by R. Daniel Mann
Question: At our seder, there will be a wide range in Hebrew proficiency and understanding of the Haggada’s texts. What language should we use to read the Haggada?
Answer: The mishna (Sota 32a) lists texts that may be recited in any language, including Kri’at Shema, tefilla, Birkat Hamazon. While the Haggada is not mentioned, it is obviously permitted. There are no required Torah texts, and most of it is not even formally Rabbinically-instituted (except for the Kiddush, the berachot, Hallel and Birkat Hamazon). The Maggid and Nirtza sections are a compilation of passages from different periods that were bound together post-Talmud. The Rama (Orach Chayim 473:6) confirms that one can fulfill the mitzva of telling about the Exodus in any language one understands.
Acharonim who rail against tefilla in another language (despite the aforementioned mishna) raise no reservation regarding the Haggada. Why? The Mishna Berura (101:13) summarizes objections to tefilla in other languages as follows. 1. Maybe it is permitted only on an occasional basis. 2. It is hard to translate exactly and in a manner that captures the many secrets included in the words (Be’ur Halacha ad loc.). 3. It is capitulation to the dangerous changes the Reform have tried to insert into Jewish life.
Reviewing each issue, we can conjecture about the calmness behind reciting the Haggada in translation. The seder comes once a year, and the group dynamics in this regard may change often. The texts of the Haggada, which were composed/compiled centuries after tefilla likely contain fewer secrets. Families’ private sedarim were not a flashpoint of the struggle against Reform.
There is a further reason, which explains why the Rama sometimes requires translation (earlier sources only permit it for tefilla). One can fulfill the mitzva of tefilla in Hebrew even if one does not understand the words (see Orach Chayim 101:1), whereas the Rama indicates that participants in the seder are required to understand the Maggid section to fulfill the mitzva. To how much of Maggid does this apply? Generally all of it should be recited (Shulchan Aruch, OC 473:7), as it is a basic Jewish text, even if written later than most. However, the base obligation is the three statements of Rabban Gamilel (see Mishna Berura 473:6). Other pieces of prominent importance include “Avadim hayinu…” and Ma Nishtana. These passages should be translated or explained for those who do not understand the language in which it is recited. If this is done, it is halachically valid to read all of the Haggada in Hebrew.
Let us now discuss basic strategies (there are too many permutations of factors to cover in this forum). The Rama cites a Rishon who would read the whole Haggada in the local language, and this is a fully legitimate option when called for, but we have a luxury he presumably lacked. It is easy to provide a Haggada with a clear translation for everyone at the seder. Thus, the majority can be read in the original, and those who cannot read or understand can read along in the translation, with there being frequent stops to discuss the past or upcoming texts. Reading along with the eyes is insufficient for the critical sections (see Chazon Ovadia Pesach II, p. 48), so those participants should either read with their lips or hear that which someone else is reading aloud in a language they understand (see ibid.). When appropriate, participants can be given homework to prepare sections in which they will understand the Hebrew.
Personally, I, like many, have loved the original Haggada text from a young age and believe it is a big part of a Jew’s heritage. Growing up as a frum American Jewish kid, key Haggada passages and phrases were as familiar as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In order for this to exist, a normal observant home that is open to Jews of different levels of Jewish knowledge should find a healthy balance between a classical seder and using vernacular to meet the needs of those who need it. (Unique situations deserve unique consideration).