A brief overview of the book that serves as guide, script, and liturgy of the Passover seder.
Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Haggadah--"the telling"--[is] the book containing the passages dealing with the theme of the Exodus recited at the Passover seder. The reading of the Haggadah is based on the verse, "You shall tell your son on that day: it is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt" (Exodus 13:8).
Although the Talmud mentions some features of the "telling" by the father [or other leader] at the seder, no formal Haggadah was produced until the Middle Ages, when the current form was established in essence and became universally accepted.
The Haggadah now contains passages from early and late sources dealing with the Exodus, instructions for the conduct of the seder, Psalms, and other songs of praise, grace before and after meals, concluding in the Ashkenazic version with a number of table songs.
It has been estimated that no fewer than 2,000 different editions of the Haggadah have been published. No other Jewish sacred book has enjoyed such popularity. The Haggadah is, of course, a sacred book. Its theme, the delivery of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage, is more than a celebration of freedom as such. It is a celebration of the freedom the people of Israel attained in order to become God's people and receive His Torah.
Yet even secular Jews enjoy the Passover Seder and read the Haggadah as the ancient manifesto of liberty for all. Very few secular Jews, however, have gone so far as to produce an edition of the Haggadah, like the notorious "Godless Haggadah," from which all the references to God and His deliverance have been removed.
Many Haggadot have been published with commentaries by outstanding scholars and many are richly illustrated. Illuminated manuscripts and early editions of the Haggadah are now highly prized collectors' items.