According to legend, at Passover Elijah the Prophet visits ever Seder table around the world. As he travels he must marvel at the diversity of traditions that can be found in different communities and regions. These global traditions provide wonderful ways to prompt new questions and interest at any Seder.
While many communities use a special Seder plate to hold the edible and visual supplies for their Seder, Persian and Yemenite Jews place the different items directly on the table, or in small bowls in front of each person, so that they surround the participants, creating a truly immersive environment. Others use a basket covered with a decorated cloth to hold all the different ritual items, as do the Jews of Tunisia, so that they are ready to take them off the table and leave Egypt right away–it adds to the feeling of reenacting the Exodus.
Tactile and visual clues provide another way to enhance the experience. Lately, “plague bags” with different toys for each of the ten plagues have become popular. The Tunisian community has had the same sort of idea for a lot longer. They place a fishbowl with live fish swimming in it on the table next to the Seder plate, to evoke crossing the Red Sea by seeing the fish that swam in the walls of water on either side.
The Jews of Kavkaz, in the Caucasus mountains, took advantage of the tradition outside of Israel of holding two Seders by holding their first night Seder in Hebrew, and the second night in their own language, so as to both hear the language of our ancestors and also be able to deeply understand what is going on. Following their example or modifying it to fit your needs can bring richness and depth to a Seder.
The beginning of the Seder, like the opening scene of a good play, needs to engage and interest the participants. Instead of simply announcing the start, you could begin with the Seder leader or another participant circling the Seder plate over the head of each of the participants three times, reciting “In haste we came out of Egypt,” as is done in Morocco and Tunisia. Each individual responds with “Ha Lachma Anya” “This is the bread of affliction” or with “Avadim hayinu” “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”. This physically immerses you in the sights and sounds of the Seder.
Alternatively the Jews of Persia, ask each participant to take a turn holding up the plate of matzot and reciting the 14 steps of the Seder in order, ending with “Ha Lachma Anya,” “This is the bread of affliction.” This gives each participant the chance to take a first step into the experience individually, and to commit to this year’s journey to freedom.
As we come to the Maggid section, in which the story of the Exodus is recounted, our core desire is to experience and understand what it meant to go from slavery to freedom. Many communities mixed readings with theater to recreate the sense of adventure and urgency. Consider doing as the Jews of Romania were accustomed to do. When you read the piece of the Haggadah that begins “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” (In Hebrew “Avadim Hayinu”), take a pillowcase filled with heavy objects, and carry it on your back, around the table. First an older person might trudge around the table with his or her back bent under the load, and then each child could take a turn. In Uganda, they retell the miracle of the modern redemption of the Abayudaya from religious slavery. In Romania, adults would say “difficult to be a slave” over and over as the children experienced the weight of slavery.
Or you might begin your Seder as Iraqi Jews do- then be “interrupted” by a knock on the door. One member of the family dresses up as a nomad, with a hat, knapsack and walking stick. The leader of the Seder quizzes him or her: “where are you coming from?” (Egypt) “Where are you going?” (Jerusalem) and finally “what are the supplies for your trip?,” which cues the ‘actor’ to begin singing the 4 questions.
The recital of the 10 plagues is a disturbing moment in the Seder, as we realize that our freedom comes at the price of someone else’s suffering. At many Seders, each participant removes a small amounts of wine or grape juice from their cup as each of the 10 plagues are read, symbolizing the lessening of our joy because of their pain. Most Ashkenazi Jews remove some with their finger and place each drop on their plates. Other communities make the symbolism more visible. Some Sephardim pour wine off into a bowl of water, so that by the end it looks red, and we see in front of us the blood of those who suffered so that we could go free. Indian Jews take a slightly different approach and have a Cup of Pharaoh from which the wine is taken, diminishing the power of the one who caused the plagues, and the suffering of his people, through his refusal to let his slaves go free.
One of the challenges of a long Seder is keeping the young ones involved. The Afikomen, the last piece of food eaten at the Seder is, in many communities, one way that we keep children engaged. Often the afikomen is hidden, and children are asked to find it, so that we may end the meal. Other children steal it, and demand that it be ransomed back. Still others follow Bukharan custom, and let children use a towel to gently mock-whip the person who hid it until the location is divulged.
Iraqi Jews take a different approach, and do not hide the Afikomen, but rather tie the afikomen to the back of a small child and tell him or her to guard it, which helps the little one stay awake and aware of their special role in the Seder.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt is the core the story of the Jewish people. It is a universal tale that speaks to global themes of suffering, freedom and faith. Bringing the global custom to your Seder this year can not only bring new meaning to familiar rituals but also connect you with the global traditions of our people.
Change is difficult. It can only happen when we reflect on the present and imagine different possibilities for going forward. In the ten days between the welcoming of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition encourages to do just that. There are many prayers that serve as meditations on change. What follows is an adaptation of a traditional prayer meant to help focus our minds on the ways in which we might work to make the world a more tolerate of “others” and engage in the positive celebration of diversity. It wrote this piece with the assistance of Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder and hope you will print out a copy and bring it with you to synagogue or share it as a conversation starter with friends. May we all be inspired to create a better and more inclusive world.
ASHAMNU: We have been guilty. In the past year, I discounted the contributions that people unlike me could make to my community. Next year, I will actively search for ways that those people can be involved, constructively, in our communal efforts.
BAGADNU: We have betrayed. In the past year, I have betrayed my commitment to the mitzvah, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Next year, I will work to love my own “differences” as well of those of my neighbor.
GAZALNU: We have stolen. In the past year, I said things that stole away from other’s sense of legitimacy. Next year, I will find ways to bolster other peoples’ respect and acceptance in my community.
DIBARNU DOFI: We have been hypocritical. In the past year, I have held people unlike me to a standard to which I do not hold myself. Next year, I will work at equalizing those standards, either by raising my standards for myself, as well as relaxing them for others, or by relaxing my personal standards as well.
HE’EVINU: We have caused others to sin. In the past year, I have put up barriers to allowing others to participate fully in the Jewish community and tradition. Next year, I will help lower the barriers to participation in Jewish life.
V’HIRSHANU: And we have made others wicked. In the past year, I persuaded others, in my teaching and my speech, to shrink their boundaries. Next year, I will share messages of inclusion and expansiveness.
ZADNU: We have sinned intentionally. In the past year, I have behaved in ways that exclude others, knowing that what I was doing was exclusionary. Next year, I will listen to the whispering voice of my conscience and act on it, so that I do not exclude others.
CHAMASNU: We have been violent. In the past year, I have let the ends justify the means, ignoring the hurts that result from the methods I used to achieve my goals. Next year, I will pay attention to the process as well at the outcomes.
TAFALNU SHEKER: We have lied In the past year, I have ignored truths in order to maintain my social connections and status. Next year, I will speak truth and work to change opinions of those around me.
YATZNU RA: We have given bad advice. In the past year, I have not taken the time to give counsel those who really need my help. Next year, I will use the breadth of my experience to the best possible advantage.
KIZAVNU: We have been deceitful. In the past year, I lied to myself, saying that I was excluded for my differences, relying on my sense of exclusion, rather than relying on the ways that my actions contributed to difficulties. Next year, I will attempt to judge others favorably, giving them the benefit of the doubt, before placing all the blame on their shoulders.
LATZNU: We have mocked In the past year, I have laughed with discomfort, rather than engaging uncomfortable situations. Next year, I will venture into uncomfortable territory with curiosity, while having compassion on my own discomfort.
MARADNU: We have rebelled. In the past year, I have rebelled for the sake of rebelling, not always with an eye to the consequences of our actions. Next year, I will challenge myself to rebel constructively, in ways that enhance my community.
According to Jewish tradition, the Torah has seventy “faces,” but is still one, unified Torah. On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai with customs that celebrate the gift of Torah, and show the same diverse presentation of a few unifying core ideas. Each Jewish culture is unique, and at the same time, integrated with the worldwide Jewish community.
There are many special foods for Shavuot, in different Jewish cultures. Dairy is popular because, when the Israelites in the desert received the Torah, including the kosher laws, there was no kosher meat yet available. Torah is compared to honey, so many traditional Shavuot foods are sweet, as well. Persian Jews make “Polao mastin” a dish made of rice and milk, and “koltcha shiri,” a dairy cake, while in Greece there is a special dairy porridge made with cinnamon called “sutlag.” In Poland, cheesecake is the traditional Shavuot dessert. Libyan Jews make necklaces strung with cookies or pretzels in symbolic shapes for their children. Iraqi Jews make “sambusak,” a savory pastry filled with cheese. The exact details of the menu are fluid—any interpretation of a dairy meal and dessert would be appropriate. This is an excellent opportunity to try out a new recipe, symbolic of our renewed relationship with Torah, or to take the time for an old family favorite, to celebrate your roots.
It is common for communities to prepare their synagogues for Shavuot with natural decorations. Greek Jews historically decorated their synagogues with green branches and a variety of flowers. Even today Bukharan Jews use red roses. In Poland, synagogues were decorated with flowers, branches, and paper cuttings called “reizelach,” or roses, in Yiddish. German Jews would place two flowering branches on either side of the Ark, as a symbol that Torah is our Tree of Life. Consider decorating your synagogue or home with local, in season, flowers and greenery.
Traditional communities hold a “Tikkun Leil Shavuot,” a nighttime Torah study session which can last anywhere from a couple of hours to all night long. In some communities this is held in the synagogue, while in others, it is located private homes. People may recite specific passages from different traditional texts, while others prepare different topics, which change from year to year. Study is a potent way of renewing our understanding of Torah.
Shavuot is full of opportunities for communal gatherings and fun. Libyan and Moroccan Jews spray water onto passersby, because the Torah is compared to water, and our reconnection to Torah is a source of blessing. Ethiopian Jews gather together, bringing bread and other grains for the Kes, their religious leader, to bless, after which the entire community eats together. On some Israeli Kibbutzim, people have revived the agrarian side of Shavuot and have a parade with baskets of the first produce of the season. Whether you want to make a meal with seasonal produce, or have a picnic and water balloon fight, you will be in good company among the global Jewish community.
Around the world, Jews celebrate Shavuot in a variety of ways—but at their root, they come back to the same sources and the same ideas. It celebrates the diverse ways in which we relate to Torah, all of which are true, just as we have diverse ways of celebrating, all of which are the real Jewish way to do things. One thing is for certain—whichever way you choose to celebrate Shavuot this year, you will meet one of Torah’s seventy faces.