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Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

How to Fail at a Passover Seder

Passover seder/Shutterstock

My Passover seder was a failure. On the first two nights of Passover (or the first night if you live in Israel), Jews all over the world gather in homes for highly ritualized meals called seders.  Dating back approximately 2000 years, the seders combine blessings, rituals, the eating of specific foods, storytelling and singing.  As you can imagine, there is a lot of ground to cover.  But there is also a surprising amount of choice about which parts to emphasize and which to gloss over.  Every year, more and more Haggadot (guidebooks for the seder) are published: some are geared towards children, others to intellectuals and still others to artists.  The goal, for each, is to offer a seder that is interactive and didactic, engaging the participants to feel as if they, too, experienced liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt.  The primary question we want all participants, but especially children, to ask throughout the seder is, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”


I was privileged to lead a seder at my house on the first night of Passover.  But since we were hosting families with young children as well as college students, I struggled to come up with a format that could speak to everyone. I spent hours preparing beforehand, poring over numerous Haggadot to figure out what I wanted to feature: which songs to sing, which English meditations to include and perhaps most importantly, which sections to speed through.


We began our seder around 6 p.m.  I employed a few child-oriented wrinkles early on, such as dipping strawberries into chocolate as an appetizer (since one of the Passover rituals is to immerse “fruits of the earth” into dips).  We also had the children lead us in singing some of the more famous songs and blessings.  We had a lively discussion about contemporary American slavery-like conditions among tomato farmers in Florida, as a way to show that the discussion of slavery is, unfortunately, not only historical.  By the time we got to dinner, it was already 8 p.m.  We ate and ate some more, and by 9 p.m, most of the group was exhausted.  Even though there were still more parts to the seder to conduct after dinner, we decided to call it a night.


At first I was disappointed that we hadn’t made it all the way through the seder.  I felt that my time management skills had been suboptimal, that I had somehow led us astray from our mission to complete the entirety of the seder.  But then I recalled the smiles on people’s faces, the engrossing conversations and the jubilation I felt when hearing the children sing.  We might not have made it all the way through the seder, but the parts we did cover were memorable for all who were there.  Instead of speeding through the seder in an effort to cover every technical aspect, we took our time and concentrated on making our seder feel organic and meaningful.


Our seder might have failed to adhere to the outline of a traditional Haggadah. But by trying to be provocative and inspirational rather than formal, our seder ultimately was a success.

© 2013, Josh Ratner. All rights reserved.

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Originally hailing from San Diego, Joshua, his spouse and their three children currently live in Connecticut, where Joshua is a rabbi. Joshua worked as an attorney for five years prior to starting rabbinical school and becoming a rabbi. They are raising their children as observant, progressive Jews.

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