If you had an amazing seder, what would it look like? What would it sound like? What would it smell like?
Over 20 years of teaching I’ve had some great classes and I’ve had some super lame, dead-boring classes. Since so many people only are teachers on seder night, I thought it would worth sharing some advice from a guy who has had both successes and failures.
A great lesson starts with a clear vision for what you want to accomplish. Most of the time you goals are curricular or cognitive. We ask ourselves, “What do I want the students to know or be able to do at the end of this unit/lesson?” But sometimes the goals are affective, especially for us in Torah Studies. The question we ask are, “What do we want the students to experience or feel?” For better or for worse a seder is a lesson. The sages and customs that created the Haggadah set the curriculum. The lesson has both content goals and affective goals.
The content goals are, I think, obvious. To reinforce in the students the understanding that Hashem took the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt in a miraculous way. Kind of basic, but accurate. Of course embedded in that are hundreds or thousands of details. The Haggadah gives us many of those details explicitly, but not all. The work of the teacher is to solicit from the students more details and a deeper understanding of each of these components (Hashem, took, Jewish, slavery, Egypt, miraculous.) The Haggadah gives some guidance as to how to differentiate instruction for the various levels in the room, but the truth is there is a lot of space for creativity in the lesson.
That said, I want to propose that the main task for the teacher at the Seder is not the content goals. At least, in our generation, I think that’s not the most important task. The affective goals, the feelings that the seder invokes, are much more critical. (For more on that, see here.)
And that brings us back to the beginning. What do you want your seder to look and sound like? What feelings would it evoke if it were amazing?
When I look into my imagination and try to picture it, there is a lot of laughter and kibbitizing. People are genuinely happy to be there and to be with each other. The kids are eager to share things from school. The adults are ready to think big thoughts, ask challenging questions, listen to each other, but also to laugh together over inside jokes and childhood memories.
The sages of the Talmud put a high value on the children’s experience at the seder. They wanted kids to be engaged and happy. They encouraged giving out sweets at the seder. I’ll say that again in case this was news; the Talmud tells us to give the kids sweets at the Seder. Not for dessert. During the “service.”
Over the years our family has tried a variety of things to create an engaging and fun Pesach Seder. Whether I was inducing nightmares in the children using a giant inflatable locust, or “magically” turning water into “blood” in so convincing a way that my niece screamed in fear, or whether my kids were torturing my mom with plastic frogs and lice, we enjoyed the days when the props in a Box of Plagues helped create the engagement we needed. Although the 10 Makot (“plagues”) are only a relative small part of the seder, it still can be a highlight.
Here are a few other ideas we’ve tried to keep things feeling engaging, fun, while still being Seder-y.
1) The Pillow Case Game. – I wish that I could take credit for this one, but I believe I found it years ago at Aish.com. Before the seder or maybe shortly after the 4 Questions you give children a pillow case and ask them to fill it with random toys and household objects. Then as some time that seems appropriate the seder leader (or a child, it doesn’t matter) gives every participant an object from the pillow case. And then each person has to say how that object connects to the Pesach story. Imagination is critical. You have a spatula? That could be an object used to take matzah out of the oven. But it could also be a shovel used to move the dead frogs after the 2nd plague. What might look to others to be toy car might actually be Paroh’s chariot or a massage tool that people used to help with the discomfort of the Plague of Boils. I give out 1, 2, or very rarely 3 candies based on my assessment of how “good” and answer is.
2) Person, Place, or Thing – A few years ago I made up index cards that connected to the categories Pesach Person, Place or Thing. Then I gave each person two cards. At any point that a person wanted to during the meal they could read their card and share their answer. Some examples of the questions:
Person: Which person at this table would you bring with you to try and convince Paroh to let the Jewish people go free? Which of the 4 sons are you most likely to be friends with? Shifra and Puah (the Jewish midwives) saved the baby boys. What are other great things that Jewish women have done?
Place: If Moshe came to America for a day where would you want to take him? Where would you rather have been, at the splitting of the sea or at Mount Sinai? What would be the greatest challenge of a seder in space? (And what might be more fun?)
Thing: Name 2 times in the story where WATER saves and 2 times it destroys. What object in this room would you most want to become a family heirloom to be at ever Soskil Family Seder from now on? Which would you rather keep as a souvenir; a bottle of Darkness or a hailstone with fire inside?
Candies are distributed for all answers, but lame answers get fewer candies, obviously.
3) Ye Old Afikoman Treasure Hunt – Before the seder stash treasure hunt clues about the house in the desired locations. Have the treasure hunt lead to the afikoman. The clues can be both Pesach and/or family related. “I wonder if Moshe took a Shabbos nap. If he did, it would be here.” “Where Amram (Moshe’s father) would have kept his Passover lamb for 4 days before it was time.” “If Shira kept a piece of Barad (hail) this is where she would keep it.”
4) Secret Mission Cards – This is a take-off of the game “Assassin” where you try to get people out by tricking them into saying a predetermined word. Each person at the table gets a card that will encourage them to say a dvar Torah or seder insight using a particular word. If they can complete their mission they get a candy. But if they can complete their mission without anyone realizing what the word they had to use was, they get 3 candies. “You must use the word banana in a dvar Torah.” You can also give specific tasks such as, “You must make Bubby say the word bubble.” “Recite part of the Haggadah to the tune of Happy Birthday.”
It’s important to realize that just like in a classroom, where students cannot be expected to invest their higher brain in things until they know that their basic needs are taken care of, so too at the Seder. If kids (or adults) are hungry or tired then they are not set up to enjoy themselves and you are not set up for success. So take a nap before the seder! Feed the kids something in the early evening so that they won’t be staaaarrrvvvving at the seder.
Whether your seder is filled with people jumping around as frogs or plastic “lice” being thrown into your wine glass, I hope you have a fun-filled and meaningful seder.
Chag Kasher V’Sameach
You can order Rabbi Soskil’s book for teens on Hashkafa and Emunah here.