In the spirit of the Mishnah, freeing up the seder

By David Arnow, JTA

SCARSDALE, N.Y. – You can find the secret to creating lively Passover seders in a surprising place — an 1,800-year-old law code called the Mishnah.

For starters, the Mishnah did not envision reciting a Haggadah at the seder. Instead, it designed a careful balance between aspects of the evening that should be fixed and others that left room for spontaneity.

Fixed elements included drinking four cups of wine, eating matzah, explaining the meaning of the Passover sacrifice, eating matzah and bitter herbs, and reciting the six psalms of Hallel. These would bind us together as a people wherever and whenever we live.

But when it came to telling the Passover story, the Mishnah encouraged creativity. This would prevent seders from becoming lifeless clones of one another. Brilliant!

For example, the Mishnah envisioned a night that should be so different from other nights that children would naturally ask, “Why?” Only if a child were unable or failed to ask spontaneous questions should a parent offer the prompt, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Then a parent might point out things like “on all other nights we eat leavened bread or unleavened bread, on this night only unleavened bread.”

Just as the child’s questions were not prescribed, neither were the answers. As to a response, the Mishnah says, “According to the understanding of the son his father teaches him. He begins with disgrace and ends with glory; and he expounds from My father was a wandering Aramean … (Deuteronomy 26:5) until he finishes the whole section.”

Using a succinct version of the Passover story in Deuteronomy 26:5-8 as a frame, the story was to be told through the process of expounding, drasha — literally “drawing out meaning” — or making midrash.

There was no expectation to create the same midrash every year. The story was to be geared to the level of the child’s understanding, which would develop from one year to the next. The story becomes meaningful to those gathered around the table through an interactive, creative process. The Mishnah thus implies that the seder should change from year to year and that no two seders should be exactly the same.

In lieu of “slavishly” reading a prescribed text, the Mishnah encouraged us to take liberties, using its example as a core and a guide. Alas, over the centuries, the balance between the fixed and spontaneous elements of the seder disappeared. Rather than asking their own questions, children read or memorized a mandated set of questions. And in place of an answer aimed at the level of the child’s understanding, the Haggadah incorporated a written midrash on “My father was a wandering Aramean.”

The goal of an ideal seder became reading the Haggadah from beginning to end, skipping not a word. The result? Instead of seders feeling like a celebration of freedom, they began to feel more like a chore.

Generation after generation we recited these words from the Haggadah: “Whoever elaborates on the story of the Exodus from Egypt deserves praise.” But rather than prying open a little room for creativity, they remained just words on the page.

In the liberty with which we elaborate on the Exodus, we taste and celebrate freedom. We experience ourselves as free, independent creators, the very antithesis of our ancestors mired in the mind-numbing pits of slavery. In so doing we renew the divine sparks within us that mark us each as images of God, the paradigmatic free creator.

In the spirit of the Mishnah, here are two simple suggestions that will help breathe life into your seder.

A few weeks before Passover, ask each of your guests to respond to the following question: “What do you think would be a particularly important question to discuss at the seder this year?”

If you do this by e-mail, paste the responses into a document without identifying who asked which question. Make a copy for each of your guests. Take turns reading the questions aloud. This is an easy, non-threatening way to let the group know what’s on everyone’s mind. Choose a few questions for discussion throughout the seder. You’ll probably find that questions cluster around particular issues, which can guide you in choosing which questions to discuss.

The second suggestion involves deciding where and when to hold this discussion. Instead of doing it at the seder table, if possible gather in a different room beforehand. You’ll find that shifting the location to the living room, for example, sets the tone for an entirely different conversation. Countless readers of Creating Lively Passover Seders have confirmed that holding some of your Passover discussions before you sit down at the table is the simplest, most powerful way to create a more engaging evening.

If either of these suggestions helps you to experiment with your Seder this year, Dayyenu! It would suffice!

David Arnow is the author of “Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities” (2nd Edition, Jewish Lights, 2011) and co-editor of “My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries.”