The Annotated Passover Haggadah

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Zev Garber, Kenneth Hanson
  • Denver: 
    GCRR Press
    , February
     366 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Annotated Passover Haggadah offers an important, illuminating, and informative set of reflections on the “traditional” Jewish Passover Haggadah and its significance for many modern readers and observers of Passover celebrations, not only for Jews, but notably also for “Christians and Messianic Jews” (xii).  However, this broad significance was not immediately apparent to me when I started reading it, nor was its targeted audience or intended contribution. Editors Zev Garber and Kenneth Hanson ostensibly state their aims for the book in their opening editor’s note.  They describe their approach to the Haggadah as “unique… in “substance and appeal,” an “academic” and  “most meaningful commentary on long overlooked sections of the text.” The editors also acknowledge the influence of their personal backgrounds, Garber an Orthodox Jew, Hanson a convert to Conservative Judaism. Their aim was to produce a book “serious and scholarly yet accessible to a general readership” (xi). However, the first two sections do not deliver everything the editors promised.  The third section of essays does.

The first section contains background information: reflections by the editors, discussions of the Hebrew Calendar, Bedikat Chametz (the search for leavened bread before Passover starts), “Eruv Tavshilin: Mixing of [cooked] Dishes,” and “The Traditional Seder Table.”  The next section contains a Hebrew text of the Haggadah with English translation, the commentary by Garber and Hanson, and several “excursuses” and “supplementary readings.” Hanson’s vaguely  titled “Supplementary reading” is actually somethingquite precise: an essay arguing that the New Testament Last Supper accounts, especially Paul’s, may be connected to Qumran community meals rather than the rabbinic seder. The third and strongest section is an “eclectic” selection of essays ranging from discussions of the Passover seder and Christian practice and theology, personal memoirs (Susan Lumiere’s is memorable for its humor and resonance for readers not born into Jewish religiosity), to a delightful fictional “midrash” called “Ziva: The Warrior of Light,” by Susan Garber, Zev Garber’s wife.

The relevance of the background information in the first section is often unclear, and omits topics I expected it to cover. Why not more on chazeret (the second bitter herb served during the seder) in the “Traditional Seder Table” chapter, about which participants almost always have questions? The essay “Eruv Tavshilin: Mixing of [cooked dishes” (virtually ignores the most obvious application of the eruv practice: creating an boundary to allow observant Jews to carry things on the Sabbath. The formatting of translation versus commentary is not always clear in the second section, making it somewhat unwieldy for “practical use in family or congregational settings.”(xi) It also sometimes falls short academically. While the editors note their commentary uses the Sefaria Hebrew text and English translation, they don't (nor does Sefaria) specify from which manuscript or critical edition the text comes. It is from the Mishnah, but early manuscript versions of the Passover Haggadah were part of siddurim (prayerbooks with daily, Sabbath, and/or holiday liturgies), and did not stand alone (e.g.,in the medieval manuscripts of Mahzor Vitry and Seder R. Amram Gaon).  The specifics of this edition of the textual provenance of “the traditional Haggadah” prior to its online Sefaria edition are conspicuously absent.

Nevertheless, I found much of the commentary insightful, especially Hanson’s contributions. He anticipates what’s most relevant to his audience, addressing perennial issues like the moral problem of the ten plagues, or the relative absence of Moses in the traditional Haggadah. Garber’s commentary on the connection of the Passover celebration to modern Jewish history, such as to the Shoah and the founding of the modern State of Israel, is his strongest contribution. Still, both editors could have better framed their overall argument and the intent behind their choice of contributors. That said, many of the individual essays admirably contextualized their contributions. 

Exemplary were Diane Mizrahi, "A Chassidisher Pesach: Passover Traditions and Insights from Chassidic Perspectives," Leonard Greenspoon, "The Memory of God and the Blindness of Humanity: The Four Children," and Henry Knight, "Setting our Tables with Grace and Respect: Reformed Table Talk for Post-Shoah Times." Mizrahi provides historical background on the Hasidic movement, and focuses on the most notable features of Hasidic Passover observance: gebrochts (“absorbed [matsa],” the prohibition of broken matsa soaked in liquid – including matsa balls!); shmura (watched) matsa; matsot yad (handmade matsa); and mystical interpretations of Passover. Greenspoon engagingly illuminates the linguistic nuances and implications of the “Four Children” story (e.g., comparing the responses to the wise and wicked child’s use of “you”) and achieves the right balance between academic rigor and general accessibility. Knight identifies his particular Protestant Christian perspective, namely, his and other Christians’ self-consciously post-Shoah identity. He asserts that the Last Supper was "remembered" as a Seder to emphasize that the association of the Upper Room meal "with Passover and ritualized either as a Seder (as in the Synoptics" or as “a havurah meal just prior to Passover (as in John)" are interpretations— that is, midrash

William Krieger wrote one of my favorite chapters, since it addresses a big question: How can we observe the seder according to the rituals and stories of the traditional Haggadah when we know intellectually that things did not actually happen historically as the Bible and Haggadah recount them? In referring to contradictory or overlapping “magisteria,” his piece is probably the one most in dialogue with critical comparison of religions scholarship.  Annette Boeckler’s essay on non-Orthodox texts, especially the first German Reform Jewish Haggadot, is very informative, but clearly written by a non-native English speaker; the editors should have provided more editorial support to make the chapter flow better. Nathan Harpaz’s essay on Haggadah illustrations has a great discussion of modern Jewish artist David Aronson's Last Supper painting, and its controversial and contentious reception history, but his chapter needs the visual images themselves to support his points.

The selection of essays idiosyncratically reflects the editors’ and contributors’ interests and concerns, but in the best sense. In every generation, readers recast the Haggadah in their own image; it is quintessential midrash. While readers may not find everything they seek in this Haggadah (i.e., contemporary Queer, non-Zionist, and Jewish POC interpretations), they are likely to find something that resonates with them, if they dig deeply enough into it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus is professor of religion and coordinator of Jewish studies at Wheaton College, Norton, MA.

Date of Review: 
September 1, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Zev Garber is emeritus professor and chair of Jewish studies and philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College, and he has also served as visiting professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside, Visiting Rosenthal Professor of Judaic Studies at Case Western Reserve University, and as President of the National Association of Professors of Hebrew. 

Kenneth Hanson is an associate professor and coordinator of the University of Central Florida Judaic Studies Program. He earned a PhD in Hebrew studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 1991.


Zev Garber

In response to Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus’s detailed review, I would like to reiterate, as co-editor, that this Annotated Passover Haggadah is designed, not only for use at the Seder table, but for serious academic research into the telling of the Exodus from Egypt. It is appropriate as a reference tool for scholars and budding scholars, and for classroom use as well. It is intended to be contemporary enough for family and community use, while scholarly enough for academic pursuit into one of Judaism’s most hallowed and time-honored traditions. Such a blend is of course challenging, and the criticisms are humbly accepted. However, we feel that this volume does well in offering, perhaps not something for everyone, but at least kosher grist for the intellectual mill.

Ken Hanson

Zev Garber

In our opinion, Brumberg-Kraus' complimentary review misunderstands the intent of Sections One and Two which offer academic instruction and commentary to the traditional Haggadah Seder preperation and reading. Also, this reading commentary is a central motif for classroom instruction. Finally, I totally consent to Ken Hanson's response. 


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