From Great Sabbath to Great Seder: From Getting the Word Out to Getting the Message Through

It’s Shabbat Hagadol again, the “Great Shabbat” that precedes the seder, and time for my annual plea to make this year’s seder something worthy of being called great. No one knows exactly why this anticipatory Shabbat is called “great” – the term appears first in the Gospel of John (of all places) and no Jewish source uses it until the Middle Ages, by which time, no one knew any more what it meant. Among the possibilities, however, is the realization that it precedes the greatest holiday in our calendar: Passover, which gave us our birth as a People and introduced freedom from slavery as a supreme value for all humanity.

Unless we rise from our annual seder convinced of Passover’s “greatness,” we miss the mark. It must echo with this year’s news, not just antiquity’s events. The “Great Shabbat” was established to rehearse the Haggadah in advance, anticipating moments for our seder to make old words sound entirely new.

Just think of all change that our Haggadah has undergone in attempts to retain its freshness. Originally, there was no printed text at all – in an oral age, people made it up as they went along. Originally too, there were three, not four cups of wine, and some rabbis even added a fifth cup, because the ones they had represented God’s acts of deliverance in the past, but they wanted a cup to remain unconsumed on the table unless God appeared to save us once again. By the late Middle Ages, that became an Elijah’s Cup. And nowadays, some people have added a Miriam’s Cup as well.

The meal didn’t come only half way through the night either. People ate first, originally, using the foods to prompt discussion. When people began to “eat and run,” however, the meal was postponed to make hungry diners sit through the discussion before satisfying their appetites.

There were not four questions originally either; and a child did not ask them until the Middle Ages. Since people ate first, children asked genuine questions prompted by the meal. Our “four questions” are just rabbinic examples of what to say to a child who cannot think of anything to ask. Without a meal coming first, and with nothing to prompt a child’s curiosity, these became standardized questions that children delivered by rote, the way we do today.

No one sang Dayyenu in the early years either. It was still optional in the tenth century.

At first, the Seder’s high point was an opaque midrash about some “wandering Aramean” who was worse than Pharaoh. Traditional seders still have that midrash, although those who say it are unlikely to know that it was a veiled reference to Roman domination – change the vowels and the Hebrew aRaMi (Aramean) becomes RoMi (Roman). After the Crusades, a new climax was added: opening the door for Elijah, and hoping for the messiah. “Next year in Jerusalem!” we began saying.

A slew of new Haggadahs appear annually about now. Some are just glitzier rewrites of the old; others provide commentary with contemporary interpretations; some update our story to reflect the realities of slavery still rampant round the world. More than a new Haggadah, however, consider the need to be a genuine leader of the seder, not just its facilitator. Ask people for a new question that we ought to be considering. Take time for them to express what slaveries they feel, what freedom might look like this year.

Feel free to skip readings that make little sense to you. The book we use for a holiday of freedom should not be oppressive! The point of the seder is not its readings but its message: the Jewish People’s mission is to see a world redeemed from degradation.

Do whatever you can to apply that message to our time. Just rereading the same old script of the centuries may get the word out; but only pausing to make the script come alive we get the message through.



5 responses to “From Great Sabbath to Great Seder: From Getting the Word Out to Getting the Message Through

  1. Rabbi Eric Gurvis

    What a great reminder of one of the best courses I took during my years at HUC – Larry Hoffman’s Haggadah course. What I learned then, significantly reflected in this blog, still inspires me over thirty years later. Thanks Larry!

    • Thank you. Much of that course (and much much more) is now in book form. David Arnow and I co-edited a two-volume set of commentaries and short essays — a sort of “Everything you want to know about the Haggadah and then some.” See My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries (Jewish Lights, 2008).

  2. Tina Fein Dinitz

    And likewise — Larry Hoffman’s Haggadah course (which I took at Kutz) changed the course of my Jewish life, opened up whole new ways of looking at our tradition. And also for us, what we learned then informs and inspires our s’darim each year. Thank you for the learning back then, and thank you for reminding me in this essay.

  3. Larry—I still use (and hand out) your article “Invitation to a Mystery”, which appeared in KEEPING POSTED in April 1976. In my mind, it is still the most compelling and comprehensible text on the meaning and appeal of the Haggadah and the Seder. I have probably handed out hundreds (if not more) of the article to students over the years, and like the Seder, it never gets old! Chag sameach ve-kasher!

    Mindy Portnoy

    • Thanks so much Mindy. I remember it well. It may have been just my first or second article — for Keeping Posted, intended as a teen publication, I think, but widely used by others. A fabulous editor at the UAHC as it was known then) labored over (or just belabored) every single word. I learned a lot in the process!

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