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Passover 5779: A Memorable Night

Passover 5779: A Memorable Night

Apr 24, 2019

Among the commentary and news items that circulate leading up to each major Jewish holiday, one piece stood out. [Available here: https://forward.com/life/faith/422792/american-jewish-teens-passover-seder/ ] Dr. Arielle Levites is a scholar of Jewish education, and she and her colleague Dr. Liat Sayfan recently completed a soon to be published study about today’s Jewish teenagers. They surveyed more than 17,000 American Jewish teens, the largest such data set ever collected, in order to learn “how teens’ participation in Jewish activities related to their attitudes toward being Jewish, as well as to their sense of connection and responsibility to others.”

Levites wrote this week about one of the striking findings of the study. “Jewish teens,” she wrote, “who reported regular attendance at a Passover Seder rated themselves higher on almost every outcome we measured. The effect was small but remarkably consistent. ... The Passover Seder, statistically speaking, outpaced many other childhood activities we measured - including those that required much more intensive commitments of time and resources.”

There is something about Passover it would seem that is particularly sticky, something about it that has a small but significant correlation and perhaps even causation to all other measures of Jewish identity. Thought it is only one or two nights a year, the seder punches above its weight.

Levites suggests several reasons for this. The first connects to one of the major findings of their research, that Jewish teens today generally like and admire their parents, and see their families as the major source and incubator for their own Jewish identity and values, which they see as consistent, rather than conflicting with, their parents’. In other words, the teens in the survey associated being Jewish and doing Jewish things with their particular family, rather than a larger community of which they are a part.
So given the primacy of a family-based sense of Jewish identity, it makes sense that the Passover seder, as a home-based ritual, would be particularly important, as opposed to, say, Yom Kippur services. Furthermore, the flexibility of the seder, each family observing it in their own idiosyncratic way, contributes to this association between family and Jewish identity.

Part of this flexibility also relates to who is around the table. The seder, with its invitation that “all who are hungry may come and eat,” can be made accessible to today’s complex Jewish families, which more often than not today include non-Jewish relatives and friends. At its core, the seder is a family meal, recognizable to people of any background. This may also account for the popularity and impact of the seder.

Finally, the seder creates a memorable moment of inter-generational connection, where two or three or even four generations come together to share an experience. As Levites writes, “American Jewish teens, perhaps like all teens, want opportunities to talk with their families about what matters most in life. The Seder is an extraordinary family dinner that helps teens and their families do just that.”

All of this, of course, is by design. The purpose of the seder is to tell and re-tell the story of leaving Egypt on through the generations. I was so moved this week at the classroom seders our ECP children held, where I watched this happen live. Each room had its own craft projects and special Haggadot and theatrical productions in which they told and retold the story of Passover. It was so moving to see all of these parents take off from work in the middle of the day to be present for the classroom seder.

This intergenerational transmission is what Passover is all about. Just after the passage we read this morning, the Torah commands us, “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” We are to each personally feel that we left Egypt, and then convey that feeling to the next generation.

The whole seder is designed to facilitate this process, beginning with the four questions which use a child to kick-off the night’s dialogue. But there are some other, lesser known ways that the seder was meant to engage children, long before the advent of plastic frogs or 10 Plagues finger puppets.

The Talmud (Pesachim 109a) suggests that, since the children do not drink the 4 cups of wine, the adults should distribute roasted grains and nuts to hold the children’s attention, so that they will remain awake and attentive, and ask about the proceedings. No less an eminence than Rabbi Akiva is reported to have done so.

The Talmud also reports lifting the seder plate and grabbing the matzah as other unusual practices designed to spark curiosity among the children present about why this night is so different from others. Also, as time went on, the purpose of some of the seder customs, which were adapted from the Greco-Roman symposium, became obscure. So, doing something unusual to arouse the curiosity of the children became a convenient way to explain these customs whose original purpose had been lost.

This practice of distributing nuts and roasted grain—or, what we would call today candy--became codified in Jewish law. One commentator (Mishnah Berurah on OH 472) elaborates that the purpose of this custom is to keep the children awake until at least Avadim Hayinu, which is the beginning of the response to the four questions asked by the child. Making sure the children hear this part of the Haggadah—how we were slaves in Egypt until God set us free-- is the essence of the commandment of Passover. At the very least, the children should understand that the unusual practices they see all around them are connected to the story of leaving Egypt.

That commentator then includes an editorial comment where he rails against the practice he observed in his own day—late 19th and early 20th century Belarus—of families who would have their children recite the four questions and then dismiss them to go to sleep before they could hear the answer. This defeats the whole purpose, in his view. His point is that the seder should not just be a perfunctory ritual or performance, but a real exchange between the generations.

And so it is for us today: children and teens take what they experience during the seder and apply it to everything else in their lives. The seder, as it should be, stands at the core of their Jewish identity, a beautiful and holy mixture of family, ritual, story and sensibility. As we sit around the seder table once again tonight, may we keep in mind the sacred transmission that the ritual enables.