Color-coded Haggadah highlights seder’s origins: The Polychrome Historical Haggadah
By Larry Yudelson
Who wrote the Haggadah?
We know who wrote the Hogwarts Haggadah. (Moshe Rosenberg.) We know who wrote the Rav Kook Haggadah. (Bezalel Naor.) We even know who wrote the ArtScroll Family Haggadah. (Nosson Scherman.)
But who wrote the original text?
Like all the siddur and other classic works of Judaism, the Haggadah dates back to before people started putting title pages and copyright notices on their books and listing them on Amazon. So we don’t really know.
We do know that most of the text we use today is found in the earliest Jewish liturgical manuscripts, which date from the ninth century. And the outline accords with the teachings of the Mishna from six centuries earlier.
But who put this together, and exactly when?
Truth be told, we don’t know.
Now, however, a Teaneck rabbi — and Jewish Standard columnist — has republished a classic work that highlights all the different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.
“We are having a conversation with Jews across all periods of history,” Rabbi Tzvee Zahavy said. “This is not just something we’re doing with our family. We’re having a dialogue across the ages.”
This month, Rabbi Zahavy reissued the Polychrome Historical Haggadah. Originally published in 1974, it was the work of Rabbi Jacob Freedman of Springfield, Massachusetts. It highlights the different levels of the Haggadah by putting each stratum in a different color. Biblical verses are black. Mishna passages are red. And so on — until contemporary additions like the Hatikvah, appropriately in Israeli-flag blue.
It is a seven-hued rainbow.
“I like the fact that it focuses you on the text of the Haggadah itself,” Rabbi Zahavy said. “You look at the colors and think ‘This is from the talmudic period, this is from the biblical text, this is from medieval times.’
“Many of the Haggadahs make you associate interesting ideas with the text but they take your mind off of the page to other places, to other people’s concerns and concepts. This Haggadah makes it possible to be mindful and focused, just super-conscious of the text of the Haggadah.”
The idea for the Polychrome Historical Haggadah came from the Polychrome Bible, an edition of the Hebrew scripture that “was put out in the early part of the 20th century in order to show the documentary elements according to biblical scholarship,” Rabbi Zahavy said. “It was a brilliant idea.
“Of course it’s a heretical idea to say the Torah was the product of different documents, since according to Orthodox theology it’s one unitary document. The Torah is Moshe Rabbeinu’s Torah. But the world of scholarship decided to go out and investigate the Bible from a historical perspective and came up with the documentary hypothesis” — that the Torah was a composite of four or so different texts stitched together by an editor.
Rabbi Zahavy came to the polychrome concept when he was studying the prayer book.
“I was working on the siddur, and I saw the different strata and strands,” he said. “I figured there must be someone who tried to do a polychrome siddur. That’s when I came to rediscover Jacob Freedman, because he had started working on a polychrome siddur showing the historical layers. He was only able to publish a prototype of 28 pages.”
Rabbi Freedman, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, led several Conservative synagogues. He was 71 years old when his Haggadah was published in 1974; he died 12 years later. Rabbi Freedman assigned the copyright to his book to a foundation he created. The foundation subsequently was dissolved, leaving the copyright in limbo.
“This is a work that I loved,” Rabbi Zahavy said. “It was orphaned. I really wanted to become a new parent of this Haggadah. I started to work on it finally as a labor of love.”
Rabbi Zahavy scanned the pages of Rabbi Freedman’s original work, and he wrote an introduction to it.
“It’s a very charming and impressive work,” Rabbi Zahavy said. “It will take anyone using this Haggadah several years to get the full impact of the scholarship that went into it.”
In addition to the full color pages of Hebrew text (the translation is not color-coded), the Haggadah reprints color pages from medieval illuminated Haggadah manuscripts.
“They are well chosen as well,” Rabbi Zahavy said. “There’s a classic example of what the German 15th century Haggadahs look like, what the 14th century Spanish Haggadahs look like. Jacob Freedman picked out some really good pages. They really add a lot of life and more color.”
Seeing the different sources of the Haggadah in vibrant color “really makes the point that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik always said, that the Haggadah is not really the retelling of a story.
“It’s the act of talmud Torah, studying Torah in the rabbinic manner. When you finish at the end of the seder, you haven’t really told the story of the Exodus in a very narrative way. You’ve told it in a kind of midrashic mishmash. The color highlighting shows you the alternating cadences of the work.
“It’s like an opera with different arias. The Haggadah is the libretto,” Rabbi Zahavy said.
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