Passover begins at sunset on Friday, so it is time to make the final preparations and think about this year’s seder. To help us make this year’s Passover different than all others, our good friend Rabbi Josh Feigelson has cooked up some unique ways to create a memorable Passover Seder. Friday, so it is time
Read on and be sure to send us your stories, tips and photos from your Passover seders.
Wishing you a Passover filled with meaning and joy!
In many ways, Passover is the foundational holiday for the rest of Jewish life. The holiday commemorates the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the story told in the first half of the Biblical book of Exodus. Traditional observance of the holiday includes several items, all of which are first mentioned in Exodus chapter 12:
- Searching for and ridding one’s home of hametz, any product containing fermented grain. Examples include bread, pasta, cereals, grain alcohol, and products that contain grains mixed into them.
- Eating only hametz-free products for the seven days of the festival.
- Conducting a Passover seder on the night of 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the first night of the holiday (outside of Israel, the custom is to hold an additional seder on the second night). The commandments of the seder include: eating matzah and maror (bitter herbs); and recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
The Torah is not entirely clear on why it commands Jews not to eat leavened products during Passover. One account (Exodus 12:39) says that the Israelites left so quickly that they didn’t have time to wait for the bread to rise. Jewish thinkers over the centuries have offered additional reasons and symbolism, most notably that the matzah represents a flattening of our egos and that the search for hametz represents a kind of purification. Notably, the restriction onhametz is taken very seriously in Jewish law: whereas normal kosher rules state that the presence of non-kosher items in a kosher product can be nullified if the non-kosher material is less than 1/60 of the total, when it comes to hametz, even a trace amount makes a product not kosher for Passover.
In ancient times, the centerpiece of the seder was eating the Passover sacrifice, a lamb that had been roasted over fire. Small communities—groups of families and neighbors—would gather together to eat the sacrifice and tell the story of the Exodus. Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the sacrifice has not been offered, and the focus of the seder has shifted to the other symbolic foods and the storytelling aspects of the seder. Yet the seder has endured. After more than two millennia, Jews all over the world still do Passover seders. In fact, the seder ranks highest among Jewish rituals observed by young adult Jews (a 2006 study found 68 percent of young Jewish adults in New York City attended a seder).
While it has evolved and changed over the years, the seder is still more or less the same ritual it was in ancient times. The Haggadah, the traditional text of the seder, has grown and adapted over time, but, remarkably, its core is essentially what it was two millennia ago. The Haggadah is organized in two ways: Four cups of wine are used to demarcate four different moments in the seder; and the Seder mentions 15 steps that intersect with these four cups of wine. (See the Appendix for a chart that outlines the 15 steps and the 4 cups.)
The longest section of the seder, and the one that receives the most attention in the Haggadah, is the Maggid. Maggid literally means “one who tells,” and it is during this section that participants at the seder ask questions, tell stories, and aim to fulfill the goal of seeing themselves as part of the Exodus story.
The Four Questions
The Maggid opens with the Four Questions, which are traditionally recited by a young child. (Many seders today invite people to recite or sing the Four Questions together.) The Four Questions are not questions per se; they’re observations that a child might make of the ways in which “this night is different from all others:” We eat matzah, not bread; we eat bitter herbs; we dip our food; we recline, like free people do (imagine wealthy ancient Greeks reclining on couches during a symposium).
These ‘questions’ give way to the rest of the Maggid. Notably, the Maggid does not consist of simply reading passages from the Biblical account. Rather, in a circuitous way, it asks questions, tells stories, and offers lessons on reflecting on the experience of being liberated from Egypt, and on the tradition of the seder itself.
The Ten Plagues
Towards the conclusion of Maggid, the Haggadah recounts the Ten Plagues that God brought on the Egyptians in freeing the Israelites (see Exodus ch. 7 – ch. 12). In mentioning the plagues, the seder features an admirable tradition of recognizing the humanity of all those who suffered and died in the process of liberation, including the Egyptian oppressors and their children. To symbolize this, tradition mandates that participants dip their pinkie finger (some use the end of a spoon) in their cup of wine and remove a drop while mentioning each of the plagues.
The Seder Plate
A traditional seder involves se veral symbolic foods. Matzah is the most prominent. It is referred to as lecehm oni in Hebrew—meaning ‘bread (lechem) of our affliction (oni).’ But, Hebrew being the fascinating language that it is, oni is also related to the word for “answer,” and thus matzah is also understood to be the ‘bread of our answer’ to the Four Questions.
In addition to matzah, the seder features a number of other symbolic foods, which are traditionally arrayed on a decorative ‘seder plate.’ These include:
- Maror: A bitter herb, which symbolizes the bitterness of the oppression of the ancient Israelites by the Egyptians. The Talmud records that romaine lettuce was used in ancient times for maror, since its root is bitter and its leaf is sweet. (Thanks to plant engineering, today’s romaine is not very bitter at the root.) Many people have the custom to use horseradish.
- Haroset: A traditional sweet mixture of fruits and nuts, symbolizing the mortar used by the ancient Israelites to build Pharaoh’s cities. A wide range of recipes exist, and you can find many online.
- Z’roa (Shank Bone): As mentioned above, the centerpiece of the ancient observance of the seder was the Pesach sacrifice. Though we don’t roast a whole lamb today, a traditional seder plate includes a roasted bone as a remembrance. (In more recent times vegetarians have used a beet in its place.)
- Karpas (Vegetable appetizer): The third step of the traditional seder is to dip a vegetable in salt water (which symbolizes the tears of the slaves). This vegetable can be a green vegetable, which helps to symbolize the springtime, when Passover always occurs, and many have the custom to use parsley. Eastern European Jews had the custom of using boiled potatoes. (There isn’t much green growing in early April in northern Poland.)
- Beitzah (Egg): The final item on the seder plate is an egg, which symbolizes the additional sacrifice (calledHagigah) that was brought along with the Pesach sacrifice in ancient times. Many have also seen the egg as a symbol of spring. Some have the custom of eating hard-boiled eggs as part of the seder, though this is not a custom recorded in the Haggadah.
Conclusion: The Uniqueness of the Seder
The seder is part ritual and part educational event. It is not a religious service per se, but is more like a Greek symposium (and in fact its structure around four cups of wine reflects the ancient Rabbis’ admiration for the symposium model). It gathers people around a great and enduring story, around a timeless question that continues to matter to all of us: Are we free?
The seder is designed to be an inherently memorable event. The medieval sage Maimonides says that people should change things around—eat different foods, even rearrange the furniture!—so that children will notice and ask, Why is this night different? The seder is supposed to stand out.
It is also supposed to engage us in an active way. A good seder should be more than just reciting a few passages of text and eating dinner. It should use conversation, discussion, song, play, and whatever else you can think of to fulfill the charge of the second century Rabban Gamaliel, who said, “In every generation, each individual is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he personally left Egypt.” Thus you should think of the Haggadah, the traditional text of the seder, as a guide, but not as a text etched in stone. Countless Haggadot have been printed over the ages, with every author adding a different way of understanding Passover and making it their own. You don’t need to write a haggadah, but you should make the seder your own!
One of the most important elements of a successful seder is participation. A second element is preparation. Find a way for a lot of people to contribute. Ask folks to bring an item of food. Ask them to reflect on a question or do some homework before the event—nothing strenuous, but enough to be meaningful.
Here are a bunch of ideas:
Four Big Questions of the Seder
Big Questions are those that matter to everyone and that everyone can answer. Ask Big Questions, a national initiative of Hillel, has created a guide to asking Four Big Questions at the seder. These are: When have you not been free? When have you been set free? What are you thankful for? And, For whom are we responsible? Find out more information and download the guide to these questions at www.askbigquestions.org.
New Midrash: Wordle, Google Image Search, Texts
Midrash is a uniquely Jewish kind of reading and thinking about text. While it takes many different forms, the essence of midrash is to reflect on a text, play with it, draw connetions between it and other texts, and through all of this to open up what the text has to say.
Deuteronomy 26:5-8 is a brief history of the Exodus (in just 4 verses!), and it’s a central part of the traditional Haggadah. The ancient rabbis included a midrash on this text in the traditional Haggadah. You and your guests can make your own.
- Look up the text online and put it into www.wordle.net to create a variety of visual art forms.
- Ask guests to take a word or phrase (“outstretched arm,” “hard labor”, etc.) and do a Google image search. Have them print out pictures or photos that speak to them, and bring them to the seder. You can create a “midrash art museum” where each person shares what they found meaningful or insightful in the image.
- Ask your guests to find other texts—poems, songs, short stories, quotes—based on the words in the Deuteronomy passage.
Bring Your Own Texts or Stories
- Ask your guests to share the story of their own family’s story of exodus from somewhere.
- Pick a keyword for the seder (i.e. “Freedom,” “Liberty,” “Justice,” “Community”) and ask your guests to bring a text, object, image, or story that unpacks the theme.
Bring an Object for the Seder Plate
The traditional seder includes several symbolic foods, which are arranged on a Seder plate. Ask your guests to bring a (small) object that is not normally found on the seder table but that they think might belong there for some reason. The object could have something to do with freedom, oppression, simplicity, the desert, Egypt, Israel, hope for a better world or anything else they think is important to bring into the Pesach celebration. The only guideline: make sure it’s not made of chametz!
Games for the Seder
A good seder should be playful. Traditionally, children play a game of hide-and-seek with the Afikoman, the piece of matzah that is to be eaten last as part of the seder meal. (A grownup traditionally breaks a matzah in half, then hides the smaller half as the afikoman. The kids look for it and, once they have it in hand, negotiate with the grownup for its return.) Here are some other ways to incorporate fun and meaningful games into your seder:
- Seder Bingo: Hand out blank bingo boards and have everyone fill in their board with words they expect to be mentioned during the evening.
- Passover Taboo: Create Taboo cards special for Passover. For instance, the word on the card could be Charleton Heston (star of the movie The Ten Commandments), with the Taboo words “bondage,” “Cecil B. Demille,” “Movie,” etc.)
- Grab Bag: Collect random household objects in a bag (as many objects as there are people at the seder) — things as random as dolls, books, items of clothing, etc. The bag is passed around the seder table, and each person picks out one object and has to relate it somehow to the Exodus story (e.g. an animal could be one of the plagues, a hat could be what the Jews had to wear in the desert because it was so hot, etc.) Even people who are reluctant to act things out or dress up can participate in this one.
- Plagues Bags: These are fun toys based on the Ten Plagues (yes, you can make them funny). Buy one online (www.plaguesbag.com) or make your own.
Incorporating Social Justice
The themes of freedom and justice, which are so important to the seder, can become organizing principles for your gathering. Think about how you can make your seder not just a reflective dinner, but a moment of social justice itself.
- Ask guests to bring an item of food or clothing to contribute to a local shelter. Or ask them to donate what they would normally spend for a nice dinner out to a worthy cause.
- Include readings and discussion about the contemporary problems of slavery (human trafficking). Google “ten modern plagues” and you’ll find plenty of readings and ideas. Or ask your guests to come up with a list together.
- Food at Passover has a special significance: there’s a theme of purity that runs through the narrative of Passover and into the way we think about matzah and the other items on the seder table. Make this theme real in contemporary terms: use ‘purer’ forms of food, including locally-grown and organic foods, free-range animals, etc.
- www.myjewishlearning.com provides a wide range of information, both practical and more general, about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and all things Jewish.
- www.chabad.org is the website of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement an extraordinary online resource.
- A Spiritual Checkup is an easy-to-use guide, developed by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, for facilitating rich conversation about questions of the season.
- The Open Source Haggadah: http://www.opensourcehaggadah.com. Create your own haggadah.
- A Different Night, by Noam Zion, David Dishon
- A Night of Questions by Joy Levitt, Michael Strassfeld and Jeffrey Schrier.
- A Night to Remember, by Mishael Zion, Noam Zion, Michel Kichka
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah, by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
- The Lovell Haggadah by Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz
- The New American Haggadah, by Jonathan Safran Foer & Nathan Englander
- The Women’s Passover Companion: Women’s Reflections on the Festival of Freedom, by Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, Catherine Spector, and Paula E. Hyman
- The Women’s Seder Sourcebook: Rituals and Readings for Use at the Passover Seder, by Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, and Catherine Spector
This outline provides a detailed overview of the 15 steps, and the four cups of wine, of the traditional seder.
Fill First Cup
- Kiddush (Kadesh)
Drink First Cup
- Washing hands (Urchatz)
- Vegetable (Karpas)
- Break the middle matzah (Yachatz)
- Storytelling (Maggid): This is the bread of affliction.
Fill Second Cup
- Question: Why is this night different? (4 Questions)
Answer 1: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”
- Five Rabbis who stayed up all night
- “The days of your life”
- Four sons
- 10 Plagues
- DayeinuAnswer 2: “Originally our ancestors were idolators”
- Abraham/toast/God as promise-keeper
- “An Aramean sought to destroy my father”—Midrash
- Symbols: Pesach, Matzah and Maror
- Hallel—Part I
Drink Second Cup
- Washing hands (Rachtza)
- Eating the Matzah (Motzi Matza)
- Bitter herb (Maror)
- Hillel’s Sandwich—Eating Matzah & Maror Together (Korech)
- The Meal (Shulchan Orech)
- Afikoman (Tzafun)
Pour Third Cup
- Blessing/Grace After Meals (Barech)
Drink Third Cup
- Cup of Elijah
Pour Fourth Cup
- Hallel/Praise (Hallel)
Drink Fourth Cup
- Ending the Seder (Nirtzah)
- Songs: Adir Hu, Who Knows One, Had Gadya