A Brief His­to­ry of the Haggadah

by Mar­tin Bodek


Fragment of the Cairo Genizah

Every eon has its eras; every era its peri­ods; every peri­od has its epochs; every epoch has its ages. Out­side of what we learn in Geol­o­gy class, the two words in my Dick­en­sian open­ing sen­tence with which we are ver­nac­u­lar­ly famil­iar are ​“era” and ​“age.” There are unend­ing lists of sig­nif­i­cant cul­tur­al human inter­ests that are defined this way. These include the his­to­ries of cul­ture, tech­nol­o­gy, war, crises, mythol­o­gy, cos­mol­o­gy, medicine, archi­tec­ture, arts, sci­ence, and a list that could go until the next era of every­thing I’ve list­ed, plus any­thing peo­ple have brought in to Antiques Road Show. I would like to sug­gest that the devel­op­ment of the Hag­gadah deserves to be placed under a sim­i­lar rubric, and that the Hag­gadah Age can be par­ti­tioned into the Coa­lesc­ing Era, the Illumi­nat­ed Era, the Pro­lif­er­a­tion Era, the Com­men­tary Era, and the Cre­ative Era. There is no need to be heavy hand­ed here. I will not cite Hag­gadot to see into which era they fit. Rather, I’ll out­line the his­to­ry, with a time­line and anec­dotes. Let us go back to pre-his­to­ry, to the Mish­na­ic and Tal­mu­dic periods. 520 BCE: Our ear­li­est pos­si­ble start­ing point, aside from Bib­li­cal pas­sages, for the Hag­gadah con­tents, because most of the text is under­stood to arise dur­ing the sec­ond tem­ple peri­od (which ends in 70 CE), as are the cen­tral play­ers in the text. 90 BCE: The first-ever men­tion of a Seder ser­vice is in the Mish­nah of the Tal­mud by Rab­bi Gamaliel. He declares before the leg­isla­tive body of the San­hedrin: ​“One who has not said these three words, Pesah, Matzah, and Maror has not done his duty.” These words are record­ed, includ­ed, and there­after immortalized.

70 CE: The sec­ond tem­ple is destroyed, mark­ing the last time an actu­al Passover sac­ri­fice is offered. ~1st and 2nd cen­turies: The time of Rab­bi Yose, Rab­bi Eliez­er, and Rab­bi Aki­va (50−135 CE) whose thoughts on how many plagues were vis­it­ed upon the Egyp­tians are record­ed for all time. ~170 CE: The ear­li­est pos­si­ble date for a com­plete Hag­gadah to have been cre­at­ed, because Rab­bi Yehu­dah bar Elai exists here, and is the last Tan­na quot­ed in the Hag­gadah text. Therefore, it must be pre­sumed that the text must have been com­plet­ed after this time, and not earlier. ~135 – 360 CE: Argu­ments ensue among var­i­ous com­men­ta­tors as to the ori­gin of the text based on a short dis­cus­sion in the tal­mud in Pesachim 116a. 135 is the birth-year of the compiler of the mish­na, Rab­bi Yehu­da HaNasi, to whom some attribute the Hag­gadah’s creation. 360 CE is the time of Rav Nach­man bar Yitzchak, who is cit­ed as one of two pos­si­ble Nachmans who may have com­piled the Hag­gadah text. The oth­er is Nach­man bar Yaakov, whose heydey was ~280 CE.

Over the next sev­er­al hun­dred years, var­i­ous parts are added and mod­i­fied, until final­ly they are solid­i­fied around 700 – 800 CE. Dur­ing this time, the Hag­gadah is gen­er­al­ly print­ed only as an adden­dum to oth­er print­ed seforim dur­ing this peri­od (e.g. as part of a sid­dur pub­lished by Amram Gaon [whose sin­gle intact frag­ment, dat­ed to ~860, was found in the Cairo Geniza], Saa­dia Gaon,~928 – 942, and as part of the RaM­BaM’s Mish­nei Torah, among oth­ers), and is only print­ed out­right on its own dur­ing the mid­dle of the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry (some believe that sev­er­al ind­pen­dent Hag­gadah texts were print­ed between the 10th and 13th cen­turies – with the year 1250 believed to be the best approx­i­mate date —but these have not survived). This follows a pat­tern more com­mon than some might antic­i­pate. Anoth­er such par­a­digm worth watch­ing is the Pri Etz Hadar, the text used by some for Tu B’Sh­vat seders. This is popular among Cha­sidim, becom­ing more pop­u­lar among the Mod­ern Ortho­dox, and has very, very few self-stand­ing print­ed ver­sions. Most Pri Etz Hadars remain as an adden­dum to oth­er prayer books, and —in my opin­ion —may soon become pop­u­lar enough, per­haps, to enjoy its own day in the sun. We are a peo­ple of rit­u­al, after all, and this seems like a valu­able piece of tradition. The first-ever men­tion of a Seder ser­vice is in the Mish­nah of the Tal­mud by Rab­bi Gamaliel. ~1300: The Birds’ Head Hag­gadah, made in Ger­many and designed for Ashke­nazi Jews, can be found in the Israel Muse­um in Jerusalem today, and whose birds’ head depic­tion remain a curios­i­ty to this day. ~1320: The Gold­en Hag­gadah was cre­at­ed in or around Spain for Sephar­di Jews, mag­nif­i­cent and grand in its design and lay­out, can today be found in the British Library. ~1350: The Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah is the most well-known from this era; it is illu­mi­nat­ed and entire­ly in Hebrew. The orig­i­nal can be found in the Nation­al Muse­um of Bosnia in Sarajevo. 1478: The Wash­ing­ton Hag­gadah, so-called because its home is now in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., bedecked with splen­did mul­ti-col­or art with some strange-for-our-time misog­y­nis­tic twists. Late 14th cen­tu­ry: The Rylands Hag­gadah, is pro­duced in Spain. Recent­ly, this work vis­it­ed the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art in New York. 1526: The Prague Hag­gadah, com­prised of fine wood­cut scenes rel­e­vant to the text, and scenes that are not, but seem to have a hope­ful for­ward-look­ing end-of-days redemp­tive quali­ty. It is the ear­li­est print­ed Hag­gadah that exists today in its entirety. ~1450: The print­ing press is invent­ed, but, curi­ous­ly, does not imme­di­ate­ly induce a marked pro­lif­er­a­tion of unique texts. This phe­nom­e­non is held in abeyance until cen­turies lat­er. The first item off the ​“assem­bly line” is a Latin bible. The first Hebrew prayer book using the press is pro­duced in 1475.


1450: The print­ing press is invent­ed, but, curi­ous­ly, does not imme­di­ate­ly induce a marked pro­lif­er­a­tion of unique texts. 1482: The first spec­u­lat­ed date for a Hag­gadah to come off the print­ing press, some­where around Spain. One copy sur­vives and cur­rent­ly lives in the Jew­ish Nation­al Uni­ver­si­ty Library in Jerusalem. To think, the first such item in human his­to­ry has no phys­i­cal evi­dence of its pub­li­ca­tion place or date.

Darm­stadt Hag­gadah, or the Birds Head Hag­gadah, from Uni­ver­sitäts-und Lan­des­bib­lio­thek Darmstadt

1486: The first con­firmed Hag­gadah to roll off the print­ing press is pub­lished by the famed Son­ci­no fam­i­ly in Italy. Dur­ing this post-print­ing press era, it seems that there is some­what of a final drive to add a few more ele­ments and gener­al­ly cod­i­fy the text for good. Before the turn of the 16th cen­tu­ry, ​“Chad Gadya” and ​“Echod Mi Yodaya” are added (to an updat­ed ver­sion of the Prague Hag­gadah, in 1590), leav­ing all Ahshke­nazi, Sefadic, and Mizrahi Hag­gadot gen­er­al­ly the same, save for sub­tle dif­fer­ences (the inclu­sion or exclu­sion of Sefi­rat Haomer being one of them, plus oth­er minor tex­tu­al variations). 1505: The first Hag­gadah to be print­ed with com­men­tary is the Zevach Pesach, in Con­stan­tino­ple by Yitzchak ben Yehu­da Abra­vanel, known as the Abarbanel. The next sev­er­al cen­turies see gen­er­al accep­tance of the final text, more elab­o­rate illustrations based most­ly on the illu­mi­nat­ed pro­to­types cit­ed above, trans­la­tion into at least 30 world languages. High­lights along the way include: 1512: The first Latin trans­la­tion of the Hag­gadah, pro­duced by a Fran­cis­can fri­ar, and is the first such trans­la­tion under­stood not to have tar­get­ed a Jew­ish audience. 1526 – 1527: The ear­li­est known print­ing of a com­plete illus­trat­ed Hag­gadah, called sim­ply ​“Hag­gadah Shel Pesach” and also known as Hag­gadah Shel Ger­shom Cohen, for its mak­er, but more pop­u­lar­ly known as the Prague Hag­gadah — for obvi­ous reasons. 1545: The Sefer Zevach Pesach is the first Hag­gadah print­ed in Italy, and... 1560: …the famous Man­tua Hag­gadah is print­ed in Italy. And also... 1609: …the Seder Hag­gadah Shel Pesach, the first to fea­ture illus­tra­tions for the Ten Plauges, is print­ed in Italy. These three print­ings are of note because the pub­lish­ers were Chris­t­ian. This comes about because Jews are not allowed to own print­ing press­es in the region at the time. This unfor­tu­nate cir­cum­stance is com­mon for this era. The term ​“ghet­to,” is, unsurprising­ly, coined here. Nev­er forget. 1644: The sec­ond ever trans­la­tion into Latin, note­wor­thy because it is the first Hag­gadah to include musi­cal nota­tion for its hymns. This is some­what unfa­mil­iar in the Jew­ish tra­di­tion, as songs are passed down generationally. 1695: The Ams­ter­dam Hag­gadah is pub­lished, and is the first to include a map of the ancient Land of Israel. It is also believed that this is the first Hebrew map of Israel ever printed. 1770: The first Eng­lish trans­la­tion in Lon­don (with pic­tures copied from the Ams­ter­dam Haggadah), which her­alds a peri­od of Eng­lish trans­la­tion firsts that include, but are def­i­nite­ly not lim­it­ed to: Ger­many, 1857; Berlin, 1864; Han­nover, 1869; Bal­ti­more, 1878; Chica­go, 1879; Austria, 1885; Frank­furt, 1887; Hun­gary, 1890; Israel, 1891; South Africa, 1923; Poland, 1924. And yes, a keen read­er will note that the bulk of Eng­lish trans­la­tions appeared first in more non-Eng­lish speak­ing coun­tries than Eng­lish speak­ing ones.

1837: The first Hag­gadah is print­ed in the USA, and is proud­ly titled, ​“Ser­vice for the Two First Nights of the Passover in Eng­lish and Hebrew, First Amer­i­can Edi­tion.” The first book off the press is at home in the Rosen­bach Muse­um and Library in Philadel­phia, Penn­syl­va­nia. An updat­ed 1922 ver­sion is believed to be the first Hag­gadah to include the Star-Span­gled Banner. 1886: The first Hag­gadah is pro­duced from the Reform stream, The New Hag­gadah Shel Pesach. The nine­teenth cen­tu­ry is cer­tain­ly a dif­fu­sion peri­od, when a record­ed 1,269 new, dis­tinct man­u­scripts are pub­lished, fol­lowed by 1,100 in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and preced­ed by mere­ly 234 in the eigh­teenth, 37 in the sev­en­teenth, and 25 total up until the sixteenth century.

Moses, Aaron the High Priest, and King David, orig­i­nal­ly published/​pro­duced in Ham­burg and Altona, 1740, from the British Library dig­i­tal collections

1904: The Seder Ser­vice is the first Hag­gadah to be trans­lat­ed by a woman. Lil­lie Gold­smith Cowen pro­duces what becomes known as the Cowen Hag­gadah, and is the pop­u­lar and wide­ly-used in the US (295,000 copies) dur­ing the first quarter of the 20th century. 1904: The Seder Ser­vice is the first Haggadah to be trans­lat­ed by a woman. 1907: The Union Hag­gadah is pub­lished, and is the first offi­cial Hag­gadah of the Reform Jew­ish stream. It is trans­lat­ed to Eng­lish from German. 1930s: A shift occurs in the Hag­gadah’s gen­er­al pop­u­lar­i­ty and inter­pretabil­i­ty of its meaning. 1932: The Maxwell House Hag­gadah is pub­lished, first intend­ed as a mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy after it was care­ful­ly researched and craft­ed to ensure its ​“kosher for Passover” status. How­ev­er, as a minor side effect, it might be said that is the most­ly wide­ly used, most instant­ly rec­og­nized, and per­haps best known of all time. What is known with a cer­tain­ty is that more copies were pub­lished than per­haps all oth­er Hag­gadot com­bined. That’s a bold thing for me to claim, but I find you can’t argue with 55 mil­lion copies. To put into per­spec­tive how many that is, it is worth not­ing that if it were con­sid­ered a pub­lished book (it is per­haps clas­si­fied as a pam­phlet in the larg­er pub­lish­ing world), it would rank #17, direct­ly along­side Har­ry Pot­ter and the Gob­let of Fire. If there is any ques­tion about its social pop­u­lar­i­ty, I point the read­er to the 2009 White Seder, host­ed by Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma. Final mind-blow­ing fact: it is the longest run­ning adver­tis­ing cam­paign in world his­to­ry, as free Maxwell Hag­gadot are still offered along with your pur­chase of Maxwell House coffee. 1934 – 1936: The Pol­ish-Jew­ish artist Arthur Szyk took a bold leap for­ward with a Hag­gadah that con­tained the clas­sic text, accom­pa­nied by arrest­ing water­col­ors, and draw­ing direct paral­lels between the fas­cist poli­cies of Nazi Ger­many and the geno­ci­dal maneu­vers of the pharaoh of the bib­li­cal Book of Exo­dus. This was almost cer­tain­ly the first Hag­gadah of its kind to make a social state­ment. Reject­ed every­where, a pub­lish­ing house was cre­at­ed for the express pur­pose of pub­lish­ing this Hag­gadah. King George VI (father of Her Majesty Queen Eliz­a­beth II) of Eng­land received the first copy. It seems that the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the for­mer and the social state­ment of the lat­ter super­charged a peri­od of mas­sive cre­ation and dis­tri­b­u­tion, specif­i­cal­ly in com­men­tary of a schol­ar­ly and social jus­tice nature. Notable cre­ations along these lines include: 1941: The New Hag­gadah for the Pesah Seder, speak­ing for the Recon­struc­tion­ist movement. 1945 – 1946: A Sur­vivor’s Hag­gadah, like­ly hav­ing its bold roots in the Szyk Hag­gadah, is creat­ed by Holo­caust sur­vivors, and presents the sto­ry of the Israelites’ lib­er­a­tion from enslavement in Egypt inter­wo­ven with the sto­ry of the Shoah. 1946: Rab­bi Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son, the sev­enth Lubav­itch­er Rebbe, pub­lish­es his thoughts on the Hag­gadah with the title Hag­gadah Im Likutei Taamim U’Minhagim. 1953: Rab­bi Dr. Paltiel Birn­baum cre­ates the ​“Seder Hagadah Shel Pesach,” bet­ter known as the Birn­baum Hag­gadah, which expe­ri­ences immense pop­u­lar­itya­mong with Ortho­dox and Con­ser­v­a­tive audiences. 1969: The Free­dom Seder comes to fruiti­tion, com­par­ing ancient Jews to con­tem­po­rary struggles such as the civ­il rights move­ment and women’s movement. 1962: Koren Pub­lish­ers is launched. Epony­mous Hag­gadot of note include Rab­bi Adin’s Steinsaltz’s in 1983, and Chief Rab­bi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ in 2006. 1972: The Passover Hag­gadah, sim­ply named, speaks for the Con­ser­v­a­tive community. 1972: The Passover Hag­gadah, sim­ply named, speaks for the Con­ser­v­a­tive community. 1976: The pub­lish­ing giant Artscroll. is cre­at­ed and its pro­duc­tion of Hag­gadot mate­ri­als was imme­di­ate, as was its pop­u­lar­i­ty The Artscroll Hag­gadah, authored by Rab­bi Joseph Elias enjoyed wide­spread use before Artscroll pub­lishededi­tions from Rab­bis Schwab, Scher­man, Bran­der, Wein­rib, Reis­man, Wal­lach, Weiss, Twer­s­ki, and count­less oth­er luminaries. 1979: The Human­ist Hag­gadah, speak­ing for The Human­is­tic Jew­ish movement. 1995: The Stonewall Seder, speak­ing for the LGBTQ community. Many, many more Hag­gadot rep­re­sent­ing social and polit­i­cal con­cerns have been cre­at­ed.

There are almost too many to men­tion, but they broad­ly cov­er a wide range, includ­ing the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, hunger, labor jus­tice issues, glob­al refugee crises, alco­hol and drug abuse, and almost every mat­ter of soci­etal or per­son­al oppression. In the past quar­ter cen­tu­ry or so, Hag­gadot have embarked on yet anoth­er path, veer­ing wildly some­times from the set­tled text, and often inflect­ed with a healthy dose of pop cul­ture, attract oth­ers who may not have been includ­ed along the way. I would say most of this is target­ing a younger audi­ence. It could mean that we, as a peo­ple, have done our utmost to invite every­one to the table. This is wonderful. Notable ones include: 2007: 30 Minute Seder: The Hag­gadah That Blends Brevi­ty With Tra­di­tion. A use­ful and clever cre­ation, designed for an age where get­ting your atten­tion, for any­thing, is a rather dif­fi­cult task. 2008: Richard Codor­’s Joy­ous Hag­gadah: A Chil­dren and Fam­i­ly Car­toon Hag­gadah for Passover Seder. Plain fun, attrac­tive visu­al­ly, whose entire pur­pose is to pull chil­dren in and engage them, and with them. 2017: The Zom­bie Hag­gadah. In my view, the wildest, strangest, and most metaphor-packed of this whole lot. A thing like this could not have been cre­at­ed in any oth­er generation. 2017: The (unof­fi­cial) Hog­warts Hag­gadah. Rab­bi Moshe Rosen­berg’s delight­ful cre­ation builds on the Har­ry Pot­ter series. 2018: Wel­come to the Seder: A Passover Hag­gadah for Every­one.. Pre­vi­ous­ly, Hag­gadot were more gen­er­al­ly designed to tar­get spe­cif­ic peo­ples, in spe­cif­ic move­ments, in spe­cif­ic places, this exam­ple, among oth­ers, speaks more uni­ver­sal­ly, gath­er­ing up any­one left who may have felt over­looked or exclud­ed. Fur­ther speak­ing to this point are copi­ous new Hag­gadot with inclu­sive phras­es like ​“For all,” ​“The Whole Fam­i­ly,” ​“For All Gen­er­a­tions,” ​“Fam­i­ly Participation,” and the like. As with the Hag­gadot address­ing social issues, there are too many more that deserve men­tion, but space is at a premium. Nev­er­the­less, let us include for the record For this We Left Egypt?, The Kveller Hag­gadah, A Dif­fer­ent Night, The Base­ball Hag­gadah, Lot­sa matzah, I Love Matzah, The Jew­ish Jour­ney Hag­gadah, The Hip Hop Hag­gadah, The Hip­ster Hag­gadah, and more. 2019: In this pro­posed Cre­ative Era, two items stand out, at least for me, because both seem to have come full cir­cle, in our cul­ture, and in this pre­sen­ta­tion. First­ly, we have the most popu­lar (at least accord­ing to Ama­zon) of all: The Passover Hag­gadah Graph­ic Nov­el. A gorgeous com­ic-bookesque re-show­ing of the Hag­gadah that cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion. The text sits square­ly in our cur­rent era, but also harkens back to the Illu­mi­nat­ed Era, cre­at­ing a bridge to the past while mod­ern­iz­ing slightly The oth­er item is my very own cre­ation, The Emo­ji Hag­gadah, about which I can­not escape com­plete bias I worked to cre­ate dis­cus­sion, and inclu­sion, and pres­ence at the seder table.


2020: Scour­ing the land­scape of Hag­gadot print­ed for Passover 5780, I have found (Tablet’s) The Passover Hag­gadah: An Ancient Sto­ry for Mod­ern Times, The Passover Hag­gadah: A Biog­ra­phy, The Hag­gadah for The Gen­er­a­tions 2020: Con­nect­ing the Seder to your fam­i­ly’s his­to­ry, The Human Rights Hag­gadah, At The Mag­gid’s Seder, The Promise of the Land: A Passover Hag­gadah, and Koren Youth Hag­ga­da, Mager­man Edi­tion. All are won­der­ful creations, and use­ful, but don’t seem to be push­ing the enve­lope too much. Per­haps an era has closed, and anoth­er is about to be launched. Per­haps the era is tak­ing a breath, to be invig­o­rat­ed soon. I am try­ing to keep it going by hav­ing recent­ly pub­lished The Fes­tivus Haggadah, a fusion of the Sein­feld canon and the clas­sic Hag­gadah. I am inten­tion­al­ly pushing this into the larg­er cul­ture. In this attempt, I am fol­low­ing the lead of one Dave Cowen, who deliv­ered a very sim­i­lar one-two punch, with humor at the base, with 2018’s The Trump Passover Hag­gadah, and 2019’s The Yada Yada Haggadah. Per­haps a Sil­ly Era is nigh, hav­ing com­ing quite far to get here after all this time, and if humor does not pull in the final few left who have not yet been invit­ed to the seder table, time will tell what else can be done. At this point in his­to­ry, 3,000 dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the Hag­gadah are believed to have been cre­at­ed, and count­ing. We have humbly brought forth about 2% of this num­ber for our discussion. May Hag­gadot of all sorts, speak­ing for all kinds, remain at your table, for all generations.

Next year in Jerusalem!


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Mar­tin Bodek is the author of The Emo­ji Hag­gadahThe Fes­tivus Hag­gadah, the recent­ly published The Coro­n­avirus Hag­gadah, and five oth­er books.


This article was originally published by Jewish Book Council, and is republished here with permission. JBC enriches and educates the community through public programming, a literary journal, weekly reviews and essays, discussion questions, and over twenty literary awards. Learn more about JBC by clicking here.