The night of the Passover seder is cloaked in an aura of sanctity and ancient times.
The basic format of the evening is as follows: On the first night of the festival of Passover, one or more families gather together to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt and to share a joyous family feast.
The structure of this celebration has its roots in the original first night of Passover, when Israel left Egypt. Such was its character in the days of the prophet Isaiah as well; he speaks of “a night when a festival is hallowed” (Is. 30:29). This was its basic nature during the Second Temple era, when the famed sage Hillel would “wrap [the Pesacĥ offering] up with matzah and bitter herbs and eat them together.”
Likewise, in the dark days that followed the Destruction of the Holy Temple, R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua, and their colleagues sat together on this night in Bnei Brak. It continued in the era of Yannai, the poet of the land of Israel who penned the hymn entitled Az Rov Nissim while living under Byzantine rule. So it was in the days of Rabbi Yosef Tuv-Elem in northern France, and in this fashion its observance continued to the time when the classic song Ĥad Gadya was composed, at the close of the Middle Ages.
This continuum of the Passover observance endured not only in its basic appearance, but even in its finer details: The child who asks the four questions (whether or not he can carry a tune) voices words and phrases almost identical to those of the child who asked those very same questions at his family’s seder when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago.
Thus, the Passover seder enables the members of every generation to emulate their ancestors in an act of retelling that is constantly reinvigorated. An eminence of yore lingers over the rhetorical, ornate ceremony, each detail filled with recollections and significance. Raising and placing down the cup, covering and uncovering the matzah, opening the door, breaking the matzah: all of these acts are parts of an established ceremony, perhaps the most ancient ceremony observed continuously by Jewish people throughout the generations.
However, at the same time it should be noted that despite its sanctity, ritual and ceremony, the seder night is not a time of pompous, frozen decorum, of the precise and heavy repetition of what has already been performed repeatedly for thousands of years. For like the other Jewish holidays and festivals, each seder night unites within itself elements of austerity with intimacy, sobriety with cheer, and a set text with the possibility of endless variations and styles.
Although the external format of the seder is fixed, it is not rigid. It is designed to accommodate changes and novel interpretations, and this approach is even ideal. Not only have various additions and new sections occasionally been added to the text of the Haggadah over the course of the years, but the text of the Haggadah itself practically beckons to be perfected by the seder participants themselves.
In every generation, Jewish parents and children must contemplate anew the messages of the Haggadah. The Egyptian bondage and the redemption from Egypt are subjects that need to be discussed. Upon investigation, we will find that many aspects of our life meet, identify with, and collide with the Passover Haggadah. Essentially, all the seder participants are asked to make additions and improvements to the Haggadah, to “[tell] of the Exodus from Egypt…all that night” — at the very least.
For this reason, there are no set, restrictive rules that dictate how the Haggadah should be read, or who should read it. If everyone agrees, the family members may ask the head of the household to read and explain; alternatively, they may all read in unison. If they wish, the family may sing the Haggadah, or if they so prefer, they may recite it without singing. Whoever would like to ask a question — the wise son, the wicked son, or the simple-natured son — whether young or old, is invited to do so. And whoever is able to answer, to participate in the discussion, may do so as well — the more the better.
The seder night expresses the character of Judaism in the fullest sense, as taught concisely by one of the hasidic masters. The Torah teaches, “You shall be holy people to Me” (Ex. 22:30). When shall this be? When your holiness is human. Thus, the atmosphere at the seder should not be one of irreverence or silliness; a feeling of respect for the sacred should permeate it — but with humanity. One is allowed to laugh; one is allowed to question; one is allowed to have fun. The afikoman is “stolen,” the Exodus from Egypt is reenacted, and this Jewish family, now celebrating the Passover seder, renews its connection with the entire Jewish people, in all their exiles and throughout all generations. We recall the past, give thanks for God’s goodness, grieve over misfortune, and anticipate the future redemption, when “for you there shall be singing as on a night when a festival is hallowed” (Is. 30:29).
This is an excerpt from the recently published NEW Steinsaltz Haggada. Reproduced with permission of Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.