Making the seder ever-more personal

Making the seder ever-more personal

A guide to the new crop of Haggadahs

The most published book in the Jewish world, the Haggadah, has witnessed a decrease in the number of traditional, commentary-based guides to the holiday’s readings and rituals, but an increase in individualized interpretations of the Pesach customs. Blame the expense of putting out new books; the fact that Haggadot, by their seasonal nature, have a limited shelf life; and the surfeit of existing Haggadot; and the deepening of DIY culture and the self-publishing craze.

Here, then, is a roundup of some of the new titles.

Putting yourself in the Exodus: ‘The Ayeka Haggadah’

The people who attend Rabbi Aryeh Ben David’s seders in Efrat every year know they have to do some homework beforehand — they have to answer a philosophical question about their place in the Exodus experience, and be prepared to discuss it at his seder.

Now, every seder leader can assign similar homework.

In “The Ayeka Haggadah: Hearing Your Own Voice, A Guide for All Ages to Personalize Your Seder” (Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education), Ben David, a Scarsdale native who made aliyah three decades ago, brings to Passover his approach to Jewish spirituality that he has emphasized in a career as a Jewish educator.

The rabbi is the founder of Ayeka (Hebrew for “where are you?” — the question God asked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden), an educational initiative that places the heart above the mind. Which is reflected in his Haggadah.

Ben David, who previously served as director of spiritual education at the Pardes Institute and rabbinical educational consultant for Hillel International, packs his Haggadah with questions instead of answers, spiritual insights instead of traditional rabbinical commentaries.

Most extant Haggadahs “are more or less the same genre — so-and-so’s commentary,” the rabbi said in a telephone interview. Too passive, too impersonal, he said; a seder participant doesn’t necessarily feel him/herself part of the Jews who left Egypt and began their path to becoming a unified people.

“People are not changed by being passive,” the rabbi said.

Hence, “your own voice” in the title — what you’re feeling, what you’re saying, takes precedence over some scholar’s explanations.

The rabbi’s Haggadah places a seder participant in the Exodus generation. He offers, he explains in the introduction, 40 “trigger” questions for people of various ages, “forty different opportunities for engaging personally with the haggadah.” Questions like “Can you summarize the Exodus in one sentence?” “Today, what questions do you imagine the wise child would ask?”  “If maror (the bitter herb) could talk, what do you think it would say?”

After each question is a blank space on each page for writing out one’s answer. 

The purpose is to stimulate “quality conversations,” said the rabbi. No need for each seder participant to answer each question in depth. “People don’t need to have 40 quality conversations.”

And there are short insights and suggestions for better absorbing the seder themes: “Ask someone to talk in Egyptian.” “Ask someone to act out one of the four children.” “Have everyone share a ‘Jerusalem moment,’ a high point they experienced in Jerusalem.”

The Haggadah’s input from participants makes it easier for the seder leader to lead, Ben David writes. “The pressure is off. You don’t have to illuminate or entertain. Your job is to create the space for everyone to feel comfortable, to participate, and to share.”

Every Haggadah contains the reminder that in every generation everyone at the seder should act as if he/she came out of Egypt.

Ben David’s Haggadah refines this obligation with the request that everyone answer the question “Where am I?” – where do I see myself in the exodus experience?

“I’m not interested in what happened [to the collective Jewish people] in leaving Egypt,” Ben David said. “I’m interested in what happened to you.”

From the rabbi’s classrooms to your table: ‘The Mosaic Haggadah’

As a teacher for a dozen recent years at the Toras Chaim Elementary and Middle School in Portsmouth, Va., Rabbi Sender Haber would every year have his students prepare individualized Haggadot they could use at their own family seders — each Haggadah a collection of the student’s questions about the seder’s readings and rituals, and the rabbi’s answers.

Over the years, he thought about compiling all the give-and-take into a published Haggadah that any family, especially one with young children, could use.

The result is “The Mosaic Haggadah: Inspired by Bright Kids” (Mosaica Press), 63 pages of questions (some of which Haber thought his students would be likely to ask, but did not) and short answers, accompanied by striking color drawings by Israeli artist Yocheved Nadell.

The questions are basic, reflecting their elementary school provenance. Typical ones: “What do we mean when we say we will knock out the wicked son’s teeth?” “Why is it so important to see ourselves as if we personally left Mitzrayim?” “Why do we eat hard-boiled eggs on Pesach?”

There are also some unanswered questions, designed to stimulate conversation.

The book is laminated for use at “many sedarim to come.”

In addition to a few de rigueur illustrations of pyramids and Jerusalem, most of the artwork shows the Haber family — the rabbi and his wife Chamie and the couple’s five young children — preparing for the seder and taking part in it.

“I want readers to feel that they are at the seder,” said Haber, who has lived for 16 years in Norfolk, serving for a decade as a spiritual leader at the city’s Bnai Israel Congregation.

His Haggadah is geared to kids, particularly those with a traditional Jewish education. Some of the text appears only in Hebrew; it’s Mitzrayim, not Egypt; Korech, not the Hillel Sandwich; the Chacham, not the Wise Son, etc.

Several other youth-oriented Haggadahs are on the market. How is Haber’s different from all the others? “It’s actually tested on kids,” he said. Every year he got feedback from his day school students about which parts of their made-in-school Haggadahs resonated with guests at their family seders and which didn’t. And he would incorporate some of the kids’ questions and his answers into his own seders. He’d also offer his insights on the website.

The contents of the published Haggadah, Haber said, are “proven favorites,” practical and sure to please a seder crowd.

The Haggadah’s style reflects the seders Rabbi Haber has led for his family, and those he attended while growing up in a rabbinic family in Jerusalem, Buffalo, and Australia.

Next week, Haber said, he and his family will again host about 15 guests at their seders. They will use The Mosaic Haggadah. “We will give everyone a copy.”

A guide to the Torah’s Exodus texts: ‘The Exodus You Almost Passed Over’

The title of “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over” (Alpha Beta Press), while cute, bears a serious message. Rabbi David Fohrman, founder of the Long Island-based Alpha Beta Academy nonprofit Torah education website (, offers an in-depth explanation of the biblical passages that serve as the foundation for the Exodus experience that is celebrated at the seder.

Fohrman’s book is neither a Haggadah (it does not contain the seder’s readings or rituals) nor a typical Haggadah supplement (many of the verses expounded on do not appear in the Haggadah).

Rather, it is seder preparation, to be read in advance by the seder leader — or by eager participants — to offer a spiritual context to what takes place at the seder. In 286 pages are dozens of verses, interpreted from the perspective of the Jews departing Egypt, of Pharaoh, and of God, written in a conversational, highly accessible, pose-a-question-then-answer-it style.

Fohrman calls the book “a guidebook … a travelogue, of sorts … an attempt to engage with the original Hebrew text of the Torah.”

Typical of his teaching style, the rabbi shows that our usual understanding of biblical verses, our superficial reading, often misses nuances that add to a more-complete seder. 

He asks why the festival of freedom is called Passover, why Pharaoh remained intransigent in the face of repeated heaven-sent plagues, why various names of God appear at different times in the Torah, and other questions of that ilk. His answers are as intriguing as his questions.

“The Exodus story is about more than we ever suspected,” the rabbi writes, inviting readers to “uncover the hidden secrets of this ancient and sacred saga.”

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