On the Passover Seder

The Seder should set the stage for a discussion, and the wine is meant to lubricate that. Too much food gets in the way.

A PASSOVER Seder at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo, Suriname, 2017 (photo credit: RANU ABHELAKH/REUTERS)
A PASSOVER Seder at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo, Suriname, 2017
Friday marks the twoweek countdown to Passover. While Kol Nidre has taken the media spotlight as the high point of the Jewish calendar, the reality is that its solemnity is dwarfed by the noise, mess, spills, and cacophony of the Passover Seder. (And that’s okay!)
Along with all the excitement and preparations come a lot of stress and tension. This is the exact opposite of what the night is about. The theme of the night is freedom, and everything we do that night is an expression of that freedom. Free people do not arrive at the Seder tired, angry and under stress. They arrive like royalty after an afternoon nap. This, of course, requires preparation, but the mind-set of those preparations should be what can be done to make this as easy and enjoyable as possible.
Cleaning for Passover is not the same as spring cleaning. Spring cleaning is a wonderful idea and highly recommended, but dirt is not hametz (leaven that is forbidden on Passover). We are not trying to get rid of dirt. There is no mitzva to come to the table exhausted from all the cooking and cleaning. One is not frummer (more pious) if he or she cleaned the windows. What we are looking for is errant hametz. That’s it. There is no mitzva to turn the house upside down and shake out the curtains.
The focal point of your Passover preparations should be the following question: What can you do to allow the focus of the night to be about the conversation among the guests, especially the children, and not the serving of the food and the inevitable cleanup afterward? (There is nothing wrong with using plastic plates for everything and just throwing it all out afterward.)
This is not a wedding. There is no reason to have a multicourse meal – especially not when there is a special mitzva to eat the matza at the end of the meal with an appetite. There is nothing wrong with having some matza-ball soup, with a little meat and vegetables and the ubiquitous Passover potato dish. Skip the fish, skip the extra side dishes. If your soup is good enough, no one is really going to be hungry for much else anyway. Save them for lunch the next day.
Yes, I know, everyone has their special favorite Passover dish that they look forward to, but the Seder is not the place for it; you have seven days to serve it. The Seder should set the stage for a discussion, and the wine is meant to lubricate that. Too much food gets in the way.
RABBI JOSEPH B. Soloveitchik once made the point that the Seder is the quintessential Jewish experience.
It is the perfect mixture of Torah study, prayer, praise of God, hessed and, of course, eating. We do these things to make Jewish history come alive. Ironically, while the Hebrew word “seder” means order, the Passover Seder is the reenactment of Jewish history, and like Jewish history, it is messy. Therefore, it’s okay if your Seder is messy, too.
This is why all the mitzvot that are special for the night are done at home and not in the synagogue. Because the home is the center of Jewish life. The Jewish home is not a ritualized cathedral. It’s a warm place filled with children being children.
That means the fighting, crying, bickering and spills are part of the program. They do not detract from the Seder, they are part of it.
Involve the kids as much as possible! There are only two mitzvot from the Torah that are still applicable on this night: eating matza and telling the story of the Exodus. (Everything else, including the bitter herbs and the four cups of wine, are rabbinic commandments today.) Eating the matza is pretty simple and straightforward. It is the involvement of the kids in telling them the story that is difficult. The Haggada is only a guidebook on how to do that. It’s okay to depart from it and create your own rituals and games that will engage the children and keep them involved (and not just awake). The Haggada reminds us that the Torah speaks of four kinds of kids. Each child is different and is to be related to differently. There is no such thing as a set text when talking to kids.
If you are an English-speaker, or if there are people at your table who do not understand Hebrew, you should conduct the Seder in English. The mitzva is to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt in words, terms and ideas that would be receptive to the audience.
I often teach the Haggada to my students, and when I do, my classes come with a warning: The Torah I am about to teach you is for you. These are ideas for you to think about when going through the Seder. The Seder table is not the place to tell over long, drawn-out thematic comparisons of the Haggada. If you need to hand out source sheets during your Seder, you’re doing it wrong.
The ideas shared at the Seder should be the ones that make people smile, laugh and say “Wow!” I remind my students of the three Bs. Be prepared, be brief and be entertaining. That’s it.
Have a great Passover!
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.