Why we need the Haggadah

I recently went to England to speak about “New American Haggadah.” When I arrived at Heathrow, I was interrogated by … Continued

I recently went to England to speak about “New American Haggadah.” When I arrived at Heathrow, I was interrogated by an immigration officer. I seem to have this problem every time I go to London-despite my glasses, and relatively diminutive stature, and general absence of anything connoting terror-I manage to convey the impression that I am a terrorist. The officer looked over my immigration form: “Says you’re here on business. What kind of business?”

Pete Souza


President Barack Obama and the first family mark the beginning of the Jewish holiday Passover in 2010 with a Seder with friends and staff in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House in Washington.

“I’m here to talk about a book.”

“A book of yours?”

“Hm…” I said, feeling the possibility of an easy exchange slip away from me. “Now that’s a complicated question.”

He looked up, raised an eyebrow and said, “That’s a complicated question?”

“Very complicated.”

“It’s a work of fiction?” he asked.

“Hm… fiction. No, not in as many words.”

“So what kind of book is it–in as many words?

The exchange reminded me of just what a difficult book the Haggadah is to describe. Sort of fiction, and sort of not. Sort of a prayer book, a work of history and philosophy, sort of a user’s manual, a time line, an ethical argument, a poem and palimpsest. But not exactly any of those things. But all of those things and more.

No book has been revisited and revised more times than the Haggadah. (There are more than 7,000 distinct versions in existence.) But perhaps nothing speaks to its unique fullness as its ability to sustain itself-more than 3,000 years and 100 generations of readings. There are many ways of reading a Haggadah–I read it as a storyteller, a father, a Jew…–but engaged from any perspective, the book offers up beauty and provocation. It’s no coincidence that it is one of the oldest of all continually told stories, and most well-known across cultures. It’s no coincidence that nearly every social justice movement of the 20th century referenced it, finding contemporary meaning in ancient words. It’s no coincidence that my family will gather this Passover, as we have and always will, to open this most ancient, most new of all books.

Jonathan Safran Foer is author, most recently of “New American Haggadah.”

  • Kingofkings1

    Does it also guide the members once they change roles, i.e. from being oppressed, to becoming oppressors?

  • Secular1

    First of all none of the judaic stories are that old, even by mid-eastern standards. Certainly they are not as old as hindu scriptures, even among the continuously read books. There are literally thousands of stories from hindu scripture that have been continuously told older than any of the OT stories. I also hasten to add that like bible stories, as far as ethics are concerned they fall short too.

Read More Articles

An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.