Perhaps it is ironic that the best-known Jewish ritual was not originally Jewish. Most scholars agree that the seder, the ritual meal held at the beginning of Passover, was adapted from the formal Roman banquets of almost 2000 years ago. Entertainment and libations, invented to serve the pagan gods and hedonistic tendencies of Roman nobles, were transformed willfully and by circumstance into a most thoroughly Jewish experience.
Any Haggadah will successfully describe for you the basics of how to run a seder. After all, the word seder means order, and the Haggadah itself is nothing more than a how-to manual for the Passover feast. There are fifteen steps to the evening, speckled with four cups of wine, ritual foods and songs from the liturgy and the folk tradition.
Fourteen of the steps are relatively straightforward. Some versions of the Haggadah have edited Psalms or liturgical portions for length. Others have added or substituted supplemental readings reflecting the perspective of historical events or political orientation, such as the Holocaust, the State of Israel, socialism or race relations. The guts of the Haggadah, however, remains the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It compromises the longest and most difficult section of the evening's rites, the fifth step, maggid (the telling).
For the sake of reference, the order of the evening proceeds as follows:
Kadesh (Sanctification) The evening is initiated with the first of four cups of wine. By means of a series of blessings, the full cup of wine is used to symbolize the sacred task of the days ahead to remember the Exodus. Those seated around the table share a drink (wine or grape juice) to symbolize their collective joy and acceptance of the task of commemoration.
Ur=chatz (and washing) Before a meal begins, Jews are to wash their hands by pouring water over each hand from a pitcher. Aside from the incidental hygienic benefits, the act is meant to remove ritual impurities which could contaminate the food. Participants are about to eat an appetizer, not begin the meal, so the washing is done without the pre-meal blessing.
Karpas (Greens) As an appetizer, participants eat a green vegetable. (Some customs substitute the potato, which similarly grows from the ground.) The karpas is dipped, in saltwater or some other dressing, a blessing is recited and participants eat.
Yachatz (Breaking) Three full pieces of matzah, the unleavened bread, are part of the seder ritual. Two of them represent the two full loaves served at all Sabbath and Festival meals, and the third is present for the unique blessing recited on Passover. The middle piece is broken and the larger section is hidden for dessert (afikomen). No matzah is eaten yet.
Maggid (Telling) More below.
Roch=tza (Washing) Now that the meal itself is about to commence, the ritual washing is repeated, this time with the pre-meal blessing.
Motzi (Bringing) This step takes its name from the blessing recited over bread, which acknowledges God’s role in bringing bread from the earth. It is recited over the top unbroken piece of matzah.
Matzah (Unleavened bread) Immediately after the blessing over bread comes the unique blessing over matzah. It is recited over the bottom piece of unbroken matzah. Then the two and a half pieces of matzah are distributed for consumption.
Maror (Bitter herbs) To remember the bitterness of slavery, a piece of horseradish is consumed after the appropriate blessing.
Korekh (Combination) To remember the lost Temple ritual, a piece of bitter herb and a piece of matzah eaten together. (In the Temple, a piece of the roasted sacrificial lamb was added to the mix.)
Shulchan Orekh (Set table) Dinner. Lots of it.
Tzafun (Dessert) The hidden piece of matzah is needed to complete the ritual meal. In some families, the children hide it. In others, the children discover it. In either case, a ransom is paid for this necessary piece, which is then distributed to all.
Barekh (Bless) The liturgical grace after meals is recited. This same liturgy is traditionally recited after every meal. This version contains sections acknowledging Passover.
Hallel (Praise) A series of psalms from the Biblical Book of Psalms is recited. Also included are some sections of the liturgy from the prayer book.
Nirtzah (Conclusion) With hymns and songs, the ritual is concluded. At the end comes the aspiration to celebrate next year in Jerusalem.
Most of the sections have a single task to accomplish. Some have ritual precision, the breaking of the matzah and the assembling of the korekh. Some have obvious meaning, the eating of bitter herbs and the grace after meals. Some are pure enjoyment, the festive meal and the concluding songs. But of them all, the fifth section, Maggid, is the most complicated.
What most people know about this section is that it stands between the participants and the food. And it is long, very long. The temptation is to abbreviate because it seems so unwieldy. The reason for its length is simple: Maggid attempts to fulfill a number of mandates about Passover.
The first is the simple statement in the Torah that Jews are to tell the story of the Exodus to their children each year on the anniversary of the Exodus. The obligation is technically discharged when we recite We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God took us out...
Nothing is so simple, however. Maggid, in its traditional formulation, seeks to resolve (by compromise) a disagreement about whether our true liberation was from slavery or from idolatry. Therefore, a second section is added which recounts that our ancestors were idol-worshipers, and that we were liberated by recognizing and serving God.
Moreover, it focuses on the importance of educating children in the history and values of the Jewish people. Children are encouraged to asked questions. Indeed, they are even provided with four questions (or curious observations) about the unusual practices of the night so that the adults are forced to explain in detail. Then, using the variety of ways the Torah declares the mandate to teach these lessons, a section is included describing the various kinds of children one might encounter: wise, rebellious, simple and unaware; and how to teach them.
Of course, maggid affirms the notion that there may not be children at the table. Therefore, a section is included praising the efforts of adults to expound on the story and lessons of the Exodus at length. As if to illustrate, an extended commentary is offered on a section of the Book of Joshua. This section was chosen because it records the earliest retelling of the story of the Exodus by Jews who had reached the Promised Land. From the verses in the story, the authors of the commentary (who lived almost 2000 years ago) recount values in their own time, such as pride in heritage, religious fidelity, family life and alleviation of oppression.
The story would not be complete without a recognition of the miracles surrounding the Exodus, including the plagues which befell the Egyptians, but spared the Israelite slaves, and an expression of gratitude (Dayeinu, it would have been enough@) for the series of blessings the liberated slaves enjoyed.
Finally, maggid includes a summary of its purpose: In every generation, each person is obligated to see himself/herself as if personally liberated from Egypt.
Jewish liturgical texts are the literary equivalents of large extended families. In-laws, cousins, college friends are all accepted and expected to remain within the fold forever, even if the original connection is lost. The Haggadah is no exception. So much has been added, especially to Maggid, that the original purpose of the the telling can often be obscured by length and minutiae.
Some years, it is important to preserve the Haggadah the way it has been handed down to us. Some years, to keep the message fresh, it is equally important to reinvent the ritual. Traditionalists will balk at any change, citing the solid Jewish principle: our ancestors’ customs are in our hands to preserve and honor. But the seder itself, and the Maggid section especially, are fluid observances, evolving into similar but subtly different events at different times in history and in different places in the world. Re-imagining ways to explore the lessons of the Exodus is the custom of our ancestors. Seeing one’s self as being personally liberated from Egypt requires an opportunity to place one’s self in the story, not to merely retell the story of others.
One option for telling the story of the Exodus and raising the issues of redemption is to replace some or all of the formal text and extended commentary with a Bibliodrama, a sort of role play in which participants take roles described or implied by the Biblical text. Their words and conversations form the basis of expanding upon the story of the Exodus. The participants can enter, in this way, the story itself.
The rules of bibliodrama are few, but important. They are described with elegance and example by Dr. Peter Pitzele, in his book, Scripture Windows. Dr. Pitzele originated the technique by synthesizing his love of the Bible with his training in the therapeutic discipline of psychodrama.
For purposes of the seder, these are the important things to remember. First of all, participants should speak in the first person, in their own understanding of the voice of the character. It is helpful if each speaker identifies him- or herself (e.g., I am Miriam...). Secondly, the text of the Bible cannot be changed (e.g., Moses cannot be an only child). Finally, each insight has its worth, but should be judged or discussed only after the Bibliodrama is complete.
While Passover is called the Festival of Freedom, it is actually redemption which we celebrate. The slaves were brought from degradation to glory, from despair to joy, from darkness to light. Not all of them survived the experience of Egyptian slavery. While slavery itself is virtually unknown among Jews today, survival is part of our daily consciousness.
Dr. Pitzele suggests, therefore, that the theme of the story of Passover is not freedom, as we mostly presume. Instead, it is being spared. He offers this provocative hypothetical understanding of the situation of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt: Moses was not the only child set afloat on the Nile. Countless other parents may have saved their children in silent conspiracy with willing Egyptians, who took them in and raised them as their own. By casting them into the river, the slaves fulfilled Pharaoh’s decree; by pulling them out, the Egyptians showed their compassion, making them worthy of our spilled tears and drops of wine for their suffering. What became of those children, including the first-born, as the Exodus drew near and the Israelites prepared and left Egypt?
Other themes may emerge from the playing. The cast below assumes a large crowd at the seder, but the cast may be expanded or contracted, and people can play multiple roles. By color-coding the cards with people’s assignments, the conversations can be directed, while allowing individuals to put their own spin on the story is part of Bibliodrama. Alternately, the leader can ask the participants, Is this character at our table? and allow people to spontaneously volunteer as they have something to contribute.
The leader is encouraged to do his/her own editing of the Biblical text and to ask questions as they occur (and especially to encourage interaction among the players). A suggested edit follows and includes questions to provoke the participants.
The cast of characters:
Yellow cards: Egyptian loyalists
__Batya's husband (who will become Pharaoh)
__Batya's best friend
__Batya's handmaid (assigned by Pharaoh to keep an eye on her)
__Egyptian merchant whose wife wants to adopt a Hebrew child
__High Priestess of Egypt
__Egyptian farmer with six children
__Egyptian noble, friend of Pharaoh=s family
Orange cards: Egyptians with some ambivalence about Pharaoh's policies
__Batya, Pharaoh's daughter
__Wife of Egyptian merchant who wishes to adopt a Hebrew child
__Egyptian mother of adopted Hebrew child
__Egyptian father of adopted Hebrew child
__Egyptian supervisor of brick-makers
__Handmaid to Batya
__Egyptian brother of adopted Hebrew child
Green cards: Israelites sympathetic to Moses
__Father of hidden child
__Mother of hidden child
Red cards: Israelites ambivalent about Moses
__Overseer with nice home and plenty of food
__Hidden child in Egyptian home who does not know his parents
__Father of a hidden child
__Mother of a hidden child
White card: God
Scenes set by verses in Exodus:
__7:8-12, then 13
__12:3, 6, 7, 12, 13, 21-23, 28
Translation from TANAKH: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Copyright 1985 by the Jewish Publication Society. Used by permission
8]A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. 9]And he said to his people, ALook, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. 10]Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.@ 11So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.
Egyptians: What do you dread?
15]The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16]saying, AWhen you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.@ 17The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.
Midwives: Why did you spare the children?
22]Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, AEvery boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.
Pharaoh: Why do you order the boys drowned and not the girls?
Israelites: What do you do?
Egyptians: What do you think of this decree?
A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. 3When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. 4And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him.
Amram & Yokheved: Why do you do this? What is your child’s real name?
Miriam: Why are you watching? Who put you up to it?
Israelites: What do you do/feel/think when you see this child floating away?
5]The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. 6When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.”
Batya: Why rescue this child?
23]A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. 24God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. 25God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
Batya’s husband: What do you do in your new capacity?
God: What took you so long to notice?
8]The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 9“When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘Produce your marvel,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh.’ It shall turn into a serpent.” 10So Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh and did just as the Lord had commanded: Aaron cast down his rod in the presence of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and it turned into a serpent. 11Then Pharaoh, for his part, summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and the Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their spells; 12each cast down his rod, and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed their rods.
Magicians: What do you make of this turn of events?
Aaron: You were sent to speak. How do you feel being silent?
Court attendants: What will the buzz be after you are dismissed today?
13]Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them, as the Lord had said.
Pharaoh: If you have your proof, why are you denying it?
(Mention the first plagues: blood, frogs, lice.)
16]And the Lord said to Moses, “Early in the morning present yourself to Pharaoh, as he is coming out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Let My people go that they may worship Me. 17For if you do not let My people go, I will let loose swarms of insects against you and your courtiers and your people and your houses; the houses of the Egyptians, and the very ground they stand on, shall be filled with swarms of insects. 18But on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no swarms of insects shall be there, that you may know that I the Lord am in the midst of the land. 19And I will make a distinction between My people and your people. Tomorrow this sign shall come to pass.’”
God: Why spare Goshen at this point?
Pharaoh: What will you think if this prophecy comes to pass?
Egyptians: If the Goshen is spared, how will this effect your attitude toward the slaves?
6]And the Lord did so the next day: all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not a beast died. 7When Pharaoh inquired, he found that not a head of the livestock of Israel had died; yet Pharaoh remained stubborn, and he would not let the people go.
Hidden children and families: “Not a head of the livestock of the Israelites had died” How do you react to this turn of events? What family discussions take place?
(Mention the next three plagues: boils, hail, locusts)
21]Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” 22Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. 23People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.
What kind of darkness can be touched? What does it feel like?
27]But the Lord stiffened Pharaohís heart and he would not agree to let them go. 28Pharaoh said to him, “Be gone from me! Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die.” 29And Moses replied, “You have spoken rightly. I shall not see your face again!”
Pharaoh: Why do you now make this decree?
Moses: What do you mean by your sharp response?
And the Lord said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all. 2Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” 3The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.
Israelites: What did you ask for?
Egyptians: What did you give? Why did you give it?
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household... 6You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it... 12For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord. 13And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt...21Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering. 22Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. 23For when the Lord goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home...” 28And the Israelites went and did so; just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did.
Israelites: Do you try to retrieve your hidden children? Do you warn your Egyptian neighbors (including the foster parents of your children)? Are you ready to leave?
Egyptians: What do you think of the news from Moses and the Israelites? Are you prepared to give up your adoptive children? Would you leave with the Israelites if they let you?
29In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. 30And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians; because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.
Egyptians: What are your thoughts and feelings?
Israelites: What are your thoughts and feelings?
34]So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders... 40The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years; 41at the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of the Lord departed from the land of Egypt. 42That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.
All: Who is going? What is your last thought before you leave/see others leave?
After the conclusion of the bibliodrama, it might be worthwhile to have a discussion on what people drew from the experience. (This discussion can continue over dinner as well; it is not necessary to unduly delay the rest of the steps of the seder.) Among the ideas worth examining in the aftermath of the exercise are these:
Our generation is often considered a generation of survivors. Were we saved by our merits or by serendipity? May we celebrate our survival or must we devote ourselves to the memories of those who were not spared?
We often wonder whether our own small actions make a difference in the lives of others. There were Egyptian loyalists and those who were ambivalent about Pharaoh=s policies. What insights did you gain about the pressures people feel, internally and externally, in the actions they take? Were they agents of survival? Are there issues in contemporary society which ask these questions of you?
Pharaoh was a leader who felt the weight of his office overwhelmingly. Were it not for him, there never would have been slavery, oppression and redemption. The story of the Exodus would never have taken place, and we would not be seated here discussing it tonight. Did we need Pharaoh in order to be redeemed? Can we really see ourselves as having personally left Egypt without a Pharaoh in our lives?
The Egyptian parents who took in the hidden children cared for them and raised them. What are those parents owed by the children? What are they owed by the birth parents of the children?
There are parallels to this story and its circumstances throughout Jewish history. During the medieval persecutions in Europe, the dark days of the Holocaust, the contemporary circumstances of Jews in the former Soviet Union and some Middle Eastern countries, many lives were lost and some lives were spared. Does the Exodus story serve a purpose? Do those other events serve a purpose?
It is part of the brilliance of the Jewish tradition that it can be transmitted and transformed simultaneously. The seder is the vehicle to keep alive the central activity of Jewish life: remembering our past and using its lessons to inform our future. If the architects of Jewish tradition could borrow unashamedly from the Romans of their time, then we should feel confident in continuing their work in crafting innovative approaches to enhance and preserve old forms. We should be willing to sing, as Israeli composer Naomi Shemer wrote, a song which is two thousand years old, yet every day brand new. It is how we are redeemed.