The Passover Haggadah is one of the oldest and most widely published Jewish texts outside of Scripture (you can order or print the acclaimed Haggadah here). There is much discussion about the authorship of the Haggadah, which clearly evolved over time, starting from the Second Temple period through Mishnaic times, until its present form.

Parts of the Haggadah are recorded in the Mishnah, which was completed around the year 189 CE. There are additional parts that were added in the Talmudic era (which ended during the 5th century) and in the middle of the Geonic period (which lasted until the 11th century), and some of the songs were added much later.

The following is a very brief history of the Haggadah.

Cracked Roofs

The Torah commands us to retell the story of the Exodus to our children on Passover eve: “And you shall tell your children on that day…”1 But as with other liturgy, there was no formal text until the time of the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”), which flourished in the 4th century BCE.

What text was commonly used before the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah? The Mishnah2 tells us that a core part of the Seder in Temple times was expounding upon the passage from Deuteronomy: “An Aramean tried to destroy my father…”3 These verses, which many were familiar with since they were said when the first fruits were brought to the Temple, describe our descent into the Egyptian exile and bondage and how G‑d ultimately took us out and brought us to the Land of Israel.

A central part of our Haggadah quotes this text and provides rabbinic elucidation recorded in the Midrash Mechilta, which was composed by Rabbi Yishmael around 135 CE.

In Temple times, people would also sing the Hallel (Psalms 113-118), which was composed by King David.

As the Talmud describes it, they would often sit on the roofs of Jerusalem, praising G‑d and singing the Hallel, to the point that the roofs would almost crack from the loud noise.4

Extra Question in the Mah Nishtanah

One of the Passover Seder highlights is the children asking the four questions. Interestingly, in the version of the Mah Nishtana found in the Mishnah, there is a question about the Paschal offering. The child asks why “on all other nights we eat meat roasted, broiled and cooked, [and] on this night [we eat] only roast.” Thus, the custom of the children asking the Mah Nishtanah harkens back to Temple times, when they would bring the Paschal offering to the Temple and eat the roasted meat. As commentaries point out, nowadays, we no longer ask this question, since this isn’t something that the child would see us do.

We also find other sections of the Haggadah text in the Mishnah. Some examples are:

  1. “Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya (1st century CE) said: ‘I am approximately seventy years old . . . ,’ ” which is from the end of the very first chapter of the Mishnah.5
  2. “Rabban Gamliel6 would say: ‘Anyone who did not say these three matters on Passover . . .’ ”
  3. And the concluding statement before beginning the Hallel: “In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he left Egypt . . . therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, extol . . .”7

On the other hand, some sections record events that took place in Mishnaic times, but we only find them in the text of our Haggadah. An example of this would be the story “It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon were reclining [at a Seder] in B'nei Berak . . . ”8

Two Beginnings of the Haggadah

While the Mishnah associates some specific texts with the Passover-eve proceedings, it appears that much was still left to the individual. For example, the Mishnah9 instructs us to “begin with disgrace and conclude with glory,” meaning that the arc of the narrative should begin with our sorry pre-Exodus state and end with the heights achieved after the Passover miracles.

But what are we to say? This was debated in the 2nd-3rd century by Rav and Shmuel (according to others, it was the Abaye and Rava in the 4th century).10

Rav held that the disgrace was a spiritual one. He thus promulgated a text that begins: Mitchilah ovdei avoda zarah, “At first our forefathers were idol worshippers . . . ,” and ends by recounting the glory of arriving at Sinai, where we received the Torah.

Shmuel held that the disgrace is that we were subjected and enslaved to the Egyptians. Thus we begin with Avadim hayinu, “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt . . .”

The final law is in accordance with Shmuel (or Rava). We, therefore, start the Haggadah with Avadim hayinu. Since the disgrace is meant to be followed by its corresponding glory, we then read how G‑d delivered us from Egyptian bondage.

In practice, however, we include both opinions in our Haggadah. So after talking about the disgrace of our bondage, we also say, Mitchilah ovdei avoda zarah, “At first our forefathers were idol worshippers,” and then recite its corresponding glory, which is about how we became closer to G‑d.

Thus, according to Rabbi David Abudarham (fl. 1340), the text of our Haggadah is mostly a combination of these two versions.11

The Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon

There were, however, some other additions during the Talmudic and Geonic periods.

The earliest text of the classic Haggadah, as it is recited to this very day, is found in the Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (d. 875 CE). Incidentally, that is also the first version of the Siddur that we have in writing.

Several parts of the Haggadah first appear in this Siddur.

For example, the Aramaic declaration that is recited or sung at the beginning of the Seder, Hei Lachma Anya, "This is the bread of affliction," first appears in the Siddur of Rav Amram, leading many to conclude that it originates from the Geonic period. Others are of the opinion that it originated either in Israel or Babylonia in the 1st century after the destruction of the Temple. The Rebbe12 points out that the fact that it is written in Aramaic is proof that it is from the period after the destruction, when the majority of Jews lived in Babylonia, for the rabbis would not have instituted an Aramaic text had they still been living in the Holy Land.

The classic Dayenu song also first appears in this work, which has led some to speculate that Rav Amram authored it. Others counter that based on the wording—especially the fact that it ends on the high note of the building of the Temple—it seems to have been authored earlier, perhaps during the Temple period.

Since then, there have been no real changes in the wording and scope of the Haggadah. At later times, especially in the Ashkenazi tradition, various piyyutim and songs were added to some versions of the Haggadah.13

The widespread custom is to conclude the Haggadah with the prayer L'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim, "Next year in Jerusalem"—meaning that by the following Passover, we hope to have already merited the final Redemption, when we will celebrate in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

May it be speedily in our days!