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History of the Haggadah

The Seder’s Guide Throughout the Ages

The Haggadah is a vital part of the Pesach seder. Its name, derived from the Hebrew word for “telling,” describes its purpose in the seder — it helps tell the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. But the Haggadah itself has a history almost as rich as the one it tells.

According to the Talmud, the Haggadah was completed in the time of Rav Nachman. However, it does not specify which Rav Nachman. Most commentators agree that it either refers to Rav Nachman bar Yaakov, who lived around 280 CE, or to Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, who lived around the year 340 CE. Either way, the text of the Haggadah continued to evolve for many centuries after its first complete version.

The oldest surviving copies of the Haggadah are not individual books; rather, they are included within other works, such as siddurim. The first known independent manuscripts date back to the 13th and 14th centuries. These early Haggadot are often fully hand-illustrated in styles that reflect the culture of their creation; for instance, the Golden Haggadah, created in Barcelona in about 1320, features artworks in the High Gothic style that reached the area in the early 1300s. Wealthy Jewish families commissioned these Haggadot.

“These early Haggadot are often fully hand-illustrated in styles that reflect the culture of their creation.”

The Soncino family — which also produced the first prints of the Tanach — used their printing press to produce the oldest known printed Haggadah in 1486. However, the Jewish community adopted printed Haggadot very slowly, unlike printed versions of many other Jewish texts. By the end of the 1600s, only 37 editions of Haggadot had been printed. Eventually, in the 1800s, production of Haggadot began to increase. By the 1900s, printed Haggadot became widespread.

In 1932, one company saw an opportunity to use the popularity of printed Haggadot to the company’s advantage. Maxwell House, a prolific coffee brand, hired an Orthodox rabbi to certify that coffee beans are not kitniyot (the Hebrew word meaning “legumes,” referring to the Ashkenazi practice of not eating grains, seeds, and legumes). Maxwell House coffee received certification as Kosher for Pesach, and they decided to capitalize on this by creating and printing their own Haggadah and distributing it in-store with the purchase of their coffee as a promotion. The resulting Maxwell House Haggadah was a massive success, largely due to its simple, easy-to-understand layout. It remains the most popular Haggadah in the world, with over 60 million copies distributed. It has been used by prisons, the United States Army, and even the annual White House Passover Seder which occurred from 2009 to 2016 under President Barack Obama.

Haggadot primarily tell the history of the Exodus from Egypt, but we can learn so much more from them. Looking at the Haggadah’s evolution throughout history can give a glimpse into the development of technology and culture. Through the progression of the Haggadah, we see how Jews have embraced society’s advancements in order to continue telling the story of the Exodus for generations to come.

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