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The haggadah is for skimming

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A strong case can be made that the haggadah is meant to be read through at a brisk pace. Indeed, in a commentary attributed to the medieval sage Rabbi Shimon ben Meir, it is said that the praise heaped upon those who engage in greater discussion of the Exodus refers to conversation after the meal. But the argument can be made from the text itself.

Compare the haggadah to the Talmud (the comparison is apt when you consider that scholars like Daniel Goldschmidt argue the final version of the haggadah post-dated the Talmud) and you will find that one of these things is not like the other. The most obvious difference is in the amount and type of investigations the Talmud routinely raises – questions and issues born out of source mining, blatant contradictions, conflicting accounts, contradictory biblical sources for various teachings, post-facto inquiries into original questions or points of view and unresolved dilemmas. The Talmud is constantly inviting further discussion.

READ: THE ENDURING RESONANCE OF THE HAGGADAH

By contrast, the haggadah asks four major questions and they are clearly defined. Moreover, the text anticipates all the possible responses to the traditions of the night and then cites verbatim the biblical words we are supposed to recite. There are no other blatant contradictions, no reconsiderations of earlier points. This suggests a heavy hand looking to present the material as a final account, rather than a text inviting further elucidation. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to even find an appropriate place in the seder service to pause for an extended conversation – one section leads directly into the next. Indeed, a number of medieval commentaries show that sections such as the story of the sages in Bnei Brak, the suggestion of when the discussion of the Exodus ought to begin and other pericopes do not interrupt previous lines of thought and, in fact, follow logically from previous sections.

The haggadah includes liturgy that seems to be indistinguishable from the text itself. That fact alone makes it seem as if you are supposed to read straight through. Moreover, the haggadah clearly states that one should picture oneself as if he or she just left Egypt. It is not in the spirit of leaving captivity to sit at the gate and discuss the injunction to leave.

Just remember your guests might be getting hungry.

In his book The Origins of the Seder, Baruch Bokser writes that the text of the haggadah is meant for a wide audience. That could mean that the haggadah is intended to serve as a guidebook through which one can fulfil their obligation to recount the Exodus story. The fact that the haggadah requires the recitation of three words – Pesach, matzah and maror – in order to meet the obligation certainly supports this view.

(I should note that Siegfried Stein famously argued in his article “The Influence of Symposia Literature on the Literary Form of the Pesah Haggadah” that there are elements in the haggadah that correspond to symposium literature, such as the opening invitation, the dietary questions and the closing paeans. Joseph Tabory, on the other hand, posits that only a later layer of the haggadah, which is associated with Rabban Gamliel’s three sections, bears this influence. Nevertheless, the fixity that the haggadah eventually takes on speaks to a definitive movement away from free-flowing discussion.)

All of this is not to say that one cannot study the haggadah in depth – there is undoubtedly enough material regarding the haggadah to last from the actual Exodus until now. At the seder, however, the rabbis intended the words you find in your haggadah to be the way you express the experience of the Exodus. If you want to keep engaging in a lengthy analysis, by all means – just remember your guests might be getting hungry.

Jonathan Milevsky holds a PhD in religious studies from McMaster University.