Book Review: The Birnbaum Haggadah

The Birnbaum Haggadah, by Philip Birnbaum

As someone who reads the Haggadah from a place outside of a Jewish background, I find the proliferation of Haggadahs and commentaries upon them to be somewhat fascinating and curious. It appears to me, as an outsider, that the Haggadah is something that Jewish religious leaders feel the need to comment on as part of a way of providing material of interest to their followers, even if they have very little new to add to it. That certainly appears to be the case here. It is not as if this is a bad book, or a boring book, but when one has read multiple Haggadahs, it becomes obvious that a great many of them simply tread over the same ground over and over again. And if this is not bad, it makes the individual Haggadahs themselves appear to be rather inessential in nature, given how similar each of them are to each other, and it makes each effort mainly of interest to those who are part of an author’s following in general. Hopefully someone who is more familiar with this phenomenon can let me know if writing a Haggadah is the sort of de rigeur task as a Christian minister writing a book on grace or prayer, something that is absolutely essential even if what is written is usually not very different from the thousands of volumes about such material that already exist.

This book is about 200 pages long, which is not nearly as long as one would expect because the book is half in English and half in Hebrew with a fair amount of pictures that fill up some space as well and provide visual interest. The book is organized in a rather straightforward fashion. The first part of the book is a somewhat lengthy introduction that, as is common in this sort of book, explains the concept of the Haggadah and how this book fits within tht general genre. After that more than half of the book consists of a discussion of the Haggadah itself, with its four wine courses and its various stories and prayers and rituals, all of which will be familiar with those who are familiar with the genre of the Haggadah itself. This is followed by a separate section that includes various music and songs for the Haggadah, including both words and sheet music, which would seem to infer that the ideal reader of this book is capable of reading music, at least. After that there is an inclusion of the Song of Solomon as additional material to cover as well. The book therefore provides a fair amount of content.

Ultimately, this book was one that I enjoyed reading. There were at least some elements that struck me as somewhat noteworthy and odd about the contents. For example, the use of the Song of Solomon as a worthwhile book for the season is certainly unusual compared to other examples of this genre. And when one reads books that have fundamentally the same contents in many respects, it is important that at least something be different. It would appear, at least to this reader, that the Song of Solomon is most notable in the context of the Haggadah because of the symbolic meaning of God as the beloved and Israel as the young woman. Even so, as interesting as this is, it must be admitted that it only plays a small role in the book as it is written, and that its interest lies in the distinction that it provides to a book that is otherwise very similar to other books that exist within its genre. Still, such differences make a book like this so much easier to appreciate than would otherwise be the case.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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