By Bob Schwartz
Special to the Daily Journal
TUPELO – Home-based celebrations are distinctive elements of Jewish worship and none is better known than the Passover seder. It’s a sacred meal commemorating the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
Seder literally means “order,” and to help manage the seder meal, participants follow along in a book called a “haggadah.”
A typical seder includes the presentation and eating of symbolic foods, such as “matzo,” or unleavened bread, and “maror,” or bitter herbs. It includes discussion of the meaning of Passover, and the asking of the Four Questions, which explain why this night is different from all other nights.
There are blessings and songs, wine and food. Above all, there’s the retelling the exodus story as it was commanded in Ex 13: 8, “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'”
While the order of the seder is traditional, and the basics never change, the details of liturgy, including language and style, vary. So, over the centuries there has not been just one haggadah but thousands used by Jewish families around the world. These “haggadot,” plural, range from simple, small books to beautiful volumes containing colorful artwork.
At Temple B’nai Israel in Tupelo we are completing a new library. Digging into the archives, we found dozens of haggadot covering the decades of the Temple’s existence in Tupelo. They range from a 1923 edition, called “The Union Haggadah,” to those published just a few years ago.
Since every participant must have a haggadah for the seder, buying haggadot can be expensive for large families or groups. Early on, this led to publication and free distribution of haggadot as promotional books. Our collection includes a number of these that were distributed by charitable organizations seeking donations, such as the 1960 haggadah from the General Israel Orphan’s Home for Girls.
However, when it comes to promotional haggadot, those of us who grew up in New York and other large Jewish communities think of food companies. We used haggadot published by Streit’s Matzo, by Manischewitz Wine, by Barton’s Candy. Above all, there was “The Maxwell House Coffee Haggadah,” of which our Temple’s library has four versions. But that is just part of the story. Here to explain this phenomenon is Maxwell House itself:
“The haggadah has been offered by Maxwell House continuously since the early 1930s…Maxwell House coffee has been recognized as a friend of the Jewish community since 1923, the year the well-known brand became certified as Kosher for Passover – the first coffee to seek this important designation. Then, about a decade later, working with Joseph Jacobs Advertising and an Orthodox rabbi to ensure accuracy, Maxwell House printed their first haggadah. More than 70 years later, Maxwell House is still partnering with Joseph Jacobs to deliver the longest running sales promotion in advertising history. To this day, over 50 million haggadahs have been printed, making it the most widely used haggadah in the world.”
While the story of Passover is old and well known, looking at dozens of haggadot reminds me there is something new to learn every year. I found a haggadah published for “Jewish Personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States.” On the very first page, before the table of contents, is a drawing. The caption reads, “Design for the Seal of the United States, inspired by the Passover story as originally proposed by Franklin, John Adams and Jefferson.”
The drawing shows Pharaoh and his army drowning in the Red Sea as Moses watches from the shore. Surrounding the drawing is this motto chosen by these Founding Fathers: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
I had never seen this drawing or heard this history before. It seems a fitting message, both for the continuing story of Passover we will be celebrating as well as for the continuing story of the nation inspired by these biblical principles of freedom.
Bob Schwartz is a member of Jewish Temple B’nai Israel in Tupelo. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org