(Or maybe just one with a lot of parts)
10th installment in an occasional series
Why is this night different from all other nights, you ask?
Well, for starters, I don’t usually spend 90 whirlwind minutes learning all there is to know about the Passover seder (abridged version). But, that’s just what I did on April 15 at Beth Tfiloh Congregation for Rabbi Eli Yoggev’s special Passover Haggadah workshop. Speed sedering, if you will.
Approximately 30 attendees and most of the Judaism for Beginners band was back together again for this special one-off class that promised to answer all our pressing Haggadah questions as well as provide some fun seder games to play with the entire family because, as Rabbi Yoggev, says, “It’s really important to keep people awake and engaged.” This is also how he explained away some of his … umm … jokes: “It gets the energy flowing. It’s a good thing.” (More on those jokes later.)
Even I, the devoutly secular Jew, have attended my share of seders and, believe it or not, I have enjoyed almost all of them – even the ones in which I fell asleep at the five-hour mark or the ones where I was the only guest speaking in English and not understanding anything going on around me. I actually like Passover and the seder tradition.
To me, a seder is like a community theater production in four acts. Everyone has a role to play, and the Haggadah serves as the script replete with stage directions (take a drink, lean back, ask a question, recite, have a plague, etc.). The other really cool thing about the Haggadah is there are so many interpretations and versions. You don’t have to strictly adhere to any one set of rules or laws.
“There’s a set format for the Haggadah,” Rabbi Yoggev says, “and they’re all based around the same structure,” but there’s really just a few must-dos, including talking about Pesach (Passover), Matzoh (redemption) and Maror (bitter herbs, oppression).
Rabbi Yoggev started the class by running through a selection of Haggadahs. “My favorite Haggadah for this year,” he said, holding up, “Unlocking the Haggada.”
“It’s great,” he said. “Written so clearly. It helps unlock the Haggadah if you want something basic.”
For a more advanced approach, he suggested, “The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary,” which was really quite beautiful. “This is a very special Haggadah,” Rabbi Yoggev said. “The explanations are all academic and historical.”
He also noted that “The Malbim Haggadah” “kinda took my breath away,” and the “My People’s Passover Haggadah” has “multiple levels of commentary. It’s a little bit deeper than the others. Very thorough and helpful.”
Rabbi Yoggev asked the room who wrote The Haggadah. Uh, Maxwell House in 1932? (There was actually someone in the class who owns a very early Maxwell House Haggadah and the new Mrs. Maisel version released this year.) Actually, no, Maxwell House did not write the Haggadah. It spanned many generations, but originated in the Mishnah (the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions).
For my part, I was excited to get to see in person the graphic novel Haggadah I’d read about and even scored my own copy of, “The Kveller Haggadah,” which is basic and engaging enough that it might just work for someone like me if I got it into my head to host a seder (don’t worry, it’d be abbreviated). FWIW, there are also feminist Haggadahs, and even a “Trump Haggadah,” in which the commander-in-chief is cast as Pharaoh.
For those of you who have been following along in Judaism for Beginners, you know Rabbi Yoggev is a fan of handouts, PowerPoint and props, and he did not disappoint. This time around, Rabbi Yoggev provided an entire packet of suggested activities to play during your seder. Now, maybe this is just me, but it seems like sort of a flawed system if you have to come up with activities and ice breakers just to make it through the evening without falling asleep. (On that thought, remember the sunken living rooms of the ‘70s? Those seem like the ideal setting for a seder what with all that mandated reclining. Why don’t we bring that back?)
Anyway, among the suggested intermission activities are charades, grab bags (put lots of interesting stuff in a bag, pull out an item and explain its Passover connection — Rabbi Y did this with salt, an alarm clock, a light bulb, dirt and a passport. Formulate your own responses), plagues (act them out with toys; my favorite part), Passover trivia, Pesach flash cards and songs (we did a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Seder”).
Here’s a couple jokes to bring out when you see people start to nod off:
Why did the matzoh quit his job? …………………… Because he didn’t get a raise!
What do you call someone who derives pleasure from the bread of affliction? …………………….. A matzochist
OK, back to learning. There’s a lot to know and there’s cracks in my foundation so some of the stuff was over my head (if you have questions, ask Rabbi Yoggev). But I did learn there are four main stages to the seder (15 stages total): Set the tone, tell the story, experience the story and express gratitude. Rabbi Yoggev said one of the central themes to the seder is to move from Bondage to Redemption, begin with shame and conclude with praise. Some people interpret this as a way to help guests leave the seder feeling uplifted or to use the seder as a guide to overcome whatever it is you’re working on at the time and as a way to connect to God.
“If we understand all that suffering, it helps us understand who is suffering today in the world. It becomes a call to social action and can connect you personally,” Rabbi Yoggev said.
Why is there a seder plate? “Very simple. It just holds all the items you need,” he said. Usually, a seder plate holds an egg (representing a sacrifice), the bitter herbs (life was tough in Egypt), a shank bone (more sacrifice), parsley (can also be a potato) and charoset (fruit and nuts mixed together). Rabbi Yoggev just happened to have a horseradish root with him to demonstrate the bitter herbs (“This time of year, I go everywhere with this.”) and noted that, as a vegan, he usually replaces his shank bone with a beet root. The actual number of items on your seder plate (5,6,7?) varies depending on your culture, but in Kabbalah there’s 10 because that’s a significant number in Jewish mysticism.
Other fun seder factoids (you can use these in your trivia game):
- We recline 7 times (to celebrate our holiday and redemption);
- We drink 4(!) cups of wine (probably to represent the 4 languages of redemption);
- There are 20 different important “4s” (like the 4 questions, 4 sons, etc.);
- We get more and more joyous with each stage (probably because we’re giddy with hunger and too much wine);
- You break the matzoh into small pieces because it’s the bread of affliction — a poor person’s bread;
- The larger piece of matzoh is the afikoman, which is saved for later as if you’re a poor person. (We once forgot ours and found it months later, moldy and dusty on top of the ceiling fan);
- There aren’t really 4 questions. It’s more like 1 question with 4 responses.
- The 4 children (known to some, ahem, as the 4 sons) might represent 4 stages in the same person or the 4 questions that exist in each of us. “We’re supposed to be working on all these sides. We have to figure out how to use them in becoming close to God,” Rabbi Yoggev said.
- We spill the drops of wine to diminish our joy (less wine=less happy).
- There might be 10 plagues (boils, frogs, hail, et al) or 313+300 plagues, which means 613 plagues, which just so happens to be a good number in Judaism. There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. (More of that darned Jewish math.) As Rabbi Y puts it, we have a choice of considering those plagues or mitzvot. We want to choose the right answer. Pharaoh did not.
- And finally, we open the door to Elijah because we’re looking forward. Elijah arrives in the future.
Next year in Baltimore!
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Listen to: “Hey Rabbi, What’s Up With That?,” a podcast co-hosted by Jmore’s Amanda Krotki and Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Eli Yoggev:
Also see Rabbi Eli Yoggev discuss Passover on Weekend Agenda on Facebook Live on April 12: