Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Remarkable Haggadahs for the Contemporary Seder Table

A 14th-century haggadah - Public Domain
For many Jewish families, Passover is a time steeped in tradition. The haggadah that is used to tell the story of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt, like the recipes that complement the Passover meal, has often been passed down from generation to generation. A traditional Orthodox Jewish haggadah can almost as likely be found on the seder table of a Reform Jewish family as on the table of an Orthodox family. For some, Passover is a time for revisiting one’s roots, the traditions that define them, and their identities as Jews.

The Passover Haggadah for Contemporary Readers

But for others, Pesach is a time for considering the present, and their personal responsibilities to the rest of the world. The subject of ecology, poverty and the impact of the human footprint on the environment have all become topics at the contemporary Seder table and opportunities for reflection in the broader meaning of Passover. The topic of tzedakah – the act of righteous living – has become a cornerstone to Passover observance in some communities. In others, striving for a more peaceful existence has become synonymous with the ancient Jews’ escape from bondage and strife.

These discussions have led to an explosion of creative expression, and an ever-expanding selection of haggadahs in the bookstore and on the internet. E-publishing has opened the door to a wide variety of versions that can be easily printed off, some with ornate depictions, and others with simple text. Some include the original Hebrew text; others provide only the transliteration and English passages.

Print Haggadahs for Passover Seders

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) sells the beautiful, sensitively depicted haggadah, The Open Door, written by Sue Levi Elwell, with art by Ruth Weisberg. Written for the Reform audience, it contains both Hebrew and English text as well as transliterated portions, and can be purchased through the CCAR website.

Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family by Alan S. Yoffie and illustrated by Mark Podwal is one of the CCAR's most recent publications and has been lauded for its inclusive text and stunning art work. It can be purchased in soft cover or a beautiful cloth-bound gift edition.

Historian and novelist Elie Wiesel has put out his own exemplary haggadah illustrated by Mark Podwal. As expected, his writings in A Passover Haggadah remind the reader not only of the travails of the ancient Jews but of more contemporary recordings of slavery and mistreatment, and the importance of continuing one’s link with history.

The Modern Haggadah Distributing Company features a wide variety of haggadahs, from books that are directed toward Jews who are practicing Buddhists, to a popular family haggadah that includes the complete Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal) for more traditionally observant Jews.

Haggadahs from Israel - PikiWiki

Online Haggadahs for Easy Printing

Quite a number of websites offer free, print-as-you-go haggadahs, some with ornate color illustrations, others with bare-bones text and explanations. Some include the Hebrew, others include only transliterated prayers.

In addition to its print haggadahs, sells an internet version as well. Written by Rabbi William Blank, it is designed for contemporary readers who like their haggadah to be “brief, to the point, (without) unnecessary ornamentation.” It is well illustrated however, and contains both the Hebrew and transliterated prayers. The book can be downloaded directly from the site.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat provides on her site, a black-and-white version with sensitive explanations of some ancient and some new traditions. She utilizes the modern-day tradition of including an orange on the Seder table and gives some explanations to transliterated terms used during the Seder. The haggadah could easily be used with guests who are just learning about the Passover experience.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman offers her own printable version with just enough illustrations to make it enjoyable to read, educational and inspiring, but not labor-intensive for the printer.

The Jewish Federations of North America covers the whole gamut, with a list of downloadable haggadahs that range from an Orthodox text put out by Chabad, to a basic haggadah published by the Jewish Federation. If their five published options don’t suit, readers shouldn’t lose heart: there is also a link for do-it-yourself haggadah software from

It has been said that the haggadah tells the story of the Jewish people – and does so in a way that all generations can understand. Contemporary haggadahs take that lesson one step further by recording the meaning of the ancient story in modern-day terms. It may well be possible that generations in the future will look back at these haggadahs as commentary on the struggles that Jews - and all humans- faced in our lifetime, and our own interpretation of the true meaning of what it means to be, and live as a Jew.

Adapted from The Contemporary Jewish Passover Haggadah by Jan Lee and published on

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