The nonlegal content of Jewish tradition as distinguished from halakah, the legal portion. The term Haggadah (or Aggada), derived from the Hebrew verb higgîd (to narrate), denotes narration, story, legend. The material of Haggadah is wide-ranging and includes homilies, ethics, theology, history, science, and folklore. Indeed, whatever cannot be construed as strictly legalistic is subsumed under this term, although Haggadah and Halakah may serve each other for interpretive purposes. Their relationship is often depicted as comparable to that which exists between the emotional heart and logical mind.
Although the talmud is the major source of Halakah, about one-third of the Talmud, mainly in the gemarah, is devoted to haggadic material. The lengthy and involved deliberations of the Talmudic rabbis on fine points of the law are periodically deflected momentarily through association of ideas into such bypaths as edifying reflections on life's meaning, an incident in the life of some sage, or a discussion of the authorship of the biblical books. One tractate of the mishnah, pirke avoth (Ethics of the Fathers), is devoted exclusively to a presentation of the life philosophies of several generations of Tannaim (rabbis cited in the Mishnah) by means of their pithy maxims.
The largest collection of Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) is in the midrashic literature, a term applied to
a number of such collections that serve to interpret the Bible according to its inner meaning rather than its literal purpose, i.e., according to the spirit rather than the letter. Although the midrashic method was used also to establish or validate legal propositions, it found a most fruitful outlet in the uninhibited expositions that sought to derive, from the plain text of Scripture, ideas and ideals not readily apparent or support for notions already accepted. The speculative character of Haggadah is indicative of the disinclination of Judaism for creedal formulas and a systematic theology comparable in definition to Halakah. Whereas the latter ordered the interrelationships of men in the community, for their mutual protection, the former offered guidelines for personal behavior and outlook that were by no means so definitive as to exclude alternate options, as the needs of man and his life view changed.
Haggadah is also the name given both to the Seder ("order" of the service) of the Passover meal and to the ritual book used for the occasion. In keeping with the biblical prescription (Ex 13.8) that a father should explain to his son the meaning of the observance, the highlight of the celebration lies in the Four Questions asked by the youngest present concerning some of the customs peculiar to the festival: the use of unleavened bread and bitter herbs, the dipping of the latter into the haroseth (relish) and the parsley in salt water, and the reclining at the Seder table. The reply is a lengthy recitation of midrashic interpretations of the kind discussed above, in order to elaborate on the importance of the holy day and the miraculousness of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Included are selections from Psalms and the Mishnah, as well as several folk songs. The Haggadah book itself has been, for some centuries, the object of artistic endeavors; it contains, in many of its editions and manuscripts, pictures depicting the conduct of the Seder and the festival's themes.
Bibliography: j. jacobs, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer (New York 1901–06) 6:141–146. s. levinson et al., Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (New York 1939–44) 5:156–174. a. marmorstein, Encyclopaedia Judaica: Das Judentum in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Berlin 1928–34) incomplete, 1:951–979. r. wischnitzer-bernstein, Ibid. 7:788–813. a. cohen, ed., Everyman's Talmud (New York 1949). l. ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 7 v. (Philadelphia 1947). j. goldin, The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan (Yale Judaica Ser. 10; New Haven 1957). h. schauss, The Jewish Festivals, tr. s. jaffe (New York 1958) 38–85.
Extra songs, poetry, and elaborations have been added to the original Haggadah over the years and, since the time of Rashi, commentaries on the text have been produced. The progressive movements have produced their own versions, amending the text in accordance with their own theology, and there is also a Karaite version.