereas some of the rituals have a basis in Second Temple practice (Hallel and wine), and others (e.g. matzah) come to fill in the gap lost when the Paschal sacrifice was no longer offered after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the seder itself appears to be a creation of the rabbis. The haggadah adds a new dimension to the holiday of Passover that commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt through the process of common study and shared interpretation.
Pesach in Jubilees-2nd Century BCE: Wine and Hallel but no Seder
In discussing Passover, the second century book of Jubileeshews closely to the biblical text of Exodus by emphasizing the central role of the Paschal sacrifice. The author spends 23 verses – far more than the amount of space that he devotes to his descriptions of other Jewish holidays – explaining why and how the Passover is celebrated. He opens this chapter with the following mandate:
Remember the commandment which the Lord commanded you concerning Passover, that you observe it in its time, on the fourteenth of the first month, so that you might sacrifice it before it becomes evening and so that you might eat it during the night on the evening of the fifteenth from the time of sunset. For on this night there was the beginning of the feast and there was the beginning of joy. You continued eating the Passover in Egypt and all of the powers of Mastema were sent to kill off the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the captive maidservant who was at the millstone and to the cattle. And this is the sign which the LORD gave to [the powers of Mastema]; in every house where they saw the blood of a year-old lamb upon its doors so that they would not enter into the house to kill, they would pass over so that all who were in the house might be saved because the sign of the blood was on its doors…And all of Israel remained eating the flesh of the Passover and drinking wine and praising and blessing and glorifying the LORD the God of their fathers.
Jubilees does add two new elements to the Passover celebratory feast, which eventually become part and parcel of the rabbinic seder:
- The drinking of wine (which becomes the four cups.)
- The praising of God (which becomes the Hallel service.)
This is still far from what we would call a seder. There is no mention of matzah or marror, no mention of telling a story (something that does appear in Exodus!) and no reference to a seder or to a haggadah. 
Pesach in Philo – 1st Century CE
The first century CE Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, also discusses the significance of the holiday of Passover. He describes the holiday celebration as follows:
And after the feast of the new moon comes the fourth festival, that of the Passover, which the Hebrews calls Pascha, on which the whole people offer sacrifice, beginning at noonday and continuing till evening… And what was then done the law enjoined to be repeated once every year, as a memorial of the gratitude due for their deliverance… And those who are to share in the feast come together not as they do to other entertainments, to gratify their bellies with wine and meat, but to fulfill their hereditary custom with prayer and songs of praise. And this universal sacrifice of the whole people is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month.
Like the author of Jubilees, Philo claims that the paschal sacrifice is accompanied by praising God through song, with no mention of matzah, marror, or the telling the story by reading from a haggadah.
Pesach in Josephus – 1st Century CE
The first century CE Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius discusses the celebration of Passover in his Antiquities of the Jews, which reviews Jewish history from the biblical period up until his own day:
In the month of Xanthicus, which is by us called Nisan, and is the beginning of our year, on the fourteenth day of the lunar month, when the sun is in Aries (for in this month it was that we were delivered from bondage under the Egyptians), and law ordained that we should every year slay that sacrifice which I before told you we slew when we came out of Egypt, and which was called thePassover; and so we do celebrate this passover in companies, leaving nothing of what we sacrifice till the day following. 
Like the previous two accounts, , Josephus indicates that prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, Passover was celebrated exclusively by sacrificing a commemorative sacrifice and eating it in the company of other Jews.
Pesach in the Gospels
Passover is at the foreground of the story of Jesus’ death in the New Testament. The Gospels note that on the first day of Passover, the evening before Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus and his disciples sat down for a meal. Most scholars believe that this Passover meal was not a seder as it was later developed by the rabbis, since there are no indicators that Jesus and his disciples were commemorating the Exodus. The New Testament also does not suggest that a haggada was recited at this meal.
The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke do identify Passover, which coincided with Jesus’ last supper, as being characterized by a Passover sacrifice. According to the Gospel of Mark, which is probably the earliest of the four canonized Gospels, Passover is identified as “the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed” (Mark 14:12; NRSV; cf. Luke 22:7). Similarly, the Gospel of Matthew 26:17-19 notes:
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ He said, ‘Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, “The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.” ’ So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal (NRSV).
Clearly, for the authors of the Gospels, the sacrifice and the eating of the paschal lamb is the quintessential observance of the holiday. Both wine and matzah are mentioned as having been eaten during this meal (Mark 14:22; Matthew 26:26, Luke 22:29), though they are not described as being central rituals comparable to the sacrifice. As was true of other Second Temple period sources, the Gospels make no mention of a recitation of the story, though they do associate the paschal sacrifice with singing songs of praise. The Gospel of Matthew describes the last supper as follows:
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
This theme of the recitation of psalms of praise appears in Philo, Jubilees, and the Gospels. These psalms were probably an early version of what later developed into Hallel, Psalms 113-118.
The Significance of the Shift from Sacrifice to Seder
I believe that, despite the fact that the paschal lamb was eaten by groups of families, the emphasis on the festival in biblical and Second Temple times was on God’s choosing the nation of Israel, a vertical (human-to-God) relationship. In the rabbinic conception, however, the focus is on Israel coming together to worship God, a triangular (human-to-human-to-God) relationship, in which we relate to God by interpreting and understanding the Exodus through the lenses of the rabbinic tradition. Although the celebration of Passover in the Second Temple period was a family affair, the rabbis added an element to the seder that underscored the process of connecting to our past and to God through shared conversation and interpretation.
The Rabbinic Model of the Seder
When celebrating the Passover holiday “rabbinically” by reading the Haggada on seder night, Jews toggle between the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt–the Jews’ common memory of being a national entity–and how the Jews in rabbinic times celebrated and interpreted this story.
The focus on questions, interpretation, and midrashic views of the Exodus story adds a new dimension to the holiday of Passover – the dimension of coming together as a community to understand our past using multiple viewpoints and interpretations. These two aspects of Jewish history – narrative and interpretation – are one of the foundational blocks through which we express our commitment to our Jewish faith.
According to the rabbinic model, on seder night, we not only look up at God, but we look around the table, at one another and back at the many names of the rabbis who are mentioned in the haggada, and recall how it is that we became a nation, and how we continue to nurture a flourishing interpretative tradition of Torah study that helps us to thrive.
The biblical Passover was communal because the paschal lamb was to be eaten in families. But with the creation of the seder and the development of the haggada, the holiday of Passover was repurposed to include a sociohistorical dimension that focuses on the process of asking questions, sharing interpretation, and slowing down the retelling of the Exodus to include the multivocal layers of explanation that over many generations supplemented the original Exodus story.
This new dimension tells a new story — the story of how we have survived as a community through the study of Torah, God’s commandments, and our history. This dimension was coupled with the theological dimension of Passover that emphasized the chosenness of Israel and God’s care for His chosen ones, which was at the foreground of how Jews celebrated Passover in the Second Temple period. Both of these aspects now lie at the core of the holiday.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
April 1, 2015
December 7, 2020
Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series