Bringing order to the seder
Customs change but festive meal is consistent from generation to generation
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
If you think about it, calling the Passover feast the seder, Hebrew for “order,” is kind of ironic. After all, not only does every family seem to have its own traditions, but these customs seem to change from year to year.
Of course, there isn’t a “right” way to have a seder (there might be a wrong way, namely betraying your mentor to the Romans during the meal, thus setting off thousands of years of religious persecution and death). I could probably fill a book (or at least, hopefully, a column) with the various practices I’ve picked up and dropped over the years. Some of the changes came about because I found something new that just made sense, like saying the blessing over the Omer, the 49-day countdown to Shavuot that begins on the second night of Passover, at the beginning of the seder, lest we forget to do so later in the evening. I adopted some others along the way, like eating a ridiculously large measurement of shmurah matzah and maror, because my personal understanding of the Jewish laws have evolved.
And then there are those traditions I’ve always kept just because I like them, despite the fact that there isn’t any religious or practical basis. For instance, instead of using my pinky finger to pour out the wine when we read the Ten Plagues, my family always used a teaspoon. Why? My grandfather, a very tidy, hygienic individual, couldn’t stomach the thought of dipping his finger into something he would be drinking. We also stand for the last verse of “Chad Gadyah” on the night of the second seder because my cousin Jay said we should. That was around 40 years ago and still I have no idea where he got it.
Of course, the single greatest reason my seders have changed is because, somewhere along the way, my life has. First, I got married, and instead of spending the whole of Passover with my family, my wife and I split the holiday up, spending part of it with my parents and part with hers. A few years later we became parents, and suddenly the focus of the seder became how it could be most meaningful to the children.
It’s something of an adjustment. In the old days, my family had in-depth discussions about each aspect of the seder, which lasted deep into the night, and we were proud that we always finished later than any of our friends. It irritated me when someone tried to rush through Magid, the recounting of the Exodus story, to get to the meal. Now I am that person. Much as I would still like to explore, in great detail, our transformation from slaves into a nation, expounding on the Exodus story can be difficult with a 4-year-old screaming “I’m hungry!” in your ear.
Speeding through much of the Haggadah because of the kids doesn’t seem right — relating the Passover story to your children is one of only two mitzvot that the Torah explicitly commands us to perform at the seder (eating matzah is the other). Unfortunately, your (or at least our) only hope of even partially fulfilling this mitzvah is by determining which portions of the seder you can make interesting enough that the children will be inclined to participate in, and which portions will have to wait until they’re older.
The kids are usually involved from the beginning of the seder until the Four Questions (giving them the opportunity in the middle to ask why we dip potatoes in saltwater during Karpas, another source-less Kahn tradition, even though much of the Jewish world uses parsley). After promising them numerous bribes, my son and daughter sing a barely audible version of Ma Nishtana or, for all I can tell, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
That’s about the time they run off to look for the afikoman, and we assign them to put on a play about the Jews leaving Egypt. (The concept of the play is good in theory, but the actual production is a mess, as the actors invariably break into uncontrollable laughter for the duration of the show.) Besides a couple of quick cameo appearances the kids make at the table for the recitation of the Ten Plagues and the singing of “Dayeinu,” we’re lucky if we can coax them back for intervals of more than a couple of minutes before we’re ready to eat the matzah.
As I’ve said many times in this space, it’s not a perfect system and I’m not a perfect parent (as I’ve also said, my wife’s pretty close), but my goal is to keep their limited attention spans engaged for as long as possible so they can stay awake until the end, Nirtza. Then they can join us for the joyous singing of Hallel or the uplifting “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
Maybe one day they’ll teach their own children the positively loopy version of “Who Knows One?” my family has sung since I was a kid. Or maybe they’ll do something new. Frankly, I don’t care which seder traditions they keep or drop, just as long as, many years from now, they’re still enjoying a seder.
Chag Kasher v’Sameach!