Why Is This Haggadah Different?

Few Jewish communities of the past have attracted more attention than the fabled, now vanished, community of Chinese Jews that existed for more than six hundred years in the city of Kaifeng. Today little remains of that community—a few families who claim to be descendants of its last Jews; several accounts about the community written by Christian missionaries in the 17th through 19th centuries; a few stone stellae or columns with inscriptions that the Kaifeng Jews themselves wrote about their history and beliefs; a number of Torah scrolls whose Hebrew letters remarkably resemble Chinese characters as written with an ink brush, and a scattering of other books. Of these, their Passover Haggadah is probably the most fascinating—if only because the idea of a family of medieval or early-modern Chinese Jews sitting through a Seder is such an irresistibly intriguing image to contemplate.

The Haggadah of the Kaifeng Jews of China is the first scholarly monograph devoted to this haggadah. The study’s authors—Fook-Kong Wong, a Harvard-educated scholar of the Old Testament in Hong Kong, and Dalia Yasharpour, a preceptor in Persian language and literature at Harvard—have mined the text for all the information it contains about the Jews of Kaifeng in the 17th and 18th centuries, the time that the two surviving manuscripts of the haggadah were written. Most of the book is Stern1Spring13devoted to a detailed study of the haggadah’s Hebrew text and its accompanying Judeo-Persian instructions, and what the language of the text can tell us about the Hebraic literacy of the Kaifeng Jews. These chapters will appeal mainly to scholars. But the larger story the haggadah tells about the Chinese Jews is of far wider interest, and the sight alone of the haggadah—one of the manuscripts is reproduced in full in the book, along with a transcription of the Hebrew text and an annotated English translation—is worth more than a fleeting look.

 The Kaifeng Jewish community probably first took shape sometime in the early Middle Ages—around the year 1000—when Jewish traders on the Silk Route, most likely from Persia or Yemen, reached China. Of the several cities in which these traders settled, Kaifeng, then the capital city of the Song Dynasty, was the most prominent, and for all practical purposes, the only Jewish community in medieval China about which we know anything. From all appearances, the Jewish community flourished from the outset. By 1163, the Kaifeng Jews had built an imposing synagogue, which, over the subsequent five centuries, was repaired and rebuilt several times, often after being destroyed by the floods that regularly washed over the city.

So far as we know, Jews in China were never persecuted. Quite the opposite: The Chinese seem to have embraced the Jews, who, in turn, underwent rapid acculturation, or Sinification, the same process through which most other ethnic minorities amid the vast populace of China inevitably passed as well. The process can be seen most clearly in the material remains of Kaifeng Jewry—in their Chinese-looking Hebrew script or in the architecture of their (now destroyed) synagogue. Like the neighboring mosque, the synagogue looked almost exactly like a Confucian shrine, with dedicatory tablets at the front alongside incense-bowls for ancestor worship—albeit with a few distinctively Jewish features like an ark for Torah scrolls, stone inscriptions with prayers like the Shema, and a monumental “Chair of Moses” upon which they sat while they read the Torah.

While the Chinese recognized the religious differences between themselves and the Jews—referred to as “the sinew-plucking” sect (after the injunction in Gen. 32:32 not to eat the tendon) or “the scripture-teaching/respecting” sect—the Chinese Jews faced no obstacles in rising quickly in the civil bureaucracy and attaining high and powerful positions in the imperial court and other sectors of government. Chinese Jews appear to have felt comfortable enough in their host-culture to have found no trouble intermarrying with native Chinese even as they continued to observe the Sabbath and holidays, to keep kosher in some fashion, and to hold traditional worship services in the synagogue. Nonetheless, acculturation inevitably exacted a price. Whether it was due primarily to their astounding success in assimilating to Chinese culture, or to their near-complete isolation from Jews everywhere else in the world, or to their gradual loss over the centuries of Hebraic and Judaic literacy, by the 17th century the Jewish community had begun to decline precipitously as more and more members were simply swallowed up into the enormous body of the Chinese population.

The existence of Chinese Jews first came to the notice of the West in 1605, after the arrival in China of Jesuit missionaries led by the Italian Matteo Ricci. When the Kaifeng Jews heard that a Western “priest” who believed in one God and was knowledgeable in the Bible had arrived in Beijing, they simply assumed he must be Jewish. Ricci did not disabuse them of their misperception, but he and his missionary successors also took real interest in the Jewish community (partly in the hope of converting them, and partly because they believed the Kaifeng Jews’ claim that their community had originated in the first millennium and therefore could provide them with valuable evidence of an “original” and “true” Judaism that pre-dated the Rabbis). To be sure, the missionaries were more interested in the Kaifeng Jews’ scrolls and books than in their survival, and they did nothing to help the Jews or stop the process of the community’s decline (although two of the Jesuits, Jean Domenge and Jean-Paul Gozani, did leave us extensive letters that serve as the main sources for our knowledge of the community). When the last leader and teacher of the Kaifeng Jews died in the early 19th century, Kaifeng Jewry disappeared. Their synagogue had already been irreparably damaged by another flood, and their Torah scrolls and other books were dispersed among various owners and institutions, most of them Christian.

The two surviving haggadah manuscripts that are the subjects of Wong and Yasharpour’s study are owned today by the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College (which purchased them in 1851 from the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews). Both are modest books, one written in Jewish-Persian hand, the other in Chinese Hebrew square script (like that of the Torah scrolls). While the two haggadahs were written by different scribes about a century apart, both preserve essentially the same text. That text primarily follows the Persian Jewish rite but from one of that rite’s early stages, before the haggadah had undergone many of the expansions with which contemporary users of the text are familiar. As a result, the Kaifeng Haggadah doesn’t have Stern2Spring13Dayyenu, Shefokh Chamatekha (“Pour Out Your Wrath,” which probably did not appear in the Ashkenazic haggadah until after the Crusader massacres), or folk songs such as Chad Gadya (which did not become a regular feature until the printed Italian editions of the 17th century). However, the most startling omission is the absence of the blessing over the matzah (that follows the standard ha-motzi). The editors suggest that the blessing may have been so well-known that the copyists did not feel the need to record it, but it seems to me even more likely that the copyist either forgot to write the blessing or that it was already missing from their tradition by the 17th century. Bread, leavened or unleavened, must have been a very unusual sight in China.

In general, however, the Passover haggadah has one of the most universally stable texts in all the Jewish liturgy—the core text is basically similar if not identical nearly everywhere—and for all its Judeo-Persian peculiarities and missing passages, readers of the Kaifeng Haggadah will have no more difficulty in navigating this haggadah than they would finding their way through the Maxwell House version. The Kaifeng Haggadah’s most revealing features, as its editors demonstrate, are its Stern3Spring13many errors. Some pages are misplaced and out of sequence; others are missing. There are many misspellings and mistaken vocalizations, a good number of them resulting from phonetic transcription, that is, where the copyist wrote words on the basis of what he knew from hearing the word pronounced rather than from having seen it in a written form. This feature was complicated, in turn, by the fact (attested by the inscriptions as well as by the Jesuits’ accounts) that the Kaifeng Jews spoke Hebrew with heavy Chinese accents (so that a word like le-olam became re-oram, for example). According to one account, their Hebrew sounded more like Chinese than the Hebrew the Jesuits knew from their European educations. All these various features—the errors, the omissions, the peculiarities in order and in transcription, along with what they were able to cull from the marginal notes in the haggadahs, some of them in Chinese—indicate to Wong and Yasharpour that, by the 17th and 18th centuries, the time that the two manuscripts were written, the Kaifeng Jews may have still understood enough of the haggadah’s Hebrew to be able to use the books at their Seders, but whatever literacy they possessed was already seriously impaired and presaged the complete disappearance that the community would experience not long after.

There is more than a little irony in the fact that this indication should come in the form of a haggadah. Of all the classical texts of Judaism, the Passover haggadah is the Jewish book of redemption par excellence. It remembers the story of the Exodus from Egypt in order to re-experience the salvatory power of redemption in the present, and so as to anticipate the final redemption of the messianic age. Exactly how the haggadah imagines redemption has varied from one community to another, and from one period to the next, but invariably, every Jewish community has imagined redemption in the haggadah—sometimes with the addition of new passages or through the insertion of illustrations and pictures—in the image of its own diasporic experience.

The Kaifeng Haggadah does not have a distinctive vision of redemption. What is distinctive about this book—visible in the Sinified form of its script, in the error-filled and otherwise defective pages of the text—is not redemption but its opposite. What this book’s pages capture is the specific historical moment in which this community was irretrievably on the way to its demise. The Kaifeng Haggadah is not a haggadah that looks forward to redemption. It is a haggadah of oblivion.

The Haggadah of the Kaifeng Jews of China is one of a spate of books about the Jews of China, some of them scholarly, others more popular, which have appeared in the last several decades, mainly in the English-speaking world, especially in America. This Western publishing phenomenon has been remarked upon less than the widespread interest in contemporary China regarding Jews and Judaism. Amid the massive globalization-for all practical purposes, this means Westernization—that China is currently experiencing, the Jewish people—largely thanks to Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Alan Greenspan (whose name I have heard repeatedly invoked in my several trips to China as a paragon of the American Jew)—have come to be viewed in China as central to Western culture to a degree that no Jew in America would ever imagine him or herself to be. And while the reports of a Talmud or books about Jews on a shelf in every bookstore are exaggerated, I can testify from my own experience—having taught Talmud in the Jewish studies program at Nanjing University to some fifteen undergraduate and graduate Chinese students (probably the most talented group of students I have ever taught)—that the appetite in contemporary China for real knowledge about Judaism and its culture and history is virtually insatiable.

The contemporary fascination in America with the Chinese Jews is different. Obviously, it has something to do with the unique exoticism of the community. But there may be more to it. The extent of the success of Kaifeng Jews in assimilating to Chinese society without resistance and achieving cultural acceptance along with great wealth, power, and status is almost unparalleled in Jewish history. The great exception is, of course, American Jewry, which has also prospered in, and been embraced by, its host culture with a success that has been said by some to be unparalleled. And no other diaspora communities in Jewish history have experienced equivalent rates of assimilation or suffered from the same degree of Hebraic and Judaic illiteracy. American Jewry is in no danger of vanishing as precipitously as did the Kaifeng Jews, but as we sit down to our Seders and raise our glasses to drink the four cups, it may be worth remembering the haggadah of the Kaifeng Jews along with the Exodus from Egypt.


  1. Stephen Feingold

    Fascinating topic and it does indeed present a fascinating question about the survival of the Jewish people. Outside of orthodoxy in the US most Jews are illiterate and we don't even seem to value Jewish literacy when it comes to educating our children. The biggest challenge to non-Orthodox Judaism is creating an educational system that does not depend on followers who are lapsed orthodox Jews or secular Israelis.

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