Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, 3 March 1972.
A Feast of History: The drama of Passover through the ages with a new translation of the Haggadah for use at the Seder. By Chaim Raphael. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1972. £4.
It is difficult to avoid superlatives in recommending this extremely attractive book, not unreasonably priced considering its high standards of production. It is an ideal gift for a Barmitzvah, as a prize for bright children at Hebrew classes, and, especially, it will be used by intelligent adults at the Seder who wish the “drama of Passover” to come alive.
The photographs are original, the type and paper clear, the coloured plates superb, and the text a real feast of history and general learning.
Typical of Chaim Raphael’s style is his introductory statement of the plan of the book. He tells us of the inscription, carved in the rock wall of Hezekiah’s Tunnel towards the end of the eighth century BCE, describing with pride how water was brought into Jerusalem from a spring outside the city. The quarrymen hewed the rock from each end, meeting in the middle.
Similarly, this book is really two separate volumes meeting in the middle. At the Hebrew end, there is the text of the Passover Haggadah with a new translation. At the other end, there is a detailed discussion of the history and memories that have clustered around the ceremonies for thousands of years. The author’s hope that the meaning will flow from the spring to the reservoir is fully justified.
Among the topics examined are: the origins of Passover; the celebrations in Temple times; the Passover rituals in the Rabbinic literature; the blood libel; Passover among the sectarians; and the history of the text of the Haggadah and its illustrations.
Raphael evocatively remarks in discussing the Vienna Haggadah of 1823: “Many of us grew up with crudely printed Haggadahs which included its drawings—notably the strange picture of the Four Sons —the wise son (an aged rabbi!) being tall and impressive, while the fourth son is presented not only as a moron but also a midget.”
In the spirit of debate, essential to the Haggadah, as Raphael points out, a few points of disagreement might be mentioned. The Mishna does not say that the poor man must not be given anything to eat on the eve of Passover “even from the charity-bowl” (page 72) but that he should be given enough to buy four cups of wine from the bowl. (The “bowl” was not an actual receptacle containing food but an amount of money to be distributed.)
“Malachi 6, 5” (page 136) should be “Malachi 3: 23” and the portion is read, of course, on Shabbat Hagadol not “on Passover.” The paschal lamb was not sacrificed on the “night of the fourteenth day of the month” (Haggadah section, page 8) but in the afternoon. The extra “chair” for Elijah at the Seder (page 13) is presumably a misprint for extra “cup.”
The suggestion (page 45) that Akiba’s remuneration of 300 plagues is a reductio ad absurdum is novel but historically unlikely. The instruction (page 48) to point to the bone when reciting the passage about the paschal lamb is incorrect. The Codes advise against pointing to the bone so to avoid giving the impression that it is not a mere reminder but the paschal lamb itself.