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Telling the Story: A Passover Haggadah Explained

Telling the Story: A Passover Haggadah Explained

by Barry Louis Polisar

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Authentic and simple, this retelling of the Passover story in the Haggadah is designed to guide Passover participants through the Seder while educating them about the practice. Detailing the meaning of the ceremony in the past and present, the book also discusses the authenticity of the ceremony and the story, allowing those


Authentic and simple, this retelling of the Passover story in the Haggadah is designed to guide Passover participants through the Seder while educating them about the practice. Detailing the meaning of the ceremony in the past and present, the book also discusses the authenticity of the ceremony and the story, allowing those with little or no experience conducting a Seder to do so with confidence. A phonetic version of the Hebrew text is also included to aid those unfamiliar with Hebrew pronunciation.

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Rainbow Morning Music Alternatives
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Telling the Story

A Passover Haggadah Explained

By Barry Louis Polisar

Rainbow Morning Music

Copyright © 2006 Barry Louis Polisar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-938663-92-8



Tonight, as we gather together among family and friends, we observe an ancient festival that recalls the slavery of our people and their deliverance out of bondage. Through the ages, Jews have commemorated the Exodus in order to remember that our ancestors were once slaves in the land of Egypt.

We are not the only people to have been enslaved by others. The Passover Seder reminds us that in every age we must all do whatever we can to help those who are enslaved by tyranny. If a people is anywhere enslaved, exploited or oppressed, then nowhere is freedom really secure — and freedom must never be taken for granted.

This Seder is not just a series of prayers to be said quickly in order to get to the meal. It is a ritual that connects us to our past. The Seder — which means "order" — consists of fifteen different steps; over time, additional customs, songs and hymns have been added. A Seder Plate with specific foods is prepared before the meal and all bread and leavened products are removed from the home before the holiday begins to fulfill the Torah commandment that during this week of observance "no leaven shall be found in your homes." Each year, we are encouraged to discover new things in the Seder and in every generation, each one of us is meant to feel as if he or she "came forth" out of Egypt. It is in this spirit that the story is told and handed down, each generation knowing it has the responsibility to tell the story to the next generation.


Our holiday begins just before sundown with the lighting of two candles accompanied by a blessing. On Friday night, an additional blessing is added for the Sabbath. Though these prayers were traditionally said by the mother of the house, there is no reason we cannot all join in the prayer together:


Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kidishanu b'mitzvohtov, vitzivanu la-had-lek ner shel yom tov.

Blessed Art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by giving us your commandments and granting us the privilege of kindling these holiday candles.

May this coming year be a year of health and goodness for our friends and family and for all people. May these holiday candles bring peace within our souls, goodness and cheer within our hearts, and happiness within our families and in our homes as they spread their light on each of us.


Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, she-heh-che-yanu, v'ki-y'manu, v'higi-anu lazman hazeh.

Blessed Art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and brought us to this festive season. We thank thee O Lord for the blessings of life and of health. We pray that the coming year will be a year of happiness and peace.


On this night we retell the story of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, just as our people have done for thousands of years. We share these rituals with our children because it is written, "You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought you out of bondage. You shall observe this day throughout the generations as a practice for all times."

The Torah commands us to tell our children about the Exodus from Egypt. The first night of Passover is to be a "night of watching." In earlier times the Israelites fulfilled these requirements by staying up all night retelling the story. "Haggadah," which means "telling," does just that; it tells the story of the Exodus.

The Torah states that Passover should be observed for seven days. After the exile from Judea, when Jews lived in countries throughout the world, an extra day was added because of the uncertainty of the calendar. Today, many Jews observe the holiday for eight days while others follow the Israeli practice of observing the holiday for seven days as prescribed in the Torah.

KADESH - The First Cup of Wine

fill the first cup of wine

Wine gladdens the heart. The Torah tells us four times to recount the story of our redemption from slavery and we will drink wine four times during the course of this Seder while reclining; twice before the meal and twice after the meal. Wine is a symbol of joy and happiness and we thank God that we are able to gather together again with friends and family to observe this Festival just as our ancestors have done for centuries.

Raise wine glasses and recite the following together before drinking:


Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, borei p'ri ha-gafen.

Praised be thou, O Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who has created the fruit of the vine!

You have called us for service from among the peoples and have hallowed our lives with commandments. You have given us festivals for rejoicing, seasons of celebration, this Festival of Freedom, a day of sacred assembly commemorating the Exodus from bondage.

In the Passover story, God promises deliverance four times: "I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; and I will deliver you from their bondage; I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments; and I will take you to Me for a people." As we drink the first of four cups of wine, we thank God for giving us life, for sustaining us, and allowing us to reach this moment. We know that life is fragile. Each day is a gift to be cherished and no moment should be taken for granted. We thank God for helping us maintain a life of meaning and we are thankful for having opportunities to sanctify our lives by performing good deeds that make a difference in the world.

All drink the first cup of wine

UR' CHATZ - Washing the Hands

Washing hands is done before all meals at which bread is eaten and water plays an important part in the Passover story. We wash our hands twice at our Seder, but since we will not be eating yet, we do not recite any blessings at this time. As we pour water over our hands now, we ask that our hearts be touched by wisdom as our hands reach out to the world and touch those around us.

A pitcher of water with basin and towel may be passed around to all guests

KARPAS - Rebirth and Renewal

In ancient times our people were farmers and shepherds. In this festive season, we are meant to feel a connection with the food we eat from the land and to remember that we are surrounded by blessings and miracles no less majestic than those our ancestors witnessed thousands of years ago. Spring reminds us that we are again given a chance for renewal; a new chance to create peace and goodness in our world. We dip karpas — greens — to symbolize this renewal. The salt water symbolizes the bitter tears shed by our ancestors in slavery.

Each person takes greens, dips them in salt water and recites the following:


Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, borei p'ri ha-adamah.

We praise You, Adonai, Sovereign of Life, Who creates the fruit of the earth.

Eat the Karpas

YACHATZ - Break the Middle Matzoh

We read in the Torah: "It is commanded that you should eat unleavened bread and for seven days there shall be no leavened bread seen with you. And you shall tell your children in that day, saying, 'This is done because of that which God did for me when I came forth out of Egypt for with a strong hand has God brought you out of Egypt.' You shall keep this ordinance in its season from year to year."

There is a tradition of searching for additional meaning in the text of the Torah. Since the Hebrew scrolls were written without vowels, Rabbis have read the commandment, "You shall observe the feast of Matzoh" and realized that by changing some of the letters, the word "matzoh" becomes "mitzvoh." A mitzvoh is a commandment. But the word also means a good deed and we are meant to link our rituals with doing good in the world.

On Sabbaths and holidays, we traditionally have two loaves of bread, a symbol of the double portion of "manna from heaven." On Passover, we have three matzot on the table; the third matzoh is the "bread of affliction" reminding us of our enslavement in Egypt. We now take the middle of the three matzot and break it in two. By breaking "bread" we signify hospitality and invite all who are hungry to join us. The smaller piece of matzoh is replaced between the other two matzot. The larger piece is wrapped in a napkin — symbolic of our ancestors wrapping their dough in their garments when they departed Egypt — and set aside as the "afikomen" to be eaten after the meal. Together we say the words which join us with our people and with all who are in need.

All recite these words:

Behold the Matzoh, bread of poverty and affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy share the hope of this Passover celebration.

Next year may all men and women be free.

The wine glasses are refilled


Questioning is a healthy sign of freedom. Asking questions is so fundamental that, according to the rabbis, even if one finds oneself alone on Passover, the Four Questions should be asked aloud.

Traditionally, the youngest child is called upon to ask these four questions about the differences that mark this night. We encourage children to question and all who are present may ask the Four Questions.


Ma nish-ta-na ha-lyla ha-zeh meekol ha-lailot?

She-be-chol ha-lay-lot anu ochlin chamaytz u-matzo, ha-laila ha-zeh kulo matzo

She-be-chol ha-lay-lot anu ochlin sh'or y'rokot, ha-laila ha-zeh maror

She-be-chol ha-lay-lot ayn anu mat-beeleen afeelu pa-am e-chat ha-laila ha-zeh shetay f'amim

She-be-chol ha-lay-lot anu ochlin bayn yoshvin u-vayn m'subin ha-laila ha-zeh kulanu m'subin


Later, we will read and explore the whole story of the Exodus from Egypt, but first we give a simple answer to each of these four questions.

We eat matzoh because when our ancestors were told by Pharaoh that they could leave Egypt, they had no time to allow their bread to rise, so they baked hurriedly, without leavening.

At the Seder, we eat bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness our ancestors experienced when they were oppressed as slaves.

At the Seder table, we dip food twice; once in salt water to remind us of the tears shed in slavery and again in haroset, to remind us that there is sweetness even in bitter times.

In ancient times, slaves ate hurriedly, standing or squatting on the ground. Symbolically, as a sign of freedom, we lean and relax as we partake of wine and symbolic food.

The Haggadah tells the story of Rabbi Akiba and other Talmudic scholars sitting at the Seder table in B'nai B'rak all night long discussing the events of the liberation from Egypt. They talked all night until their students came in to announce it was time for the morning prayers. If great scholars can find the theme of freedom so fascinating that it keeps them up all night, our Seder too, will be made more interesting with questions, comments and discussion on this theme.


Four times the Torah commands us to tell our children about the Exodus from Egypt and because of this, traditional Haggadot speak of four kinds of sons. The Hebrew word for "children" is the same word as "sons" and either can be used. Our sages teach that perhaps there is really a part of each of the four children in us all.

The wise child questions, "What is the meaning of the laws and observances which the Lord, our God, has commanded you?" In response to this child we explain the observances of the Passover in-depth.

The scornful child questions, "What does this service mean to you?" This child says "to you" and does not feel a part of our observances. By excluding God — and himself, this child would not have been redeemed had he or she been in Egypt. We ask this child to listen closely and become part of our traditions and learn what the Seder means.

The simple child questions, "What is this ceremony about?" We say, "We are remembering a time long ago when we were forced to work as slaves. God made us a free people and we are celebrating our freedom." We hope by observing the Seder year after year, this child will come to appreciate the message of the Passover holiday.

The innocent child doesn't think to question. To this child we say, "In the spring of every year we remember how we were brought out of slavery to freedom."

Some rabbis remind us that there is also a fifth child ... the one who is not at this table. This is the person who should be with us, but is not ... and we mark his absence.

There is a word in Hebrew — Teshuvah — that means return. It is an acknowledgement that there is always a chance for forgiveness, redemption and change. Our traditions teach that Passover is open to all. Everyone is welcome at this table. There is always room. Because no one is ever turned away, there is always an opportunity for a rebirth of spirit.

As a sign of hospitality to all, we open the door to our homes and symbolically invite anyone who wants to join us to come inside.

At this point, the children open the door


The Haggadah sets forth the theme that we — not just our ancestors — were slaves to Pharaoh but God delivered each of us "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm." We tell the story of the Exodus and search its meaning to better understand and appreciate its message.

We have an obligation to retell and expand upon the story of our Exodus from Egypt in order to remind ourselves that the struggle for freedom is a constant one. Over the years, Rabbis reasoned that since the Torah commands us to retell the story, this must be done creatively, in a way that is compelling to the next generation. The Torah directs us to say, "My father was a wandering Aramean," but traditional Haggadot translate the verse as "The Aramean wanted to destroy my father." This was done as a warning to be on guard against two types of enemies who would take away our freedom — the enemy without and the enemy within, posing as a friend and betraying us.

We are also asked to be mindful of two kinds of slavery: physical bondage and spiritual bondage. We must strive to be free in body, but also free in spirit, careful not to destroy ourselves and our people by turning from God and the faith of our ancestors. Throughout the ages, our people have been oppressed and attacked by outside forces, but there is an equal risk of destroying ourselves by abandoning our traditions and repudiating who we are.

All raise their cups of wine, but do not drink

In every generation enemies rise up against us, seeking to destroy us, and in every generation God delivers us from their hands into freedom.

All replace their cups untasted

MAGGID - The Story

The Torah says we are to speak these words before God and say, "My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and sojourned there. With few in number, he became there a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and afflicted us and imposed hard labor upon us. And we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers and God heard our cry and saw our affliction and our oppression. He brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm and with great signs and wonders."

We will now recount the Passover story. As we read, we will go around the table with each person taking a turn to read a paragraph out loud:

Our patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah went to the land of Canaan, where he became the founder of "a great nation." God tells Abraham, "Know this for certain, that your descendants will be strangers in a strange land, and be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. But know that in the end I shall bring judgment on the oppressors."

Abraham"s grandson, Jacob and his family went down to Egypt during a time of famine throughout the land. In Egypt, Jacob and the Israelites lived and prospered until a new Pharaoh arose who said, "Behold the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Let us then deal shrewdly with them, lest they become more powerful, and in the event of war, join our enemies in fighting against us and gain control over the region."


Excerpted from Telling the Story by Barry Louis Polisar. Copyright © 2006 Barry Louis Polisar. Excerpted by permission of Rainbow Morning Music.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Barry Louis Polisar has written numerous children’s books, poems, stories, and songs, including Noises from Under the Rug, Old Enough to Know Better, and Stolen Man. He travels throughout the United States and Europe as a visiting author in schools and libraries, and his songs and stories can be heard on radio and television. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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