In the introduction to this section, I showed that there is a proper structure to 'Maggid', with the Haggadah explaining why we tell the story of the Exodus, who has to tell it, what exactly we have to say, how we tell it and when, before getting to the story itself.

But it is important to remember that the text of the Haggadah was not, until relatively recently, static. The text as we know it was not finalized until around the 15th Century. We have many earlier Haggadot – and evidence from the Talmud – that show us that at different times in history, and even in different places in the same time frame, the Haggadah looked different – sometimes radically so. We're not talking about a different line here or there, but entire sections missed out; entire paragraphs, unfamiliar to us today, added in; or the same texts, in a different order. Before the destruction of the Temple - when the main part of the Seder night was eating the Paschal lamb - and in the years following, as the rabbis first began to put the text together, there was probably not much we would recognise at all.

At different times in history, then, even the texts we are familiar with today might have had a different resonance, simply because they came at a different point in the Haggadah, set in a different context.

'Avadim Hayinu' – 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt' – is a case in point.

As I explained in the introduction, today this section comes to explain why we tell the story of the Exodus: because had G-d not taken the Israelites out of Egypt, we would still have been there. It is not part of the story itself.

Perhaps, though, originally it was.

Today, a classic query is why so little of the Haggadah is spent actually discussing the story of the Exodus, instead meandering through tales of four sons, four questions etc. But in antiquity, it seems, families did talk about the Exodus at length, at this very point in the Seder (which was following the meal, which back then was at the beginning).

Their discussion was 'free form': in Talmudic times and earlier there were apparently no set texts (with one exception - see below), but every family or group discussed the Exodus using their own format. (Perhaps this is what Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues were doing in Bnei Braq when they were “talking about the Exodus throughout the night”?)

The Talmud gives only a basic guideline to telling the story: “He begins with disgrace (or lowly status), and concludes with glory; and he expounds the biblical passage, 'My father was a fugitive Aramean' until the end of the section'.

In terms of texts to be recited, then, the only thing Jews back then absolutely had to say was “Arami Oved Avi”, the declaration required from one who brings the first fruits to the Temple. It describes the lowly origins of the Jewish people, beginning with Jacob's dubious history with Lavan, continuing with his descent into Egypt and the people's slavery and ending with G-d taking us out of Egypt “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm”, and bringing us into the land of Israel – although that last verse is not included in modern Haggadot. This is a set, central, very early part of the ritual and much of our haggadah is spent expounding on these verses, which appear in Deuteronomy 25:5-9.

In the Gemarah, however, we come across an argument between two rabbis, Rav and Shmuel, who feel that there are two passages that fulfil the other prescription of the Talmud - to start off with words of criticism of the Jewish people and end with praise. 

Rav championed the passage, “Mitchilah ovdei avodah zarah” - “From the beginning our ancestors were idol worshippers”, which quotes Joshua's potted history of the Jewish people (Joshua 24, 2-5). It begins with Abraham's idol-worshipping father's in Mesopotamia, continues with God bringing Abraham to the land of Israel, and finally describes his children's descent to Israel. In Temple times, they presumably used to continue reading another few verses, which described God bringing the people into the land of Israel, as this would fulfil the obligation to end in “glory”. 

Shmuel, by contrast, thought it was best to use the passage, “Avadim hayinu”, a loose adaptation of a verse from Deuteronomy explaining that we were slaves in Egypt, but that God redeemed us. The last few lines, which explain that we must tell the story of the Exodus no matter our level of education or wisdom, are of unknown origin.

Both of these biblical passages were included in our version of the Haggadah, possibly because they were specifically mentioned in the Talmud as part of Rav and Shmuel's traditions (and presumably the traditions of the communities around them). And they do make sense in the current structure. But presumably, just as Rav and Shmuel had their favourite passages to help tell the story of the Exodus, other learned men all those years ago drew on other sources, and other resources, to tell the story in their own way. Some of these traditions were forgotten, others came together to make our now standard text. 

haggadah Section: Cover
Source: Original