In the Tradition
A Feast of History: Passover Through the Ages as a Key to Jewish Experience.
by Chaim Raphael.
Simon & Schuster. 250 pp. Illustrated. $12.50.
“These must be removed at Pass-over,” says the Mishnah (Pesachim, 3:1): “Babylonian porridge, Median beer, Edomite vinegar, and Egyptian barley-beer; also dyers’ pulp, cooks’ starch-flour, and writers’ paste. R. Eliezer says: Also women’s cosmetics.” All these things are chametz, which is anything fermented or in process of fermenting. On the eve of Passover “the chametz must be searched for by the light of a lamp.” But suppose you think that a weasel may have dragged chametz from house to house, or even from place to place? When the Jewish householder searches for chametz on Passover eve, in order to destroy it, he must not allow thoughts about peripatetic weasels to involve him in an endless search, for once he begins to think along those lines, say the rabbis, “There is no end to the matter.” That way madness lies: the chametz searcher should keep soberly to immediate practicalities.
To our surprise, perhaps, the Mishnah does exactly that. Though it contains a whole tractate called Pesachim, all about Passover, that tractate is concerned mainly with the nature of the Passover offering in Temple times and, toward the end, with certain details of the Seder celebration. It contains no speculation about the origin of the festival, the development of the Seder, or the psychological and historical significance of that extraordinary symposium (in the literal Greek sense) which has kept pace with Jewish history in its ability to embody, reflect, and illuminate changing aspects of Jewish experience throughout the ages. It is precisely all this that Chaim Raphael’s book does give us. It is, in a very rich sense, “a feast of history,” and Mr. Raphael, eschewing the Mishnaic injunction to keep to the practicalities, has followed the movement of symbolic weasels from place to place; in doing so he has produced a fascinating history of the Passover Haggadah, a history of the celebration of the Seder, an account of the origins of Passover synthesized from the best modern scholarship on the subject, a meditation on the varying meanings of the Seder in different times and circumstances, and a beautifully printed Hebrew text of the Haggadah with his own translation and COMMENTARY. All this is given in a marvelously illustrated book, in which we find vivid visual presentation of innumerable aspects of Jewish iconography, manuscript illumination, and biblical history and scenery as seen by artists old and new.
Mr. Raphael walks warily and wittily between the simple religious faith of those who see in the Passover celebration an age-old commemoration of the exodus from Egypt transmitted in all its details from antiquity, and the scholarly investigations of anthropologists, archaeologists, comparative religionists, and others who research into origins, influences, syntheses, and transformations. He is anxious to show that anthropological explanations of the origin of a festival need not impair its validity as a significant religious and national act, and can indeed make that act more pregnant with historical meanings. The ways in which a primitive sacrifice to mark the spring equinox, or a “firstling sacrifice” by herdsmen on the eighth day after the birth of an animal, or a fertility ritual to insure the fruitfulness of the coming season’s crops and herds, or a pre-historical cultic drama with the smeared blood of the sacrificed animal used as a prophylactic against misfortune in the coming year—the ways in which any or all of these were eventually refined in the light of Hebrew national and religious experience into the Passover we know provide abundant material for scholarly speculation. Some of this speculation is cited by Raphael with a half-apologetic air, but he succeeds admirably in showing the fascination of this kind of theorizing and its consistency with a full acceptance of the central meaning of the Passover in Jewish life throughout the ages.
Sometimes he brings the traditionalist up with a shock, as when he reminds him that there is doubt even about the etymology of the word pesach. The Hebrew root can mean to pass through, to pass over, to spare, to halt, to waver in opinion, or to limp (or to dance with a limping motion). Was there originally a “limping dance festval” linked with fertility rites? This seems very far-fetched, and Mr. Raphael raises the suggestion only to suggest strong reasons for rejecting it. Perhaps originally the festival involved “a ritual going-forth from the city to the country . . . rites of purification which include fasting, the wearing of new clothes, processions, sacrifices and feasting?” Perhaps. Philo, with his Platonizing interests, interpreted the “passing over” to be a symbol of the lover of wisdom crossing over from the physical passions to virtue.
Mr. Raphael chats engagingly about these and other interpretations, but keeps returning to the Jewish folk tradition, to rabbinical anecdote and popular feeling, reminding us that a rich savoring of this aspect of Passover can coexist with the intellectual pleasure in speculating about origins. And he further anchors his speculations in reality by projecting concrete pictures of Passover celebrations by soldiers in wartime, by concentration-camp inmates, by Marranos who faced denunciation and burning at the stake if their Seder was discovered, by medieval Jews threatened with blood-libel, by modern Jews in Western comfort or in Oriental picturesqueness or in the communal nationalism of the kibbutz. Above all, he shows us the Passover celebrations and the recital and singing of the Haggadah as bound up with living and changing Jewish history of the last two thousand years at least. In fact, Mr. Raphael has used the Haggadah as the thin end of a wedge whose thick end is all of Jewish experience.
In his “note on the translation” Mr. Raphael tells us that for the Psalms and other biblical passages in the Haggadah he has used the King James Version, for in it “one hears ‘ancient’ words which have entwined themselves into English literature with something of the same mysterious, evocative power that the original Bible exercises over Hebrew literature.” But in the songs “some attempt has been made to convey the mood of the original imaginatively.” This seems sensible, and some of his free renderings of songs are rather jolly—particularly that of va-amartem zevach Pesach as “On Passover Day in the Morning.” In translating the prayers and blessings and the affirmations in the Haggadah Mr. Raphael avoids a consciously biblical style and seeks for something which, while faithful to the tradition underlying the original, yet speaks “in an English that reflects our own voice.” In doing this, he has felt compelled to abbreviate on occasion, cutting out elaborations and repetitions and all those parallel expressions in series so dear to the Hebrew liturgical genius. This is also true of the rabbinical discussions which, he feels with some reason, might seem a bit long-winded to the ordinary modern reader. Some of these he cuts quite drastically in translation. The result is, inevitably, inconsistency. On one page chayav adam (“man must,” “one is obliged”) is rendered “every Jew must,” while on the next page, where we find the same phrase in the plural (l’phichach anachnu chayavim l’hodot, etc., “we therefore have a duty to thank. . .”), it is completely ignored; here, the whole long sentence is rendered simply as, “At this moment, then, we thank God,” which omits the introductory suggestion of the reason for thanking God and the sense that it is a duty. But this does not really matter, as the general sense is conveyed with fine vigor, though I can’t help wondering what would happen to someone with a little Hebrew who was counting on the English translation to help him out. Surely there must be a great number of such people who read the Haggadah on the Seder night, and they will be confused by some aspects of Mr. Raphael’s translation. He seems to have designed his edition for those who either can read it in Hebrew or who can read it only in English, which is perhaps too pessimistic a polarization of Jewish readers. Am I wrong in assuming that there is a vast middle ground of readers who want the translation to help them in their imperfect understanding of the original?
But this is a minor point. Mr. Raphael’s style and manner tempt one to digress and argue, as indeed the style of the Haggadah itself does. One’s general view of this book must be enthusiastic. It is both an admirable introduction to Jewish history and an unusually lively and informative edition of the Haggadah.