We’ve just finished Purim.
Perhaps it seems a little early to talk about Pesach?
But some things can be spoken about now, to allow proper time for preparation.
Among the things I want to suggest is preparing for a seder by reading a hagadah in advance. Most of us don’t read the hagadah until the nights of the seders themselves. This doesn’t allow much time for forethought.
Even better — read a hagadah with a commentary. Many are available; more all the time. A good commentary can explain some of the seder’s features. It can also teach things related to the seder, but outside of what might ordinarily be discussed during the seder itself. Reading a hagadah and commentary can then become a highly enjoyable, useful, educational activity, even outside of an actual seder. It can also help introduce some variation into your thinking and discussion from one year to the next, even though the hagadah itself doesn’t change. The variation can create new or renewed levels of interest.
It’s also true that in almost every case, the time allotted for a seder wouldn’t allow for the reading of a commentary as well to any large extent. Thus, reading a commentary in advance can allow you to introduce some thoughts from it — whether you are the leader or one of the participants — without adding an undue amount of time to the seder.
My own preference is for “traditional” commentaries like that of the “Me’am Lo’ez.” I’ve found the “Art Scroll” commentary useful as well. You might have your own. It can even be interesting to visit a good Jewish bookstore, if one is available to you, and examine several commentaries briefly, before choosing one that seems to “speak to you” or meets your needs.
Many people create their own seders. Sometimes they follow the traditional format; sometimes they don’t. I advocate the inclusion of traditional teachings wherever and whenever possible. For many people, the seder might be a special opportunity in the year to learn something of what the rabbis had to say. Doing so need not in any way impinge on the creativity of your seder.
Although not a “reading” per se, I also recommend reviewing well in advance music that can be done at your seder. You might not use all of it, but even some can be effective. Melody has a powerful impact on us, lifting the seder from a mere recitation of words (or listening to said recitation) to something higher. It also provides variety during the seder itself. It’s “good theater” at the very least. Why not spend some time during the month preceding Pesach listening to and choosing specific melodies to include?
Following Pesach, there’s a custom of reading one chapter of Pirkei Avot (“PA;” “Chapters of the Fathers”) on each of the 6 shabbats between Pesach and Sh’vuot. Reading PA itself can be interesting enough, but I have a further suggestion:
There’s a midrash (a kind of rabbinic commentary) on PA entitled “Avot d’Rabbi Natan” – “The Fathers (PA) According to Rabbi Nathan” (“ARN”)
A better translation might be: “‘Fathers’ According to…,” because “Avot” here refers to the book “Pirkei Avot,” rather than to individual rabbinic “Fathers.” “Rabbi Nathan” was the editor/compiler.
If you’re already familiar with PA, reading ARN can enhance your understanding of PA itself and of rabbinic literature in general. While PA contains 6 chapters, ARN contains 41 (in the “A” version) and 48 (in the “B” version). In either version, the rabbis start with the text of PA and go from there into wherever the discussion leads them. It’s a style more “intuitive” than strictly “logical;” almost like Jazz-improvisation. If you’ve never encountered this rabbinic style before, it can be challenging. But the problems are hardly insurmountable.
Parenthetically, most of us were educated in a “Western” style of thinking and expression. ARN, by introducing us to the rabbinic style of thinking, opens us up to possibilities that the Western style doesn’t permit. It’s part of what makes Jewish culture distinct from Western culture. Thus, reading it can introduce us to something deeper about our own historic culture, which also means something deeper about our own identity.
As with reading a hagadah-commentary, reading ARN can add depth and breadth to the minhag (custom) of reading PA itself. Beyond that, it is a guide-to-life that can be applied at any time of year.
As I mentioned before, there are two major versions of ARN, as determined by the great scholar, Rabbi Solomon Schechter. The “A” version (ARNA), edited by Judah Goldin, is available through the “Yale Judaica Series.” It’s an English-only version (my preference is always for English/Hebrew). It’s easily available.
Less available is the “B” version (ARNB), translated and edited by Anthony Saldarini, S.J. (Society of Jesuits), also English-only, published by Brill in 1975. The style is the same as I described above; the rabbinic material differs in some ways from ARNA. I wouldn’t suggest trying to read both in the same year, but such things are up to the individual reader.
Jewish educators these days work in a variety of formats outside of the conventional synagogue. These formats can include classes conducted by independent educators, including rabbis, online and in classes and discussion groups conducted almost anywhere.
Any and all can use traditional references like the ones mentioned in this post as starting-points for their own teaching.