The Haggadah is a book containing the liturgy that Jews read during the Seder on the first night of Passover. The word Haggadah means “telling,” which comes from this biblical command: “On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).
The festival of Passover, also known as Pesach, begins at sunset on the 14th of Nisan (usually in March or April) and marks the beginning of a seven-day celebration that includes the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Haggadah is the printed order of service, readings, and songs used by those attending the Seder. There are minor differences in the Haggadah when the Passover Seder is observed by Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese), Ashkenazi (Eastern European) and Misrahi (North African/Middle Eastern) Jews.
Haggadah is sometimes confused with Aggadah, which is the name of a collection of texts from the Talmud or other rabbinical literature. The texts of the Aggadah include folklore, parables, historical anecdotes, moral exhortations, and practical advice that illustrate the meaning or purpose of laws, customs, or biblical passages. Some use the terms Haggadah and Aggadah interchangeably.
Unlike most Christian holy days, which are observed in churches, Passover, since the destruction of the temple, has been celebrated in individual homes with family and friends. It is customary to invite guests, especially newcomers to the community, to share the Seder meal. In most Jewish homes, the Seder meal is an elaborate feast, with games for the children and plenty of time to tell the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. A Seder meal can last three to four hours.
The order of the Seder, as presented in the Haggadah begins with the Kiddush (or Kadesh or Kadeish), the benediction that proclaims the holiness of the holiday. This is done over a cup of wine, the first of the four cups drunk while reclining at the Seder table. When drinking the four cups and eating the matzah (“unleavened bread”), Jews recline at the table to accentuate the fact that they are free people. In ancient times only free people had the luxury of reclining while eating. The Kiddush is traditionally led by the father of the house, but all Seder participants participate by reciting the Kiddush and drinking at least a majority of a cup of wine.
The benediction is followed by the Ur'chatz, the washing of hands to symbolize purification. The Seder leader calls out, “Ur'chatz,” and each one presents his or her hands for ritual cleansing. Hands are washed in the usual, ritually prescribed manner before any meal, but without the customary blessing.
Following the Haggadah, the next step in the Seder is the dipping of the Karpas, the appetizer. A small piece of onion or boiled potato is dipped into saltwater and eaten, after the leader recites the blessing over the vegetables. The salt water is said to represent the tears of the Jews in bondage in Egypt.
Succeeding the Karpas is the breaking of the Yachatz. Three matzahs are stacked on the Seder table, and the middle of the three is broken in half. The larger piece is hidden, to be used later as the afikoman, the “dessert” after the meal. The smaller piece is returned to its place between the other two matzahs. This broken middle matzah symbolizes humility and will be eaten later as the “bread of poverty.”
Now, according to the Haggadah, is the time for the Magid. This begins with the Ha Lachma Anya, an invitation of the poor to join the Seder. Then the story of Passover and the deliverance from slavery to freedom is told. The matzahs are uncovered and referred to as the “bread of affliction.” At this point, the four questions (Mah Nishtanah) are asked. It is customary for the youngest child present to recite the four questions: Why do we eat only matzah? Why do we eat only bitter herbs? Why do we dip our herbs twice? Why are we relaxing and leaning on cushions as if we were kings? The answers include a brief review of history, a description of the suffering imposed upon the Israelites, a listing of the plagues visited on the Egyptians, and an enumeration of the miracles performed by the Almighty for the redemption of His people.
At this part in the Seder, the Haggadah states that songs of praise are to be sung, including the song “Dayenu,” which proclaims that, had God performed only one of His many deeds on behalf of His people, it would have been enough to obligate us to give thanks. A long blessing is recited, followed by the drinking of the second cup of wine.
Next is the Rohtzah. The hands are washed again, this time with the customary blessings, as is usually done before eating bread. This is followed by the Motzi Matzah (“blessings over the matzah”). Two blessings are recited: the standard blessing before eating bread, which includes the words who brings forth (motzi in Hebrew), and then the blessing regarding the commandment to eat matzah.
Following the Motzi Matzah, the Maror (bitter herbs) are eaten. The blessing for the eating of the Maror is recited, and then it is dipped into the charoset and eaten. The charoset is a paste made of apples, nuts, and wine. At this point, according to the Haggadah, a sandwich (Koreich) is made of two pieces of the bottom matzah and the bitter herbs dipped in the charoset, and the sandwich is eaten. This is followed by the Shulchan Orech, the full Seder meal. Traditionally, the meal begins with the charred egg dipped in salt water.
After the meal, the Tzafun occurs. The afikoman, which was hidden earlier in the Seder, is taken out and eaten. This symbolizes the Paschal lamb, which in ancient times was eaten at the end of the meal. After the consumption of the afikoman, the Haggadah forbids any other food to be eaten for the rest of the night—and no more intoxicating beverages, except for the remaining two cups of wine.
Next in the order of the Haggadah comes the Bareich, the blessings after the meal. These include the Kos Shlishi (“the third cup of wine”) and the Kos shel Eliyahu ha-Navi (“the cup of Elijah the Prophet”). In many traditions, the front door of the house is opened at this point, which is an invitation to the prophet Elijah, the harbinger of the coming of Moshiach, the righteous Messiah. At this point, the Hallel (“songs of praise”) is recited, recognizing the Almighty and His unique guidance of the Jewish people. After reciting the Hallel, a blessing over wine is recited, and the fourth cup is drunk.
The Haggadah has the Seder conclude with a prayer (the Nirtzah). This prayer expresses a desire that the service be accepted by God and a hope for the coming of the Messiah: “L’shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim!” (“next year in Jerusalem!”). Jews in Israel, and especially those in Jerusalem, change the wording slightly: “L’shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim hab'nuyah!” (“next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem!”)