One of the things that one notices if one does a large amount of religious reading, as I am prone to do, is that there are a lot of very similar books that one finds on certain subjects. There are particular slots that need to be filled when one is engaged in creating one’s own ministry, and it is little surprise that people seek to fill those slots even when they have nothing particularly striking to say. This is something I have noticed mostly in Christian writings, as people have books on prayer, or on grace, or on any number of subjects, even when the best that they can do is to quote and cite other more convincing sources. This is not only a problem with Christianity, though, and today I would like to discuss the mysterious appeal of Haggadahs, a genre of literature that one finds in Jewish writings that in many ways shares these qualities with Christian writings that tend to have somewhat stereotypical contents.
First of all, we need to make clear what we mean by a Haggadah. For the purposes of this discussion, we are viewing only those books that are written in mind to provide the structure to the Jewish celebration of the Seder. As someone who has written and read material in this genre, I am struck by the narrowness of the material that is included, and why it is that one can find so many books that say almost identically the same thing. In many ways, the Haggadah as a form of literature is even more constrained than the sonnet, to give an example of a constrained form of literature. In many ways it is more constrained than a haiku, to take another example. A sonnet is made up of fourteen lines of poetry in iambic pentameter and one of two forms of lines, either a Shakespearean sonnet of three rhyming quatrains and a rhyming couplet or a Petrarchian sonnet of an octet and a sextet. Similarly, a haiku is a poem that is usually about nature in Japanese with a characteristic five-seven-five character (or five-seven-five syllable structure in English). Each of these forms, though, provides at least a great deal of flexibility in how one goes about this task.
The Haggadah is even more restricted because it is not only the form of the book that is narrowly constrained but much of the content that is as well. For example, there are four essential questions about the Passover that must be asked and answered. There is a story about the deliverance of Israel from Egypt that must be provided. There are a selection of psalms, notably Psalms 113-118 and 136, that are included as well. There are four cups throughout the ceremony that must be included, each with their own meaning and their own ceremony. There are stories taken from the Mishnah about the meaning of celebrating the seder all the days of one’s life. There are also a set of songs that are non-biblical that are always included as well. The result is that while there are differences between various different Haggadahs, these differences are more in the realm of what is explained and in what way and in how much detail, given that the core material is fundamentally the same from book to book, to a degree that is difficult to match in many genres.
What can be done about this though? I am unsure that a book would be considered a Haggadah without including the sort of material that I have mentioned, often in both Hebrew and English, and given that the Seder takes place over the course of a single evening, it is not as if much can be added to the materials that are included in the books of the genre as a whole. The most change I have seen myself in looking at such materials is to rearrange sections and include various traditional elements as optional, or to add lengthy commentaries at the beginning of the text to attempt to educate the reader as to the depth behind what goes on during the Night To Be Much Observed. And while that is a worthwhile thing, it is not as if one needs to read too may Haggadahs, since most of them say the same things over and over again.