How to lead a Seder

Participating in a Passover Seder is always a fun and meaningful way to come together and celebrate our freedom. Leading a Seder can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be, if you have an understanding of some of the basic ideas of what a Seder is meant to do.

Trying to create your own Seder at home can be an overwhelming experience. There are so many books out there and so many people telling you that in order for a Seder to be kosher, in order for it to be done right, you have to do X, Y, and Z.

If it’s a choice between leading a very simple Seder that everyone can enjoy, or not participating in one at all because “it’s too complicated”, it really is not a choice. A simple Seder that everyone can enjoy is all that is truly needed.

Two thousand years ago, when the rabbis were trying to find a way to create meaning in the ritual of the Passover Seder, they wanted the evening to be a fun, engaging and educational one. The rabbis wanted the Seder to be an opportunity for participants to ask questions and to understand the story of how we were once slaves in Egypt, but now we are free.

One of the rituals that the rabbis suggested was move the entire meal from the table to the floor and then back to the table. The story goes: “Once the young pupil Abaye was invited to the Seder of his teacher Rabbah. While still at the beginning of the Seder, Rabbah ordered the servants to clear the dishes from the table. Amazed, Abaye asked, “Why are you removing the Seder plate before we have even eaten?” Rabbah exclaimed, “Your question has served the same function as the usual four questions of ‘Ma Nishtanah’. Let’s dispense with those set questions and proceed directly to the telling of the story.” (BT Pesachim 115b) It seems that the sole purpose of clearing the table, before it was time to eat, was to pique the children’s interest; to lead the children to ask, “Why do you do this?” This question can potentially replace the traditional four questions. And gives Rabbah an opportunity to move on with the Seder and tell the story of how God took us out of Egypt.

So, if you would like to lead a small Seder, consider these two teachings from the Haggadah:

* In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. Just as it says: “You shall tell your child on that very day: ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I went out from Egypt.’ ” (Exodus 13:8)

* Rabban Gamliel used to say: “All who have not explained the significance of three things during the Pesach Seder have not yet fulfilled their duty.” The three are: the Pesach lamb (the shank bone), the matzah, and the maror. Why these three? The Pesach lamb, matzah and maror constituted the original menu in the Egyptian Seder.

With these teachings in mind, what activities would you create to help those sitting at your table understand the story that we were slaves in Egypt and now we are free? What would you ask the participants to do to help them see themselves as ones who personally went out from Egypt? And what kinds of things would you put on the table, along with the matzah, maror, and the shank bone, to help them understand our history? For example, would you put Egyptian action figures on the table? Would you put a wicker basket on the table (so that you can tell the participants how Moses’ mother put him in a wicker basket, and his sister Miriam followed it to make sure that Moses was safe)?

In order to create a Seder, we must think about how to make the story of our leaving Egypt come alive. And, of course, we have to taste some Matzah.

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How can the Deaf hear the Shofar, the ram’s horn?

Every year, as we approach the High Holidays, we must prepare ourselves emotionally and spiritually. The questions we ask ourselves are too complicated to be thoroughly thought out in the course of the ten days from Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Rather, we are to begin preparing for the High Holidays during the month of Elul (which this year begins today). During the month of Elul, we should be thinking about our actions, which vows we have broken, to whom do we owe an apology, and what aspects of our personalities we would like to improve upon. During this month, we should also be thinking about the positive: Are there actions we took this year that we are proud of? Is there anything we have done well that we would like to continue? We go through this evaluation process as a way of facing our mortality: If we die tomorrow, are we satisfied with the life we are leaving behind? We are not expected to face our mortality out of fear that we will die, rather, we should face our mortality out of a love for life and one another.
However, how are we supposed to know when the month of Elul has begun? Are there rituals in place to help remind us that the High Holidays are coming and that we must be in the process of preparing ourselves? Yes! There are several rituals whose sole purposes are to help us prepare for the High Holidays. Among them, it has long been considered a mitzvah, a commandment, to “listen” to the shofar, the ram’s horn, every morning in shul. But how can ALL of us “listen” to the shofar as some of us are Deaf or hard-of-hearing?

1. Shofar as an alarm: There is a tradition that teaches us that the sound of the shofar acts as a kind of alarm. Listening to the shofar every day reminds us that the High Holidays are coming and we should be preparing ourselves emotionally and spiritually. In this sense, those of us who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing can easily find a new ritual to helps us feel that sense of alarm, that sense of urgency to remind us that the holidays are coming. Some of us, who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing, have a special alarm clock that flashes bright lights in the morning (instead of blasting loud sounds). Finding a new ritual can be as simple as changing the color of the light-bulb of this special alarm. In this way, when we wake up confused about the different color, we’ll remember that we changed it to help us prepare for the High Holidays. Another simple ritual can be to hang a big calendar in a place where we can see it and will remind us to cross off the days until the High Holidays, or we can create something else entirely—it is up to us to be creative.

2. “Remembering” the sound of the shofar: Another way of thinking about the sounding of the shofar is to look at the Hebrew in Leviticus 23:24, where it reads, zicron teruah. The full verse can be translated as “Adonai spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts”(NJPS, emphasis mine). The same word that can be translated as commemorated (zicron), can also be translated as “remember”.  As Jews, we are capable of “remembering” things (even sounds) that we may not have experienced in this lifetime. For example, during Passover we learn that every Jew should celebrate Passover as if each of us had personally experienced slavery. As if each of us had personally left Egypt. Our tradition understands that we were not physically there, but expects us to remember the experience. In this way, we can create the memory of the sound of the shofar even if we have not experienced it directly.

3. To Listen vs. To Sound the shofar: Again, if we look at the Hebrew, this time in the book of Numbers 29:1, yom teruah is a “day of blowing the horn”–not a day of listening. The full verse reads, “And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, ye shall have a holy convocation: ye shall do no manner of servile work; it is a day of blowing the horn unto you” (JPS, 1917, emphasis mine). The shofar is a loud instrument that creates strong vibrations. If you have not tried blowing a shofar, or touched a shofar while someone else is blowing it, this is certainly something that you should experiment with, as you will be able to feel its power and the strength in its vibrations. Blowing the shofar and/or holding the shofar while someone else blows it can be especially meaningful for those of us who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The ability to listen to the shofar is tricky for those who are hearing as well. Many hearing Jews don’t go to temple every day of the month of Elul to listen to the shofar. Many hearing Jews are not sure how to respond to the shofar when they hear it. Thus the ability to “hear” the shofar is not enough to fulfill the mitzvah. Whether we are Deaf, hard-of-hearing, or fully hearing, we must consciously decide to pay attention to the arrival of the month of Elul. And each of us must consciously decide how we will prepare ourselves for the High Holidays.

A note on translation: I would have liked to use the same JPS translation for both verses. However, the new JPS translation transforms teruah in a manner that none of the other contemporary translations (that I am finding) do. All other translations, including the 1917 JPS translation, used here, understand teruah to be an active verb.