Unprecedented is a word that has been applied to many situations during this pandemic. For some, unprecedented means canceling long-standing family get-togethers and making a seder at home for the first time. NJJN conducted an email interview with Robert Lichtman, chief Jewish learning officer at Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, who shared some helpful tips on making a seder, or two, at home.
What is the significance of a seder and what are we celebrating?
Seder is the Hebrew word for “order,” so what we refer to as “the seder” is the 15 steps, in order, that occur around the Passover meal on the first and second nights of the holiday. The road map is clearly spelled out in the Haggadah, the ancient, yet relevant, guide that contains the story and the 15 steps used to tell it.
The exodus from slavery in Egypt is the historic event that transformed a family of tribes into the Jewish people. Passover is the anniversary of when this event happened, and so those of us who would still be enslaved in Egypt, were it not for the exodus, gather around the table (or if you’re more comfortable, sit around the living room) to recount the story of our liberation and to thank God for saving us.
The seder experience is time travel. We go back in time to our experience as slaves in Egypt and we project to the future ultimate redemption for the Jewish people and all humankind. As we sit around the seder table and tell the story of our past and imagine our future, we also commit to making the historic pivot to do our part to bring that future speedily.
What are some important rituals of the seder?
You might expect the answer to be that every single aspect of the seder is equally important, but the rabbis of a couple of thousand years ago who assembled this guide also realized that every seder table is different and the way people will tell the story, and the conversations that surround it, could go off in different directions; and all of that is fantastic. Yet they also explain that the following things should be a focus so that we all orbit around the same basic experience:
Pesach (Passover) — the sacrifice that was brought by every Jewish family at the time of the Temple and which goes back even further to the very first Passover meal that the Jewish people enjoyed while they were still slaves on the eve of their exodus from Egypt.
Matzah (unleavened bread) — the food staple that is unique to this holiday. It is a focus of this meal because of the hurried way in which the Jews escaped Egypt with their dough not having enough time to rise into bread.
Maror (bitter herbs) — This is to symbolize the bitterness, the tears shed, the lives lost, and the futures destroyed by decades upon decades of enforced slavery.
These three foundational elements invite a physical and emotional re-experiencing of slavery and redemption. The entire atmosphere and undertaking of the seder is meant to not only imagine, but to experience the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom.
What supplies do I need to buy? Do I need to purchase a seder plate? You will need plenty of matzah and wine or grape juice. In addition, you will need bitter herbs like romaine lettuce or pure horseradish (made from the root, not the sweet red stuff in the jar).
It’s best if everybody has their own copy of a Haggadah to follow along. You also may want to bring some pillows to the table for reclining to re-enact the way in which free people, as opposed to slaves, would dine.
The seder plate — any plate will do — is primarily used to display the foods that will be distributed at different points during the seder. The main components for the seder plate include bitter herbs; a springtime vegetable, because Passover marks the new season; a shank bone that represents the sacrificial animal; charoset, a pasty combination of nuts, apples, and wine that represents the mortar the slaves used in their forced labor; and a hard-boiled egg that is symbolic of another sacrifice traditionally brought at Passover.
Also on the table should be a glass or bowl of salty water to represent the tears shed by our ancestors in their misery as slaves; this will be used for symbolic rituals during the seder.
How do I engage uninterested family members of all ages?
Different people learn in different ways: some by listening, others by re-enacting or reading the story, so during the seder we do it all.
You may want to take each of the 15 parts of the seder and assign them to different people to rotate the role of leader. Rather than simply recounting some of the stories, you may want to act them out. If current or historical events can make the themes of the seder come alive, bring articles or ideas for discussion.
The Haggadah is an outline and need not be adhered to as a script. It’s a jumping-off point to help us focus on the main themes of slavery, liberation, and our unique relationship and covenant with God.
Most of all, this is an experiential time to integrate emotions, feelings, and actions, in addition to the words on the paper, so that by the end of the seder you will understand that this is not a story that happened to “them.” This is the story that happened to us.
Any other suggestions or resources?
A good site for children’s resources is pjlibrary.org; for adults, try myjewishlearning.com.
Any local rabbi can be a resource, whether you’re a member of the congregation or not. All the synagogues in Greater MetroWest are listed on jfedgmw.org or by calling 973-929-3000.
Soon appearing on the federation website will be Passover insights written by dozens of local rabbis and educators. Bring these ideas to the seder to enrich your experience.