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5 Great Secrets of the Haggadah

Tomorrow night, we will head off to seder, and retell our people’s story. Here are a few fun facts to take to your seder table.

1. On this night, we recline, like the Romans did. Ever wonder where the custom of a seder came from? We borrowed it from the Romans. The Romans were famous for their dinner symposia. There, they would eat, recline on pillows, drink wine, and tell stories. Our tradition coopted the symposium as a sort of ritual language that we could use to tell our own stories. Cultural borrowing is a phenomenon we see whenever two communities live side by side.

2. Four Questions, One Answer. The four questions may be one of the best known aspects of the Seder. We ask the youngest person at the table to recite the questions. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the child’s face shine with pride as she realizes that she can do the entire song in Hebrew, by herself. As we focus on the text of those four questions, we realize that it is actually the tee-up to the entire Seder. The questions ask “Why are we doing this strange ritual?” And there is only one answer to the four questions: We do this because our ancestors were slaves in the Land of Egypt. With a strong arm and an outstretched hand, God redeemed our ancestors. Because our people were redeemed, we now celebrate each year. The child asks four distinct questions, and we only give one, broad theological answer.

3. Where is Moses? In the traditional Hagaddah, Moses is never mentioned. Strange that would tell the story of how our people were redeemed from Egypt, and not mention the leader who guided us from slavery to freedom. That is because the Seder focus’ on God and the miracles God performed to usher us out of bondage. When early kibbutznikim were developing their practices for their communities, they decided to rewrite the Hagaddah. Given the kibbutz movement’s socialist bent, they removed God from the seder and added Moses back in. No where in their seders did they mention the miracles by which God redeemed the Israelites. Rather, it was our ancestors and Moses’ leadership that brought about the Israelites’ redemption.

4. There’s more to the Haggadah after dinner. Wait what? We’ve never made it this far in the seder. We usually finish the dinner, open the door for Elijah, and then make our way on out. Perhaps an uncle would insist on making his way through the second half of the seder with anyone who would listen, but we never focused on this. The second half of the seder includes Hallel, Psalms of praise. Having made their way out of Egypt, we move from the experience of bondage and into freedom. For this freedom, we celebrate. And that means we should be singing these festive Psalms. These are some of the best biblical literature we have, and they often get so quickly overlooked.

5. Next Year in… In the 1920s, the Reform Movement published the Union Prayerbook Haggadah. During this time, a debate was forming throughout American Jewry. We were experiencing newfound freedom, success, security, and comfort here in the United States. Zionism was also building momentum, though it had not yet been realized. Within the Reform Movement, in particular, congregations experienced a tension around Zionism. Some congregations were identifiably Zionist, others anti-Zionist. Those opposed to Zionism said that we had our new Zion here in the United States. That voice found its amplification in the Union Prayerbook Haggadah. Instead of ending with “Next Year in Jerusalem,” the last pages included an image of Lady Liberty and the words for “America the Beautiful.” In my own family, we used this Haggadah, and we used to close out our seder with a round of loud, patriotic singing.

I hope that you have a wonderful Passover, that this year’s seder brings nothing but quality time with friends and family, good eats, and good conversation. Zissen Pesach!

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