The Days of Wine and Charoses

by Mark L. Levinson

As I wrote a couple of years ago on Techshoret, the important principles of technical writing are already present in the Hagaddah, the venerable promptbook for the Passover meal.  We moderns have invented nothing.

A standard Hagaddah begins with infrastructure requirements.  It specifies a physical environment free of breadcrumbs and similar contaminants.  Also in advance, it lists the major necessary materials for the project: bitter herbs, egg, etc.

It has a table of contents that divides the book into fifteen parts:  Blessing, Handwashing, Greens, Matzo-splitting, etc.  That’s quite a few divisions, so there are also milestones on a larger scale — cups of wine — to congratulate and reward the readers as they progress.

To provide direction, the Hagaddah explicitly presents the question — in fact, four questions — that it proposes to answer.  And it uses four quick user profiles — the four sons — to explain the target readership in whose terms those questions will be answered.  But in between, it anticipates the challenge of the experienced reader who is inclined to feel entitled to an exemption from the chore of going through all the material again.  Rather than answering the challenge confrontationally by implying that the reader may be too self-confident about that, instead the Hagaddah embraces the reader as an equal and says “Even granting that we are all wise, all knowledgeable, all senior people, and we all know the discipline,” still we go by the book as a matter of duty.

Having said that, the Hagaddah proceeds in painstaking detail, not letting a word or sentence pass unaccompanied by any explication that might be required.  When we reach the ten plagues, which may be a bit hard to recall in sequence, the Hagaddah suggests remembering them as three short acronyms.  Once again it is tactful — almost Japanese in its tact.  Rather than saying, “Here’s something to help you remember,” it merely says “Rabbi Yehuda used to abbreviate them this way.”

Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosey, Rabbi Eliezer, and the others are of course referenced by name, and not only is it good authorial practice and good Jewish etiquette to acknowledge sources; using people’s names in narration is also good technical writing because it makes general ideas concrete and immediate.  Instead of “You can sandwich the bitter herbs between pieces of matzo,” the Hagaddah says, “When the Temple was still standing, Hillel would sandwich the bitter herbs between pieces of matzo.”  A procedure is easier to remember when it’s a story with people and context.

Parallel structure is another aid to the reader, and it abounds in the Hagaddah.  “If He had fed us with manna and not given us the Sabbath, it would have sufficed for us.  If He had given us the Sabbath and not brought us to Mount Sinai, it would have sufficed for us,” and so on.  Customarily this particular list involves a bit of participation by everyone, illustrating another principle for writers:  if there’s an opportunity to suggest a relevant little activity, that’s much better than page after page of uninterrupted reading.

And lastly, like any well-constructed manual, the Hagaddah relegates optional material to appendixes.  May you enjoy the days of wine and charoses, as my mother called the holiday, and if I’ve added something to your appreciation of our classic Passover text, e-mail me and let me know how it ends.  My family never gets all the way through it.

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.