This post is related to one I previously did on “Seder-doing”:

I led the first seder at a friend’s house last night. It went well.

Years ago, I developed a hagadah that covers all the traditional steps but leaves out the digressions and complications that often cause people to lose interest. It was also mostly in English, although now I see more of a need for some Hebrew to be present:

”I grew up with a traditional seder that my grandfather led in Hebrew, and nobody knew what was going on…” [1]

As for the songs, I’d originally edited the Haggadah for use in doing seders in a nursing home with residents many of whom had little or no background or might not be Jewish at all. I therefore left the songs out of the text itself but included them while actually doing the seder. Sometimes, it was enough to simply chant a melody — “Dayenu,” for example. Those who knew it added the words; those who didn’t chanted it like a Hasidic nigun.

When my son was a toddler, I began playing a tape of Pesach songs right after Purim, so that they’d already be familiar to him when we got to the seder. Whether there could sometimes be room for recorded music or music accom-panied by instruments played by participants at the seder itself would probably depend on the needs, tastes and sensibilities of those present. For example, I wouldn’t be in favor of a “performance” at a seder, but if a group of people is already used to singing and playing together, it might be in-keeping. It might open up some interesting possibilities — especially if the choices are well-integrated into the educational and spiritual purposes of the seder itself, rather than being a digression into “music appreciation.”

I usually suggest that we do the first four steps without discussion — just to get into the feeling of actually doing the seder. Then, in the “Magid” (5th) section, I invite people to discuss or ask questions — even about things done earlier in the seder. We did all the steps before the meal in about 1/2 an hour, then the meal, then the 2 steps (abbreviated) and singing after the meal. Everyone felt very good about it.

There wasn’t much discussion. People asked one or two questions — good ones, too. In retrospect, I might have referred the questions to those at the table for their own answers, before giving my own, in the hopes of opening up further conversation. On the other hand, I didn’t want people to hold their questions back out of fear of unnecessarily prolonging the seder. There’s that “6th” son, or child: The one who can frame a relevant question and has one in mind, but doesn’t want to ask it for their own reasons (wanting to get to the meal quickly; fear of annoying others; etc.). I confess that it was less intensive than I would have liked it to be. But it also avoided being a tug-of-war between people paying attention to the seder and waiting — with decreasing patience — for the meal, as it would have been had I insisted on prolonging it with further explanations, anecdotes, etc.

My satisfaction isn’t that I conducted the seder that would be most meaningful to me. Rather, I did one that was meaningful, enjoyable and significant to the people who were there (based on the feedback):

“I come from the school today where any Jew who does anything [Passover-related] on Passover is already doing the right thing…” [2]

I brought my tallit (prayer shawl) and kittel (a white coat with a “gartel” or belt that you tie around you, like a “wimpel” is tied around a Torah scroll after it’s been read). I also have a multi-leading seder 1colored “Bukharian” kippah that I wear only on hagim (holidays), as opposed to the black knit kippah that I wear on Shabbat and weekdays, or the white one that I wear on the High Holidays and when conducting a wedding. At first, my friend thought it would scare people off, but instead, the “costume” or “uniform” added the element that I wanted it to — contributing a religious and spiritual context to the seder; making it something unusual, rather than just an informal or rote performance.

I was also able to insert a little teaching here and there — enough to accomplish an educational purpose, without forcing people to wait too long before eating (one of the big complaints about seders) or get too involved in details that they don’t care about. I’ve found that it can be enough if people hear a handful of things that they retain. They walk away interested and satisfied that they learned something, without feeling that they’ve been given more than they can process (and subsequently ignore).

There’s no “right” way to do a seder. It all depends on who’s there and what they’re willing to accept or participate in. The main thing for me is that people leave it with a good feeling about it. If they learned even one thing and went home with a good feeling about the seder — Dayenu!

In this case, my friend was recuperating from some emotional and medical problems. She was returning to the NYC area from a warmer part of the country earlier than she’d originally planned. Having the seder lifted her spirits visibly. In this case, I think that the spiritual power of the seder had less to do with the overt theme of freedom from slavery, and more to do with re-contacting the uplifting quality of contact with Torah, veiled though it might be.

There are certainly people who could give a deeper explanation of aspects of the seder than I can. But that’s not what’s needed in every case. G-d has made me a teacher, among other things. Part of what a teacher is called to do is to adapt the lessons to the student(s). People told me last night that I “did a great job.” I don’t take that as being a comment about me per se. Rather, I think it’s people saying, “We wanted this to be interesting and meaningful without being stressful. It was.”

So, I did the mitzvah that was given to me, leaving other mitzvot for other rabbis and teachers.


[2] ibid.