The Wicked Son Runs the Seder: Yiddish Parodies of the Haggadah

They provided annual humorous explorations of religion, politics, current events and much more...

"The Four Sons (of the Haggadah of Unemployment)", appearing in the April 10, 1914 edition of the satirical newspaper Der Kibetzer⁩. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Why is this article different from all other articles? It’s not because you’re reading it in a reclining position or because there’s something bitter about it. This article is different because it considers an odd fact of Jewish literature: that there are more parodies of the Passover Haggadah than parodies of other traditional texts.

Parody, the imitation of a literary style or structure for comic effect, is a relatively common product of Jewish and, especially Yiddish, humorists. Everything from the Tanakh to the Talmud through the greatest hits of Jewish liturgy have been parodied by wags the world over.

The question may be asked, who would do such a thing, and why? Who would dare to take sacred texts and imitate them just for a laugh? Apparently, it turns out, quite a few people: there are thousands of liturgical parodies. And while there’s no question that Jews hold their holy texts dear, using these traditional materials hasn’t seemed to rile anyone too terribly.

Israel Davidson, a scholar better known for his four-volume encyclopedia of medieval Jewish poetry, Otsar ha-shirah veha-piyut, noted in a lesser known book of his on Jewish parody that there were, in fact, some rabbis who didn’t appreciate liturgical parody and who complained about it.

Rabbis complain about a lot of things and, like many of their grievances, this one also fell on deaf ears, as Jews have produced liturgical parodies of all kinds and in especially large numbers as the number of Yiddish periodicals grew during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tempering the rabbinical gripes, perhaps, was that it was the nature of these parodies not to attack the source material, but to instead use the structure of the liturgy to launch satiric attacks on all kinds of other issues.

The Passover humor magazine Pesekhdiger rosl (Passover Soup Broth). Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

As the Yiddish press grew, daily newspapers developed humor sections and weekly magazines dedicated to humor and satire began to appear.

Each holiday season, Yiddish humorists would publish jokes, stories, and cartoons related to a variety of aspects of each one. Included among these were numerous parodies of some portion of the respective holiday’s liturgy.  Additionally, publishers of Yiddish satire material developed a tradition of printing discrete humor magazines dedicated to Jewish holidays, typically with cover cartoons that related to some aspect of the holiday.

The Passover humor magazine Fir kashes (Four Questions), 1911. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Special Passover humor magazines, for example, often had titles that related to the festival. Some examples: Moror (Bitter Herbs) – Warsaw, 1921; Di elefte make (The Eleventh Plague) – Riga, 1922;  Di malke (The Queen) – Warsaw, 1928;  Di freylekhe hagode (The Happy Haggadah) – Lublin, 1924; Der roshe (The Wicked One) – Warsaw, 1927; Der afikoymen (The Afikoman) – Warsaw, 1929;  Zalts vaser (Salt Water) – Warsaw, 1930;  Der peysakhdiger kantshik (The Passover Whip) – Bialystok, 1931; Bialistoker khareyses (Bialystok kharoset) – Bialystok, 1932.

The Passover humor magazine Zalts-vaser (Salt Water), 1930. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Satirical khad gadye, 1914
The Passover humor magazine Khad gadye, 1914. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Passover garnered more of these humor publications than any other holiday and almost all of them contained parodies of at least portions of the Haggadah. Why would Passover have more parodies on its liturgy than, let’s say, Purim, which is renowned for fun, inebriation, and mockery?

The reasons are fairly simple.

The central text of the Passover Seder, the Haggadah, is familiar to so many because it is read together with the family as part of a festive meal in the home. Moreover, everyone in the family old enough to read participates. Haggadot were also sometimes illustrated, making them both a rarity and more visually enjoyable than the average Jewish text. Most important, at least from the perspective of the humorist, the Haggadah contains distinct structures that are easy to imitate: the four questions, the four sons, and the ten plagues, for example. For parodists and cartoonists, these were the most common aspects to imitate.

Parodies of the Haggadah use the text’s literary structures to create humorous commentary on a wide variety of issues.

Most Haggadah parodies are fragmentary and do not attempt to use the entire text – although some do. Given the limited space available, in newspaper humor pages or in small magazines the focus was on aspects like the Kadesh, urkhats, karpas mnemonic, the four questions, and the four sons, among others.

Each year, Yiddish humorists would refill these structures with whatever issues were then important to readers. The subject matter was broad and one can find parodies dealing with virtually every political and social topic: from socialism to Zionism, Reform to Orthodox Judaism, to taxes, to high rent, to dating, to interest rates, to summer vacation, to beauty pageants, to moral issues, to the politics of the day, and more.

One of the earlier modern parodies can be found in an April 1887 edition of the Arbeter fraynd, a socialist newspaper published in London.

Its four questions read as one would expect a poor laborer to say them:

Ma nishtane, why are we different from Shmuel the manufacturer, from Meyer the banker, from Zorach the money lender, from Reb Todros the rabbi? They don’t do anything and they have food and drink during the day and also at night at least a hundred times over, we toil with all our strength the whole day and at night we have nothing to eat at all.

This parody was subsequently expanded into the Passover Haggadah with a Socialist Approach and republished multiple times in booklet form.

Passover Haggadah with a Socialist Approach, 1919. From the National Library of Israel collection

Der groyser kundes, a popular humor magazine based in New York, published this parody of the four sons in 1916:

The Wise Son: A shtetl horse thief who escaped from prison, stowed-away on a ship to America where he became a horse poisoner and a gangster until he managed to become a saloon keeper and a politician. Today he’s the president of his synagogue, a fighter for Judaism, in short, a mentsch …

The Wicked Son: A man who fills his wallet with relief receipts for victims of the war that he picked up off the ground and shows them to volunteers asking for money to prove what a big philanthropist he is. ‘See how much I already gave?’

The Simple Son: A kid who sits with a girl until 2 a.m. waiting for permission to kiss her.

The Son Who Doesn’t Even Know How to Ask a Question: A traveling salesman who only comes home on Passover to find his wife about to give birth and doesn’t think to ask how a woman can be pregnant for 12 months.

The popularity of Haggadah parody was such that nearly every Jewish community put something out that either supported their views or mocked their enemies. One example is the Peyskeh-blat, which appeared in Lublin in 1925.

An extended parody of the four questions and the sons created in order to promote Orthodox social mores, the scene is inverted and the sons become daughters.

Entitled, “The Four Questions Asked Here by a Young Lady from the Beys Yankev School,” the text begins, “Mameshe, ikh vil dir fregn fir kashes.” (Mama, I want to ask you four questions).

Why, the daughter wonders, does her aunt show her cleavage, put on makeup, wear stockings, and have long fingernails? The piece deals with a number of moral issues and has each daughter, the wise, the wicked, the simple, and she who doesn’t know how to ask a question, each give their reasons for going, or not going to the mikvah.

Unlike most interwar parodies, the purpose of this one is to promote traditional Jewish values, but it does so in a humorous way, which is something not typical.

It ends with a short parody of Dayenu:

If women would wear wigs and men would wear a beard and peyes, dayenu.
If women and men would dance together but not at Jewish weddings, dayenu.
If Jewish daughters went naked but cut their nails, dayenu.
If our aristocrats would put up a mezuza and not lay tfilin,* dayenu.
* We gave out special pamphlets explaining the requirements regarding tfilin and mezuzes.

Peysekh-blat, Lublin, 1925. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Haggadah parodies provide an unusual amalgam of traditional text and contemporary criticism, in addition to a plethora of referential material, much of which has gone under the historical radar. The parodies address an array of issues from a number of differing perspectives and allow for a unique and often humorous exploration of cultural, social, and political issues.

The satirists who created these parodies understood the power of combining the traditional Passover text with contemporary events to create satiric commentary. It was the enduring quality of the Haggadah that challenged them to do so.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

How Does Dara Horn Get Ready for Seder?

The celebrated author and her family prepare a vast interactive performance...

Dara Horn's son aka Moses parts an asphalt-and-chalk Red Sea

We start preparing for the Seder the day after Purim.

When I say “preparing,” I don’t just mean cleaning the house, planning the food and moving furniture to accommodate all the guests, which of course we do. I mean that every year, my husband and children and I prepare a vast interactive performance that allows our many guests — most of whom are children — to feel as though they personally left Egypt.

We have a nine-foot pyramid that we erect in our living room. We covered a room in our house with black paper, used more paper to subdivide it into a series of rooms, painted it with neon paints to look like an Egyptian palace, lit it up with blacklights, and then had our costumed children lead our guests through the various makkot [plagues], ending with 300 meters of blue yarn suspended from the ceiling which one of our children, dressed as Moshe, “parted” to lead everyone through Yam Suf [the Red Sea].

This performance changes every year, and it also applies to every page of the traditional Haggadah, since we re-enact every page in one way or another, whether it means children who enter the house at Ha Lahma Anya as “escaped slaves” and tell the group about their adventures, or “idol salesmen” who come in to sell “idols” to the guests (made of clay or other toy material) before another child, acting as Avraham, smashes them all.

Every year our children and their many cousins also make a movie that tells the story of Sefer Shemot [Book of Exodus] with their own updates; last year, for instance, the B’nei Yisrael [Israelites] were advised to mark their doors, stay inside, and keep at least six feet away from the Angel of Death.

I now have a dozen years’ worth of these movies, and have watched my children grow up inside this story.

Our approach is intentionally lighthearted, but it works: The children own this story, and every person in my household feels, viscerally, as if they too have left Egypt.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Celebrating Passover… as the Ambassador to Egypt

"...we felt it would have been strange to hold a Seder in Egypt"

Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer in Cairo with Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, 2000 (Courtesy)

We lived in Egypt twice, for a total of seven years, but never spent the Passover holiday there – for reasons we thought were obvious. Somewhat counterintuitively, as we departed the country each year during our first tour of duty, 1979-82, tens of thousands of Israelis made the reverse exodus to celebrate Passover among the Egyptian antiquities.

Israeli tourists arriving in Sinai, 1970s (Photo: IPPA Staff). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Our experiences with other Jewish holidays and Shabbatot in Egypt were quite positive. Perhaps because we were the only kosher household between Eilat and Nairobi, we hosted a stream of visitors, many of whom we had not known previously. Our devout Muslim chef loved Shabbat, and he would often join us toward the end of the Friday night meal to listen to the songs we sang. He and the staff also constructed one of the most beautiful sukkot we had ever seen, made entirely of palm fronds.

However, we felt it would have been strange to hold a Seder in Egypt, with its repeated references to the travails of the Israelites in slavery. Indeed, a senior Egyptian diplomat who had served in Washington told us often that he would gladly participate in any Jewish holiday observance except the Passover Seder.

The best part about our own annual exodus was the opportunity to spend Passover with family. Our “traditions” included rubber frogs that appeared during the recitation of the ten plagues, a play on a range of words and phrases in the Haggadah, and more recently, a variety of charoset ranging from the traditional to Mizrachi to Hawaiian.

Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer served as the United States Ambassador to Israel and as the United States Ambassador to Egypt. He was a long-time member of the board of NLI USA, which builds support for the National Library of Israel by increasing public awareness of its many cultural, intellectual, and educational resources.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Priests, Rabbis and Sweets: A Bold Approach to Interfaith Relations

The 19th century words and efforts of Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan

Patriarch of Jerusalem Giuseppe Valerga appears in front of the letter sent by Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan to Chief Rabbi of Ottoman Palestine Chaim Avraham Gagin

Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan (1808-1862) was a fascinating and multi-faceted figure: a Talmudic sage, great orator, poet, and speaker of many languages. He believed in interfaith dialogue out of mutual respect, and spoke highly in praise of Christian leaders in Italy.

In his book Nahala LeIsrael (Vienna, 1851) he writes some rather extraordinary things, including the following (pp 46-47):

“Will the esteemed Jewish Roman congregation forget that from the day of the exile from their land, they were not forced to move from place to place, but rather were allowed to settle down in Rome? And they did not hear from any Pope (even during harrowing times) any decree to expel them from Rome.  […] our Christian brethren! Our Messianic lovers! Aren’t we brothers? Are we not two plants that feed off the same source, which is G-d’s Torah!  The Christian Apostles gave you the interpretation of the Messianic Christian religion, and our rabbinical ancestors gave us the interpretation of the Jewish religion.”

Original manuscript of “Nahala LeIsrael“. From the British Library; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

He goes on to praise Christian scholars:

“And truthfully I say, as I said in the past, ‘that the Christian scholars are genuine and science loving people, they judge fairly, they respect religion and religious people, always researching for the truth, and when they find it, I swear, they courageously make it publicly known. They stand like lions to defend the truth.'”

The words of Rabbi Hazan are very bold, and even today would be considered heresy in the eyes of many adherents to Jewish Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, wrote similar words in his 2002 book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, arguing that the time has come for religions to truly recognize that there is truth in each of them.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking at the 2016 gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel (Photo: Hanan Cohen)

In the book, Rabbi Sacks claimed that “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims”. One God must be believed in, but not in the existence of one religion. All three monotheistic religions, he claimed, express the divine truth in the world. The publication of the book caused significant controversy, forcing Rabbi Sacks to soften his words, and publish a revised second edition.

In a letter found in the Meir Benayahu Collection, I discovered an interesting practical implementation of Rabbi Hazan’s religious approach. The letter was written on December 16, 1847 in Rome, while Rabbi Hazan was serving as a rabbi there. It was sent to Chief Rabbi of Ottoman Palestine Chaim Avraham Gagin (1787-1848), more than simply a colleague to Rabbi Hazan, who had once referred to himself as “the humblest student of this great, holy, genius and famous Rabbi of all the Jews, Rabbi Gagin.”

In his letter, Rabbi Hazan tells Rabbi Gagin about his meeting with Pope Pius IX, who “received us with much love”, and about Senior Valerga (Giuseppe Valerga, 1813-1872), the new Latin Patriarch about to arrive in Jerusalem. He praises the Patriarch, and expresses his desire that the Chief Rabbi (also known as “The Rishon Letzion”) and the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem be “as if they are one”.

רחוב הגיא, ירושלים - מבט אל עבר "בית האיש העשיר". צילום: פליקס בונפיס, בערך 1860
HaGai Street in the Old City of Jerusalem, ca. 1860 (Photo: Félix Bonfils). From the Jacob Wahrman Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

According to Rabbi Hazan, this friendship was only natural and desirable, because the religious leaders were “two great people, each one does his work in accordance with his forefathers’ tradition.” This sentence – comparing the work of the rabbi and his tradition to that of the priest – is unusual, its content surprisingly daring, especially given the historical and religious contexts.

Rabbi Hazan goes on to ask Rabbi Gagin to visit the Patriarch upon his arrival in Jerusalem, even giving a little tip on how to win his heart. After advising The Rishon Letzion on how to behave, including wearing nice clothes, coming with a respectable entourage, and giving advance notice, he suggests sending the Patriarch local sweets, which he will surely enjoy. Rabbi Hazan explains that Italians are known to love sweets, yet in Italy no one knows how to prepare them properly. The quality of Jerusalem’s Sephardic sweets, however, does not fall short of those made in Portugal!

Here is a partial translation of the letter:

“Today, I write to you about one of the most prominent of our Christian brethren. He is a priest who was sent by the Pope to be the Roman Patriarch of Jerusalem. This knowledgeable priest is well-respected and of great importance. He is well-versed in every field and knows all Eastern languages including Hebrew and Arabic. I spoke to him about you before his journey and I expressed my desire that you shall be friends and be together ‘as one’.

Both of you are great people, each in his service and tradition of his forefathers. And therefore, when you receive my letter, rise as a lion adorned in majestic cloth, you and your close ones, all of you dressed in formal attire, proceed to visit him.

Inform him of your visit a day or two before it happens. And if you send him some sweets occasionally I am sure he will derive satisfaction from it. The Italians are known to love sweets, and in Italy no one knows how to prepare them properly. Our varieties of Sephardic sweets are just as good, if not better, than those I saw in Portugal!”

Letter from Rabbi Hazan to Rabbi Gagin written on December 16, 1847. From the Meir Benayahu Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.