In the weeks before Passover, Rabbi David Kalb, director of Jewish education at the 92nd Street Y’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, is offering families a series of workshops on how to lead a seder. The Jewish Week asked the rabbi, in an email interview, how to make sure that the seder nights this year are not like all other nights.
Q: We’ve been doing seders for more than 3,000 years. Are there still new ways to do it?
A: Yes. Over the course of the seder we engage in a question-and-answer approach to discussing the Exodus. Each year I find that my family and I have new questions as well as new answers to old questions.
Does the old style of just-read-the-Haggadah-in-Hebrew not work with most Jews today?
I would say not only does the so-called “old style” of just-read-the-Haggadah-in-Hebrew not work with most Jews today, it never really worked. In order to fulfill the mitzvah of Sipur Yitsiat Mitzrayim, to tell the story of the Exodus of Egypt, one must engage in a question-and-answer approach to telling the story of the Exodus of Egypt.
If one was to read every word, word for word, in Hebrew, but they did not understand what they were saying, they have not fulfilled the mitzvah. Even if someone read every word in English and understood what they were reading but they did not engage in a question and answer approach they have not fulfilled the mitzvah.
With all the new individualized seders and Haggadot, do we run the risk of watering down tradition?
I understand this concern. However, at the same time the original “tradition” of the seder was far more fluid than what we have today. It is not as if the early sedarim had a standardized text that everyone had to read word for word from beginning to end. It is more that the obligation of telling the story was out there in general and people found different ways to do that. Personally, I read every word of the Haggadah analyzing and discussing each section with my family.
What are your guidelines for how people should personalize their own seders — in other words, what are the limits of creativity?
The litmus test is, “Is your seder making you feel as if you are going out of Egypt?”
How are your seders different from those that your parents or grandparents ran?
My seder has much more discussion. It is full of questions. As much as we highlight the Four Questions at the seder, the seder is really a night of infinite questions and infinite answers.
What parts should be done in Hebrew? What parts in English?
I delineate between the learning sections of the seder vs. the singing and chanting sections. If there is a section people enjoy singing, that should be sung in Hebrew. Who does not love hearing the youngest chant the Four Questions or the whole family join in for a few choruses of “Dayenu?” However, sections that do not lend themselves to singing and are really there to discuss should be read in English.
What is the best idea you ever incorporated into one of your seders?
The general concept of encouraging questioning and discussion at the seder helps more than anything else to make any seder come alive. If I had to pick one idea… it was the use of drama. At different points at some of our seders over the years we have paused and my children sometimes on their own sometimes with our help have performed a section of the story of the Exodus.
Tips to make your seder go well:
♦ Encourage questions and discussion. Be open to multiple answers to various questions.
♦ Prepare. Study the Haggadah in advance. Think about some questions to pose to the people at your seder.
♦ Pick up a few Haggadot. Buy at least one new one each year. However, at the actual seder it is easier for everyone to work from the same Haggadah. You want to make sure that all of the people are on the same page both figuratively and literally.
♦ Assign each person a different section of the Haggadah, to share their insights to ask their questions about..
♦ If you have young children at the seder, feed them before the seder starts.
♦ Dress up as a slave who is going out of Egypt.