Reviewing: “Unlocking the Haggada” by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin. Gefen Publishing House. 2019. English. Hardcover. 244 pages. ISBN-13: 978-9652299376.
Rav Shmuel Goldin has outdone himself with his new Haggada, “Unlocking the Haggada,” published this year by the OU Press. We have come to expect excellence from Rabbi Goldin’s “Unlocking the Torah” series on each of the sefarim of Chumash. However, with regard to this volume, Rav Goldin has taken his writing to an entirely new level.
Rav Goldin’s writing on the Chumash is distinguished by three characteristics. The first is clear, crisp and articulate writing that anyone from beginner to scholar can gain from and appreciate. The full range of sophisticated Torah scholarship is presented before the reader in a succinct style and lucidity that all find inviting. Second is that he addresses matters that are of genuine concern in the text and in Torah living. When there is something in the Torah that contemporary Jews find a bit troubling, there is Rav Goldin to address it. Third is the wise pastoral counsel regarding matters of personal, familial, communal and global concerns that adorn the pages. The sensitive reader emerges a better Jew and a better human being.
Unlocking the Haggada, however, is on an entirely new and even higher level. All of the three elements of his work on Chumash are in full blossom in the work on the Haggada. The most important contribution, though, and this alone makes the acquisition of this book more than worthwhile, is how this book makes order of the Seder. How ironic that for a ceremony called the Seder, which of course means order, the order of the Haggada often seems random. Rav Goldin makes every effort to clarify the order and progression of the ideas and themes of the Seder. He even uses color codes to assist us in keeping track of the great experience of the Pesach Seder. It is very easy to lose sight of the big picture and great goals of the Seder while getting lost in the forest of details of this great night. Rav Goldin holds our hands and makes a clear roadmap to be sure we do not lose sight of what we need to accomplish on the night of Pesach.
In addition, the Haggada is marked by its high aesthetic quality, making it fit in perfectly with the Seder table, which halacha mandates is to be at the highest quality of the year. The shape, texture and fonts make the book beautiful to behold. The illustrations contributed by Shifra Goldin, Rav Goldin’s daughter-in-law, are simply breathtaking in their simplicity and the deep emotions they evoke. This is a Haggadah fit for a royal table.
Rav Goldin also emerges in these pages as a competent halachic guide. I was impressed that he does not offer “parochial” halachic advice, but rather presents halacha in a manner acceptable to the wide range of Orthodox practice. For example, although Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik preferred the use of grape juice for those who do not enjoy wine, Rav Goldin presents the more mainstream view that grape juice is only an option for those who cannot tolerate wine.
As a devoted student of Rav Soloveitchik, I recognize how enamored we talmidei haRav are of our rebbe. It is also tempting for us to present the Rav’s insights as the primary guide for our Torah learning. However, the mature talmid of Rav Soloveitchik (as Rav Goldin most certainly is) presents his rebbe’s ideas alongside the full panorama of our incredibly rich phalanx of commentaries and commentators.
Here are some samples of the delicious insights to which readers are delighted. Rav Goldin explains (p. 41) the reason for the rabbinic mandate of four cups of wine at the Seder is so that each Jew, no matter how desperate his personal and national condition, is obligated to “feel free” on this night of historical freedom. The Torah study segments in the middle of Maggid usher us into the eternal conversation of Torah scholars spanning the generations. Netilat Yadayim reminds us of God’s overall desire that His people demonstrate cleanliness, sanctity and purity.
In a brilliant and insightful (and characteristically succinct) discussion of the Four Sons, Rav Goldin presents us with precious gems. “Channeling the intellect of the wise son can be as difficult as reaching the rasha.” “If the tam is understood as a “difficult learner,” the Haggada declares that the “difficulty” may lie with us rather than him.” “Every child, at times, is a child who does not know how to ask.”
One point of criticism, though, is in order. While in regard to the positioning of the final bracha of the Hallel section of the Haggada both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic practices are presented, elsewhere the Sephardic approach is overlooked. For example, no mention is made that Sephardic Jews do not recite Borei Pri HaGefen (and not HaGafen) on the second and fourth cups. I hope this oversight is able to be corrected in future editions.
Much attention and a great amount of time is devoted to make sure that the physical component of the Seder is just perfect. We invest many hours to be sure that the food, table settings and accouterments are just perfect. However, and let us be honest, how many of us devote significant time to prepare for the spiritual aspects of the Seder? Do we prepare food for thought that will spark insightful and impactful conversations that will leave a lasting impact?
I strongly urge every Seder leader to acquire a copy of “Unlocking the Haggada” a few weeks before Pesach and read it carefully, not once but twice, in order to be properly prepared for the great event. No competent teacher dares to enter the classroom without being properly prepared. The Seder’s spiritual/educational preparation should be no less than the preparation of the food.
I further recommend that a copy of the Rav Goldin Haggada be made available for each teen and adult Seder participant at the Seder. We invest so much in the material aspect of the Seder. The Goldin Haggada allows the spiritual material aspect to keep apace. Hopefully, in doing so, each family will be uplifted and a most memorable Seder will ensue.
“Unlocking the Haggada” is a work three years in the making. Devotees of Rav Goldin’s work on the Chumash have been eagerly awaiting the appearance of this work. Readers will find their expectations exceeded. Put simply, Rav Goldin has crowned his writing career with his best work ever: simply the best Haggada available in the English language!
By Rabbi Haim Jachter