15 Nisan 5777 / First seder April 10, 2017
Pesach, known as Passover in English, is a major Jewish spring festival, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The ritual observance of this holiday centers around a special home service called the seder (meaning "order") and a festive meal; the prohibition of chametz (leaven); and the eating of matzah (an unleavened bread). On the eve of the fifteenth day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, we read from a book called the hagaddah, meaning "telling," which contains the order of prayers, rituals, readings and songs for the Pesach seder. The Pesach seder is the only ritual meal in the Jewish calendar year for which such an order is prescribed, hence its name.
The seder has a number of scriptural bases. Exodus 12:3-11 describes the meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs which the Israelites ate just prior to the Exodus. In addition, three separate passages in Exodus (12:26-7, 13:8, 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) enunciate the duty of the parents to tell the story of the Exodus to their children. The seder plate contains various symbolic foods referred to in the seder itself.
Bring Pesach Home with You!
Ideas from Shaaray Tefila's Festival Committee:
Passover is the largest and most popular festival in American Jewish life. Most Jews have seders and observe the holiday in some way.
But what the Festival Committee discovered in its exploration around the congregation is that many people, especially teens, find that seders are. . . .well, boring.
So let's back up a minute. You probably have a stack of well-worn Haggadahs in a closet that you've been using every year for at least a decade. You probably use Great Aunt Minnie's recipe for pot roast every year. There may be a crop of kids to search for the afikomen, and if not, the practice may have been forgotten.
So let's take a fresh look at this ingenious festival that combines joy, education, memory, and tradition. The central purpose of the seder is to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. There is more than one way to do that. Yes, you can read it from a traditional Haggadah and get through it with all due speed. Or you can do something different.
First, some practical suggestions. No matter how short or long your seder, people tend to get hungry while they are waiting. There is no need to starve them. Provide a large bowl of charoset; it's not just for making Hillel sandwiches. You can also provide olives, relishes, and fruit during the seder.
Instead of giving money to kids who find the afikomen, give books or anything meaningful to this holiday or to Jewish life.
The Haggadah is the focal point of the seder--but it doesn't necessarily have to be. If you're tired of the same old Haggadah, there are plenty of newer ones that might suit your needs better. Some are shorter but include stimulating questions for discussion. Some are more child-centered. Go to a Judaica store and browse. Surprise your family with something new. Check out Nathan Englander's version, and see below for more suggestions from the Festival Committee.
One young family dispenses with the use of a Haggadah altogether. The children are too young to read, so they simply get up and enact the story, with everyone playing a part. This is great fun, and can sometimes lead to unusual bits of realism. ("But Mommy, I don't like to be a slave!") In another young family, the children enacted the story behind the couch with puppets. Even if you don't have young children, you know this story by now. Ask everyone to share in telling it and to discuss it so that everyone is reminded. Leave in the salient points that are meaningful to you. There is nothing wrong with using humor to get your points across. The seder should be engaging and fun. If it gets tedious, stop and rethink.
And what are those points? What are the most important questions that you think need to be discussed? If you savor a long night of intellectual or scholarly discussion, go right ahead. But it doesn't have to be long. Choose two or three penetrating questions that go to the heart of what you think is important this year. The right questions can lead to lengthy, spirited conversations.
Here are some sample questions to consider:
In the story, God sometimes hardens Pharoah's heart, but sometimes it hardens on its own. What is the significance of that? Did Pharoah need help in being cruel?
What do you think of God as a character in this story? Is God admirable?
Why is Moses never mentioned in the traditional Haggadah?
The Egyptians also suffer. What is the point of that?
Passover occurs during the vernal equinox, when we have equal amounts of light and darkness? What is the significance of that?
The American experience of slavery is in more recent memory, and there are many first-person accounts. Read some short sections from primary sources and talk about them. These are real people talking. How does slavery affect a person or a peoplehood?
Don't forget to add a dose of fun, especially when you have children at the seder. At one seder, a five-year-old girl donned a beard and wig in order to protect the afikomen from being stolen. She took this very seriously and never forgot it. If you have neighbors or friends who are willing to pitch in, ask someone to dress up as Elijah the prophet. Then when everyone is singing "Eliahu", that person can walk in, sip some wine, and walk out.
One more idea that can give your seder a shot of adrenaline is to invite people who aren't Jewish and who aren't familiar with the proceedings. This puts the whole thing in a new light. Chances are, they will be respectful, curious, and fascinated. You can showcase our most involving festival by sharing it with fresh faces.
Before the holiday begins, it is customary to clean out your kitchen and to get rid of all chametz. This is a great way to set the mood and to psychologically prepare your family that something special and different is about to start. The act of putting away the bread, the flour, the corn flakes, and the pancake mix has a subtle but notable effect. If you have young children, leave little bits of bread all over the house and let the children find them. It is traditional to sweep them off with a feather and to burn them afterwards. Kids love doing this, of course. They are surprisingly old when they finally realize that you were the one putting the bread bits around in the first place.
One last suggestion, and this one is powerful. Many people use separate dishes for Passover, but many don't. Try it. You can get inexpensive dishes at Bed, Bath & Beyond (they thoughtfully provide glass dishes that can be used for both milk and meat, if that is your preference). Nothing reminds you during the eight days of Passover more strongly than those dishes that this is a special time. Every time you open the cabinet to get a glass or a bowl for a late-night snack, you will be mildly startled at seeing different dishes, and you will remember that you were once a slave in Egypt and that now you are free.
There are as many way to celebrate Passover as there are Jews, but the important thing is to make this festival come alive in a way that works for you.
Haggadah suggestions from the Festival Committee:
A Passover Haggadah: as commented upon by Elie Wiesel
30 Minute Seder: The Haggadah that blends Brevity with Traditon
Sammy Spider's First Haggadah
Dayenu: A Passover Haggadah for Families and Children
The above are available from Amazon.