J-BOM: The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah

On a recent Friday, I sent out a link to a great Shabbat Shalom video to all my email lists (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaIviASmllI&feature=related). Amidst a bunch of accolades, I received one note from a colleague who found the video “completely offensive,” primarily because of its musical genre, rap.  The writer explained,

Why kids like rap is completely beyond me, but it is the most vile, disgusting excuse for music I’ve ever heard. To then mix in the Lord and His Sabbath is degrading to say the very least.

To me, rap is representative of a culture that is as far away from G-d as one can get in this world; it represents a culture of drugs, sex and violence. All the things that our Lord speaks against.

I know you didn’t ask for my opinion, but I do not think that we should be pulling God down to the depraved culture of man, we should be pointing man up to the righteous culture of G-d.

I thanked him for voicing his concerns and promised to review the video. But when I did, I liked it even better than before! I guess rap has a bad attitude (although I don’t listen to enough of it to make broad generalizations), but the vibe of this video is so positive that it wins out over any negative associations. Furthermore, when my critic insists that “the righteous culture of G-d” should avoid any connection with “the depraved culture of man,” he’s setting a standard that’s more rigid than our Jewish tradition, and indeed than Scripture itself.

The haggadah is a prime example. It has evolved over the centuries by incorporating, modifying, and redeeming elements from the wider “depraved” culture. A recent publication, The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 2008), shows how this process of cultural transformation has worked in elements of the Passover tradition.

Consider one of the favorite elements among Messianic Jews, the afikoman. Commentator Joseph Tabory notes that the term first appears in the Mishnah, which “declares that, after the paschal meal, one may not declare afikoman. This is to be understood as a reference to the revelry (epikomos) that was a common after-dinner feature at Greco-Roman meals” (p. 15).  The practice among second-temple Jews, including Yeshua and his followers at his last Passover meal, was to recline at a low table in the manner of Greco-Roman feasts. The prohibition in the Mishnah was meant to keep the sacred feast from degenerating into a not-so-sacred feast. Later, afikoman came to be understood as dessert, which was prohibited so that the lamb, or later, the matzah, would be the last taste that remained with one after the feast. Still later, “the piece of matzah that concluded the meal was first termed the afikoman, changing the term from something that was forbidden to something that was a positive requirement.”

 Before Messianic Jews go back to the drawing board on our usual treatment of the afikoman, however, we should read Tabory’s footnote, “In recent times, several scholars have attempted to revive the theory . . . that the word ‘afikoman’ in the Mishnah is derived from a Greek word that means ‘he has arisen’ . . .” Whatever the original meaning of afikoman, the haggadah demonstrates Judaism’s genius in preserving and transmitting core biblical truths through shifting cultural conditions, indeed employing such conditions to convey those truths. (For those who think that this sort of cultural transformation might characterize traditional Judaism, but not the Bible itself, I’d point to the design of the tabernacle and temple and their accoutrements, which were modeled on pagan temples and altars of the time. And of course, I’ve already mentioned that Yeshua and the twelve had no problem in reclining in the style of a Roman feast at the Last Supper.)

The haggadah transforms elements of the dominant culture to convey God’s story—in this case the story of the Exodus—in every generation. As the introduction to the JPS commentary states,

Of all the classic Jewish texts—the Talmud, the Jewish Bible, and the prayer book—the haggadah is the one most “alive” today. Jews continue to rewrite, revise, and add to its text, recasting it so as to maintain the haggadah’s relevance to their lives. . . . (p. xi)

Messianic Jews, of course, are particularly invested in “recasting” the text of the haggadah, since so much of its symbolism evokes the story of Messiah Yeshua, which not only reached its culmination during Passover, but was deeply interwoven with the events of the festival itself. And the JPS commentary suggests that hints of the Yeshua connection, as in the alternate explanation of afikoman, go back to the very roots of the haggadah.

One example is the famous statement of R. Gamliel, “Whoever did not explain these three things on Passover has not fulfilled his duty. They are: Pesach, matzah and maror” (p. 99). The answer recorded in the Mishnah is far simpler than that in the haggadah: Passover—for the Makom passed over the home of our ancestors in Egypt; bitter herbs—for the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt; matzah—for they were redeemed. (p. 30) Tabory recounts how this simple explanation evolved into the more elaborate treatment in the haggadah, and how it got separated from its original context as a response to Ma Nishtanah (Why is this night different?), the Four Questions asked toward the beginning of the seder. Originally, the Four Questions were the Three Questions, related to the three mandatory foods of Passover mentioned by Gamliel, but they changed with the changing circumstances of Jewish life, and so did the rest of the haggadah. R. Gamliel’s emphasis on explaining the three mandatory foods may have arisen in response to “Christian,” that is Messianic Jewish, explanations of the matzah and wine at the last supper (p. 13).

 In addition to an abundance of such material, the JPS Commentary provides a clear and well-organized version of the haggadah itself, in Hebrew and English, with a concise commentary at the bottom of each page. Any haggadah will be assessed in part by its design as a book; its beauty, clarity, and ease of use. This version rates well, although it is not illustrated as most regular haggadot are. (It does include illustrations from other haggadot in a separate section.) Its original English translation is clear and readable, with two unique features, one positive and one negative. On the positive side, it translates the tetragrammaton as Adonai, to give it more of a sense of a personal (Jewish) name than the usual “LORD.” This usage allows for the translation of Elohim as “LORD,” which, Tabory claims, “better reflects its true meaning.” The negative feature is that the translation uses the archaic and too-pious “Thou” instead of “You” in the blessing formula, so that it reads, “Blessed art Thou, Adonai our LORD, King of the universe . . .” The rest of the blessing goes back to the normal “You” terminology. This seems quirky, but that’s a minor complaint.

The haggadah’s balance of tradition and fluidity is a model for the Messianic Jewish community as we embrace both the continuity of Jewish tradition and the fluidity of ongoing renewal through the Spirit of Messiah. The haggadah also models fluidity for us as it adapts elements of the dominant culture for a divine purpose. The JPS Commentary demonstrates the tradition-fluidity balance well, and should prove to be an important resource for pursuing this balance within our community.

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3 thoughts on “J-BOM: The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah”

  1. […] Noteworthy Posts by J-BOM Bloggers Russ Resnik is someone we would all do well to listen to, a pioneer of Messianic Judaism and a solid exegete of Jewish and biblical texts. He discusses the haggadah as incorporating secular customs, a practice that is usually controversial when it is done (such as using rap to tell the Passover story on youtube) but which becomes the norm once a tradition is old. Check it out at here at rebrez.wordpress.com. […]

  2. I just looked at the video – it’s not at all offensive to me. I was very encouraged that people from a much younger generation to me are thinking seriously about shabbat and expressing it through their own art forms.

  3. I had heard the youtube Shabbat Shalom rap and enjoyed it. Admittedly folks just don’t get how from the beginning of time we have borrowed tunes, melodies and lyrics to produce wonderful, uplifting music. I once had someone ask ‘do you do new music’, they only wanting the ‘older’ music, to which I replied ALL music was new at one time so when does it become old?
    The JPS commentary you mentioned is very good at exposing the symetry and order though can be very confusing such as trying to answer where the hiding of the afikomen comes from, how would the breaking of the middle matzah hold the children’s curiosity, and why the Yeminites continue to eat lamb?
    Very good blog, thank you

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