A message from Cantor Kate Judd~
Four Types of Passover Seder
It is said that the Torah has seventy different faces – Shiv’im panimla Torah. The rabbis intended us to understand by this that there are, in fact, limitless interpretations – and no one is more right than another. The haggadah and the seder (order) of Passover are also subject to numerous interpretations. The seder has endured many permutations, keeping its essential character, because we can look it in so many ways. On the other hand, it strikes me that we can categorize the types of seder into four. Four, of course, is the perfect number for anything to do with Passover! We have four cups, four children, four questions – so why not four types of seder?
Type one, I would say, is the original, commanded seder. The haggadah is the haggadah of our forefathers – in Hebrew, without commentary. This is, by the way, also the haggadah of Maxwell House (with added English). The text dates back to the 7th or 8th century CE (the earliest extant example dates to 860 CE) and was created by Rav Amran Gaon, who was also the creator of the first siddur (prayer book). The reason for performing this seder is simple: because God said so! In Exodus 12:14-17, we read, “This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day, and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you. You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened. Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time. ”For a Jew who fallows halakhah, or Jewish law, no further explanation is needed. We are commanded to observe Pesach and so we do.
The second type of seder is as much a matter of minhag – custom – as it is of halakhah. This is what we might call the family seder, or the “because we’ve always done it this way and we like it” seder. The haggadah may be the traditional one – quite often it is nusach Maxwell House! But it may equally well be any other haggadah the family likes, or a random collections of different haggadot that have accumulated over the decades. It can also be a home version, whether typed on a typewriter (remember those?) and cut and pasted with actual scissors and glue, or compiled on a computer and printed out. Frequently, this haggadah bows to the short attention spans of small children or less-than-invested adults, cutting whole swaths of text and reducing the ritual actions to their basic structure. Sometimes, this seder simply stops with the meal and lops off the second half of the haggadah altogether. Reasons for performing a seder like this have to do with tradition and family connections: “We’ve always done it this way,” “We like to have a holiday together,”, “Bubbe makes the best gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, charoset, etc. etc.” There are sometimes Jewish identity issues tied up in this seder as well. Those who perform it may not care at all that the festival is commanded. Still they may argue, “We’re Jews, and Jews do Passover.” It’s instructive to note that apart from circumcision, Pesach is the most observedritual among Jews of all kinds.
The third kind of seder looks for the spiritual meaning behind the actions. Whatever haggadah it uses is sure to be full of commentaries and alternative texts. It may draw on the writings of someone like Michael Strassfeld, who writes, “[Pesach] suggests that while slavery can be found everywhere and in everything, perhaps most of all it is found in the routine of the everyday. […It] calls us to reexamine our daily routine by making us change our most basic element, bread, the staff of life. Nothing is to be accepted as is; rather, all is to be held up for examination and reflection” (Strassfeld, A Book of Life). Such a seder notes that the words for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is also the word for “narrow places.” It comments on the puffed-up nature of chametz (things that are leavened) and draws an analogy between puffed foods and puffed egos. This type of seder may run the longest, as participants (often young people or older adults without small children) dig deep into the possible spiritual lesson of every step of the seder and linger over the many songs that give the participants a sense of reliving the story “as if they personally had come out of Egypt”.
The fourth type of seder is political. It might use the old Yiddish haggadah of the Arbeiter Ring (Workmen’s Circle), Arthur Waskow’s original “Freedom Seder” (1969) or the new “Freedom Seder for the Earth” (2009), or indeed any one of a vast number of haggadot that are designed to impart a political or social message. Participants will think about the results of African American enslavement (yes, there is a Black Lives Matter Haggadah – the Forward calls it “a blistering indictment of the Jewish community for its lackluster support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its marginalization of Jews of color”) or human trafficking (T’ruah, formerly Rabbis for Human Rights, produces a haggadah focused on “fighting modern slavery.”)They will reflect on the lessons of the story of the Exodus, and think about ways to apply them in the present day. Last year, when Donald Trump appeared to be a joke, the “Donald Trump Haggadah” came out on Twitter. (A line like, “If he banned Muslims from entering the US, but did not repeal and replace Obamacare, we would already be great again,” was a lot funnier when it seemed obvious that it couldn’t come to pass.) Like the spiritual seder, the political seder hopes to change and inspire its participants toward acts of social justice.
Of course, you may say that many sedarim are a mixture of these four types. And why not? We all recognize a bit of each of the Four Children in ourselves, and it’s clear that the Four Questions are related to each other. As with any of the other Passover fours, these four types of seder are simply one way of framing how we observe this richly meaningful holiday. Whatever your custom is, we at BAJC wish you a zissen Pesach – a sweet Passover — and we look forward to seeing you at the BAJC’s second night seder on April 11. It will have something from each of the four types of seder, and hopefully something for everyone.