Ensuring an engaging Seder

Of all the festivals in the Jewish calendar, seder night is my favourite time of the year. During, and as a distraction to the hard work and preparation carried out in the month preceding Pesach, I find myself busily planning and eagerly anticipating seder night.

First and foremost, the seder does not need to be a night of sitting formally around the table as you read through the text of the haggada, nor should it be.

Thirty days prior to Pesach, we are supposed to commence learning the laws of this chag and to begin studying the haggada. Post seder, there is a week of Pesach in which we can still discuss excerpts from the haggada. Seder night is NOT a one-time opportunity to share every piece of Torah connected to the haggada. Rather it is an evening of experiences, a night to relive leaving Egypt leading up to and culminating in our gratitude to Hashem.

Rav Dov Linzer of Yeshivat Chovovei Torah raises the question as to why the main characters of the haggada are not Moshe, Aharon or Pharaoh but rather our sages Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Tarfon. These sages are found telling the story of the haggada and through this telling, they become a part of the story. Through being active participants, we make the story our own, live it and become part of it. So too, in the haggada, rather than reading the story of the exodus from Egypt as found in the book of Shemot, we read verses from the book of Devarim- a retelling of this story. The mitzvah of ‘sippur yetziat mitzraim’ and ‘v’higadata l’vincha’ is to tell a detailed story of leaving Egypt and to make the story our own. “In every generation, a person is obligated to see themself as if they came out of Egypt.

This is a night of storytelling. A night of educating the next generation, tailoring the information and style to a format appropriate to all those present. Like any good story, we want there to be plenty of curiosity, some tension, songs and visual aids, such as when we point to the Pesach, matzah and maror of Raban Gamliel.

Before seder night my husband and I go through the haggada as if it is a play or script and we are the directors and producers performing a production. We decide which tunes to sing, which sections to delve into and what themes to emphasize this year, whether that be freedom or gratitude, and how to involve all the guests. We prepare a suitcase of props and costumes and we come to the seder prepared.

I am privileged to have experienced some incredible sedarim over the years and I have honed the tips and tricks I have learnt along the way into these practical suggestions. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are some useful ideas I have found to be effective and engaging. Don’t try too many new ideas at once – the seder should have a familiar feel but with some new touches each year.

Before you start

Warn your guests to eat beforehand – do not come to seder hungry. The food is not the main event of the evening and empty stomachs make it hard to concentrate on the haggada. Though one is meant to have an appetite for the matzah you can still make sure to eat something before Pesach begins.

Be proactive, ask your visitors to prepare a section of the haggada in advance. This could be a story, poem, play, explanation or interpretation.

Don’t fully set the table. The meal takes place only after the maggid section and it is far easier to enjoy the evening if you don’t have to worry about your haggada or elbow knocking over cutlery and crockery. Set out small plates, glasses and small forks. The cutlery can already be organized and wrapped in a serviette for easy distribution at the meal. Your table can still be presentable and attractive using centrepieces related to the story of leaving Egypt. It is also very important to prepare a seating plan in advance.

Ensure everyone has a haggada. There are dozens to choose from in a whole range of styles and if someone doesn’t own one already it’s a fantastic choice for a Pesach gift. It could be a personalised version with family photographs or one with a translation, or transliteration.

Create ancient Egypt

This could be a design change in the layout of the room, with blue sheets hanging from the ceiling so you can walk through the sea as it splits. It could also be a centrepiece running along the table. We have Egyptian Playmobil figurines riding a horse and chariot that sit in the middle of the dining table and set the scene, as well as providing a distraction if guests require it.

Costumes are a very important part of the seder experience. We have Egyptian and Israelite costumes for men and women, adult and child. Sometimes they add some drama when singing a song, or they can be used to conjure up a surprise appearance by a character visiting the seder.

In the Old City of Jerusalem, you can have a professional photo taken posed in ancient Egyptian costume with a scene of the pyramids behind you. Have this photo, or a homemade version, on display at your seder and remind those present of the time that you were living in Egypt. Even better send a copy of the photo with a message on the back, such as “Wish you were here!” to friends or family who won’t be with you so that they can pull out your postcard at their seder and talk about the time you were all in Egypt.

One of my favourite ideas is to write a personal exodus from Egypt story. It should be particular to all those at your table or each family should write their own. These can be read aloud or scattered on the table for people to read and enjoy. The more personal and creative the more enjoyable it is-but beware it can offend!

As we were leaving Egypt, Grandpa Sam realized that yet again he had forgotten something and we had to go back for the fifth time. In the meantime, Josh and Daniel were fighting over whether or not our dog Ollie would appreciate it if the cat came with us. Shira pretended she had brushed her hair but we could see frogs living in there from about nine plagues ago. Talia was wearing too much kohl around her eyes and had the entire collection of jewellery that we had taken from our neighbours hanging around her neck.”

Be Inclusive

In order to include everyone present, it does require some advance planning.

  • Have each guest pick out a name from a hat at the start of the evening. They will be responsible for pouring the wine or grape juice for that person all evening.
  • Hand out tokens to use before you speak. This can both encourage contributions, and limit them! Try to hold off long speeches until the mealtime.
  • Make a personalized haggada or a pillowcase with photos of the family to gift to relatives.
  • Ask a grandparent what their seder was like when they were a child. Details about the food served or the clothes they wore can reveal fascinating details like the grandpa who wore his school uniform for his Bar Mitzvah and for seder night. They may also be able to share stories and tidbits from seder nights in a different culture or country.
  • We are about to leave Egypt and you can take just one item, what will you choose to pack?” This question is a great short conversation starter to involve everyone at the table and help them to think about the reality of leaving Egypt.
  • Prepare coupons as rewards for asking questions that can then be traded in for prizes. Alternatively, you could use puzzle pieces to encourage cooperation rather than competition. These can form one large puzzle related to Pesach or even provide a clue to finding the afikoman.
  • The paragraphs explaining the verses from Sefer Devarim can take a while to read through and risk people losing interest. At one incredible seder I saw the most amazing technique in use. Their great uncle, a learned man, was asked to read these paragraphs. He read at great speed with sudden abrupt pauses at which point the children would all shout out the following word. Not only was he given a position of great esteem but the guests followed every single word of these paragraphs and the seder moved along at a reasonable pace.
  • At Hallel ask everyone for one thing they are thankful for since last Pesach.

Triggers

As much planning as you do for seder night, improvisation and spontaneity are essential. Be open to new ideas and responsive to the mood of those present. Having a handful of these tips prepared means you can pull them out as required. This could be pretending that someone is calling on the phone or has arrived at the door, whether it be Eliyahu Hanavi or Pharaoh. It could be an interruption from an Egyptian news broadcast or a weather forecast. Bring out the collection of costume jewellery which you collected from the neighbours.

One Seder when the young children were starting to fall asleep and lose focus I threw a piece of material around me and pretended to be a young child so sad because my parents were out working all day. “They returned home too tired to make me dinner,” I explained “and missed my birthday party because their master wouldn’t let them leave.” It captured the children’s attention, they were all spellbound until my daughter started crying because she was so sad! Older children could dramatize a diary entry from their time in Egypt.

When light refreshment is required, move along the table asking guests if they identify as Israelite or ancient Egyptian and according to their response hand them either glasses of water or tomato juice to symbolize the plague of blood.  You can also use jelly crystals or food colouring.

Every so often everyone needs to get up, out of their seats and moving around the room. Gather your guests, throw your pillows over your shoulder and shuffle around the table whilst singing a song about leaving Egypt or another song from the haggada.

Distractions

Sometimes despite all your hard work, preparation and ideas, it just doesn’t work. Clear a corner of the room and strew some construction toys so that participants can build pyramids if they don’t want to sit at the table. On the table have some reading material available, such as a collection of quotes or questions in a dish that people can peruse when they want to switch off.

Wishing you a wonderful and engaging Seder night/s!

About the Author
Ilana Harris is a teacher and educational consultant. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four kids.
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