Story of freedom
Leshon Ima – Mother Tongue with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
Pesach is approaching and as we do every year, we are about to gather as a family to celebrate the Seder night. At the center of the celebration is the reading of the Haggadah, a recitation, which directs the order of the Seder and introduces the theme and the tenor of the holiday.
Let us explore the meaning of the word Haggadah and better understand what makes this night different from all other nights on the Jewish calendar.
The tradition of celebrating the Seder is very old. The Mishnah recorded it (P’sachim 10), and the Haggadah itself testifies that on one Seder night, most likely during the Roman era (circa 132 C.E.), a distinguished group of rabbis spent the entire night discussing the significance of the Exodus.
Through the years, stories, poems, blessings, prayers and tangible symbols centering on the theme of freedom and celebration of renewal were added to enhance the telling of the story.
After a long process of editing, the Haggadah received its final form, probably around the sixth or seventh century C.E. The oldest recorded Haggadah can be found in R. Saadia Gaon‘s siddur (prayer book) dated to the 10th century C.E. and the first printed Haggadah is dated to 1482 C.E.
What does the word Haggadah mean? Haggadah is a rendition, a lecture. It derives from the root ngd, which in most instances means oppose, in front of or against.
However, neged also means to rise, be high, or be conspicuous. The name Haggadah fits the book, which tells the story of freedom, for this is a literary collection, which raises the story of the Exodus above all other stories in the Bible.
It follows the biblical command, “Vehigadeta levincha, You shall tell your son…what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt (Ex. 13:8).”
Vehigadeta, which is also derived from the root ngd, means tell, say, relate or narrate, as well as announce, declare, reveal or make known.
Choosing the verb vehigadeta by the biblical writer was not accidental. The multiple meaning of the verb lehagid enhances the message, making the story of the Exodus central to Israel’s historical experience and thereby solidifying her relationship with God through history.
Indeed, the title Haggadah befits the book we read on the Seder night for it is the educational tool which imprints the story of freedom on our national consciousness.
As we celebrate the Seder night, may we all join in the mitzvah (commandment) of vehigadeta levincha as we continue in the tradition of the Haggadah, to celebrate the gift of freedom, telling the story in song and with joy.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida. She lectures and writes in the fields of Hebrew language and biblical literature.
To read the complete April 2014 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.