Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Styles of Haggadah Commentaries

The Pesach Haggadah is generally considered to be the Jewish text with the most commentaries written on it. J.D. Eisenstein wrote around the year 1900 that over 1,500 commentaries have been published. By now it is probably well over 2,000.

In R. Gidon Rothstein's doctoral dissertation, he analyzed commentaries on Pirkei Avos and noted a significant change in styles in the late fifteenth century (link-PDF). I was wondering over Yom Tov whether anyone had conducted a similar analysis of Haggadah commentaries. Not being aware of any such study I spent time going through a number of medieval Haggadah commentaries with particular appreciation of style.

Click here to read moreThe text I used was Mossad Ha-Rav Kook's Toras Chaim Haggadah. The commentaries in the book are a bit of a hodge podge. There is an anonymous early French commentary, two commentaries from Rashi's school (French), a commentary attributed to Rashbam (French) and the commentary of the Ra'avan (German). The first four of these commentaries overlap a good deal but often shed light on each other. The book also contains the commentary of the Rid (later, Italian) and a commentary extracted from Orechos Chaim (later, French). The book also has the Spanish commentaries of the R. Yehudah ben Yakar (mentor of the Ramban), Ritva, Abudraham and Shibbolei Ha-Leket, and the Algerian commentary of the Rashbatz. I can't really understand what the editorial thinking was that put all of these very different commentaries on the same page, but there they are.

In the earlier, French (and German and Italian) commentaries I found the following types of comments:

  1. Connecting the text of the Haggadah to biblical verses and talmudic instructions.
  2. Explaining the simple meaning of the Haggadah's text.
  3. Discussing the connection between discrete passages.
  4. Resolving glaring contradictions within the text (e.g. the difference between the questions of the wise and wicked sons).
  5. The later, Spanish commentaries added:
  6. Multiple explanations of passages.
  7. Midrashic background of points raised in the text.
  8. Resolving contradictions of the text with external sources.
  9. The Rashbatz, in a manner similar to his unique commentary to Avos, added:
  10. Historical background about the Mishnaic characters mentioned in the text.
Like everything on this blog, this is all preliminary and the work of an amateur. The divisions are not as neat as I suggest, e.g. the Rid and Ra'avan are somewhere between the two groups. It would be interesting to read the results of a methodical, comprehensive study of Haggadah Parshanut (commentary).

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