A TIMETABLE FOR THE SEDER?
How long should the Seder take?
Let me tell you what our family does.
We have a timetable for Seder night.
The first hour brings us to the meal, then we eat (for which we allocate another hour), then the second part of the Haggadah brings us to Chad Gadya.
All told, then, our Seder takes about three hours.
Others take much longer but we don’t see the need to prolong the proceedings into the small hours. Our arrangement still allows plenty of time to talk about the time-honoured rituals and to inject explanations.
Not only is there a timetable; there is an agenda. One of the great things on the agenda is the links between ancient rituals and modern applications.
Think for instance of the four sons. What would happen if the text spoke of four daughters? Would a feminine perspective be different? Indeed, is there a female take on freedom as a whole?
Another idea – the ten plagues. What do the plagues tell us that connects with ecology, conservation and pollution?
The slaying of the first-born – is there anything we should be talking about in relation to family dynamics (oldest child syndrome? youngest child? middle child?).
Dayyenu: what sort of Jewish world would we like, and is it up to God, to human beings… or to both in partnership?
Hallel: our praise of God for His boons. Instead of obsessing about our problems, what good things do we enjoy? Are we sufficiently grateful for our blessings?
Afikoman: are some things in life always present even when we can’t see them?
The more we search for new meanings, the more the Seder comes alive.
HAPPY OR SAD ON SEDER NIGHT?
Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg once pointed out that we face a dilemma on Seder night.
Seder is a moment of memory, but which memory are we talking about – happy or sad?
The Haggadah tells us to imagine that we are the Hebrews of the Exodus, but what memory is uppermost in our minds – the bondage or the freedom?
There are two possibilities. We can think back to the hard times when we had no independence, no time to call our own, and had to jump to the command of our taskmasters.
Alternatively, we can think of the liberation, when the metaphorical chains were gone.
Greenberg says that every generation must decide for itself which memory to emphasise.
If we focus on the past we remind ourselves what it was like to be powerless.
If we think of the present and future we are no longer powerless but we have a new problem, that of learning responsibility.
Neither memory is easy. The thought of the past recalls our victimhood and suggests that we will always feel unsafe because of the resurgent masters of today: as the Haggadah says,
“In every generation they rise against us to eliminate us”.
On the other hand. if we concentrate on the liberation we no longer need to be frightened … but now we need to make sure that we can be responsible towards others and not make them afraid of us.
THE COMMUNAL SEDER.
Community Pesach celebrations began in Biblical days with groups joining (sometimes as an ad-hoc family) to eat the paschal lamb and ponder the Exodus.
By Mishnaic times there must have been a form of communal Seder, since the rabbinic sages debated whether one might go from one company (chaburah) to another on Seder night.
Community celebrations seem to have taken place on a regular basis in ancient and medieval Babylon and Spain.
In Ashkenazi countries some families brought in experts to run their Seder, which incidentally disproves the common view that every Jew was learned in Hebrew in olden days. Sometimes everyone repeated each word after the officiant, who would go from house to house to guide families in their festival observances, then return home for his own Seder.
There is telling evidence of community S’darim when the Jerusalem Talmud states at the end of tractate B’rachot,
“He who has heard Hallel in the synagogue on Seder night has fulfilled his obligation.”
The words “in the synagogue” could be interpreted broadly to indicate a public form of observance.
In the 14th century David Abudarham refers to a Babylonian or Spanish usage of a Seder in the synagogue precincts for those who were unsure of the festival procedures. Possibly it was not a full Seder but an entree, after which people would go home, eat a vegetable hors d’oeuvre (karpas), say the blessing “Who has redeemed us”, drink a second cup of wine, and proceed with the rest of the Seder.
This evidence indicates that there were always people whose Hebrew knowledge and Jewish skills were poor. It was regarded as important that no-one, child or adult, would be denied a Seder because of ignorance, age, illness or disability… and of course because of financial need.
Though communal S’darim sometimes take place in synagogue premises, the essential feature of Seder night is that it is not a public religious ritual that takes place in a publicly provided place of worship. Unlike, for example, a Shabbat service, it is not a ritual in which there are formal officiants with a supportive congregation. Seder is basically a family experience.
In his book, “A Feast of History”, Chaim Raphael compares it to the ancient free-wheeling talk feast in which everyone around the table is an active participant.
The difference between a Seder family and a congregation mounting a statutory act of worship is best seen when the Seder is observed at home, but the communal Seder brings together a larger, more varied family.
THE EXCITEMENT OF MAH NISHTANAH.
Mah Nishtanah is not really four questions at all. It is an exclamation -
“How different this night is from all other nights!”
– with four examples.
The first three examples, dealing with matzah, bitter herbs and dipping, come from the Mishnah Pesachim. The fourth was originally about why it was roast meat that was eaten at the Seder, but after the Temple was destroyed and the sacrifices were suspended this was replaced by the question about sitting or leaning.
There is no question about wine, both because this is not unique to Pesach and it is not specifically commanded in the Torah, like matzah and maror are.
Placing Mah Nishtanah at the beginning of the Seder is somewhat illogical: the questioner has not yet tasted or possibly even seen the things he or she is querying!
Originally, however, Mah Nishtanah followed the meal, and then the sages shifted it to its present position in order to provide a peg on which to hang the narration of the story and to ensure that the children would be awake to hear it.
If no children are present, the youngest person present asks the questions. If a married couple are having Seder on their own, the wife asks her husband. A person celebrating Seder without any company asks the questions of him- or herself.
(An additional question in such circumstances is why they did not invite other people to share the occasion, since hospitality is not only good for guests but for the host too.)
Are there any answers to the four questions?
It does not appear so. All we get is “Avadim Hayinu”, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”, and the narration of the events that led to the Exodus and freedom and unfolded the future.
Yes, eventually there is Rabban Gamliel’s explanation of matzah and maror, but there are no answers to the questions about dipping or leaning.
Indeed, perhaps even Rabban Gamliel himself is not really answering the questions. All he is doing is taking part in the story, which shows that if you know the circumstances and understand the background, the questions become largely redundant.