This is an exciting time of the year to be an observant Jew. The religious momentum in the months of Adar and Nisan begins to build up two weeks before Purim with Parshat Shekalim and culminates at the night of the first Seder. What makes the spring time so special is that the central mitzvah of each holiday – the public reading of the megillah on Purim and the private eating of matzah on Passover – are among the few time-bound commandments that apply equally to men and women.
The reason is well known. In the language of the Rabbis, women must hear the megillah and eat matzah because “af hein hayu b’nes” – women too were included in the miracle of the rescue in Shushan and the exodus from Egypt. In the Rabbinic mind, salvation from the mortal danger which threatened the entire community rendered all Jews equal. Eve, the primordial woman, was cursed with dependence on her husband when she was banished from the Garden of Eden. But, when Pharaoh and Haman threatened the Jewish people, equality between husbands and wives, men and women, was at least partially restored. Essentialist differences based on gender are erased on Purim and Passover.
It is becoming a widespread practice among Open Orthodox think tanks like Beit Hillel to publish responsa engaging with contemporary issues relating to gender in modern Jewish life, including the questions of women’s obligation in time-bound commandments. One discomforting aspect of these well-intentioned papers is a reliance on standard halakhic categories. Much of the discussion focuses on personal status rather than the performance of the mitzvah itself. The point of departure is invariably the relative rank of men versus women rather than the intrinsic capacity of the person to fulfill the mitzvah. For example, when considering women’s participation in prayer services, the discussion hinges on the position of women in the hierarchy of obligation (slaves, children, deaf people, mentally incompetent people, women and men) and this determines whether or not women can fulfill specific roles such as reading from the Torah or leading prayers for the congregation. The same logic prevails even in the laws relating to the reading of the megillah. Some halakhic authorities persist in affording women a lower status than men and do not permit women to read on behalf of men. There have also been attempts to support specific practices with innovative applications of established halakhic principles that transcend gender status. A good illustration is Rabbi Sperber’s invocation of the principle of kvod ha’briyot, “human dignity,” to enable greater participation by women in communal prayer and Torah reading. But this is a notable exception. Usually the think tank responsa compile a list of lenient positions without establishing an underling legal basis and, as such, are unconvincing.
Back to megillah and matzah. If an external military or political threat provided a sound rationale for full equality in the requirement to perform these two mitzvot, can this model be extended to internal existential threats to Jewish survival? The notion of mortal threat to the Jewish people could be expanded to include the internal peril of inter-marriage and assimilation that is fostered by persistent gender inequality in defining status and requirement to perform mitzvot. Women and men who are fully engaged in the modern world may find Orthodoxy’s adherence to traditional gender roles, with its limitation of women’s involvement in all of the commandments, increasingly untenable and drift away from Orthodoxy. Alternatively, internal threat could be viewed on an individual level in which a person’s inner motivation to grow and thrive religiously is stymied by perceived gender inequality. This, too, might cause talented and committed men and women to abandon Orthodoxy for more egalitarian alternatives. This threat would represent a new point of departure for developing a gender neutral assessment of who should be obligated to perform all time-bound mitzvot.
Based on this reasoning, the requirement to eat, sleep, and sit in a sukkah or to participate in a daily minyan, prayer service, would be equally incumbent upon men and women. Instead of finding a reason to mandate performance of a specific time-bound mitzvah as an exception to the rule, this reformulation of the meaning of “af hein hayu b’nes” would assume that men and women are equally responsible for fulfilling this category of commandments. Rather than representing a betrayal of the Rabbinic tradition, it would remain integrally linked to classical legal texts by reformulating a concept that the Rabbis used to promote the observance by women of two specific commandments, reading the megillah and eating matzah at the Seder, to a wider context. Perhaps, looking to the future, the arrival of Adar 5776 and the change of seasons can serve as a springboard to broaden the halakhic discourse to one that emphasizes the essential equality of men and women in performing time-bound mitzvot.
Dr. Monique Katz, a member of JOFA’s Board of Directors, once shared a d’var Torah that has stuck with me for many years since.
She pointed out that we spend most of our time trying to initiate changes in our Orthodox community where we see injustice to women vis-à-vis the agunah issue, leadership roles in synagogues and on boards of Jewish institutions, and women’s participation in Jewish rituals. Human nature causes people to dwell on the bad things that happen rather than the good, so our news is just like the newspapers—when something good happens, we forget to include it in our report. But, Nicky said, when a rabbi makes a change that has a positive effect on women, we must remember to practice hakarat ha’tov—recognizing the good.
I was recently reminded of Nicky’s charge shortly before Passover when I was at Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue for my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. To my great surprise, a woman carried the Torah scroll through the women’s section. It was very moving to watch women kiss the Torah—some for the very first time, and to see their reactions. Once the Torah had been put away, Rabbi Lookstein announced that the woman who had carried the Torah was the vice president of the synagogue and had petitioned him to permit the women to bring this ritual, and kavod (honor), to the women’s section.
I saw Rabbi Lookstein that evening and made a point of going over to him and thanking him for making this change. He told me I was the only one to offer him praise, though he had received numerous negative comments from others.
I think it would make a huge difference if we all remembered to give thanks where and when it is due.
Thank you, Nicky.
We encourage you to give public recognition for good that has been done in your community. Please share your stories here, on JOFA’s Facebook page, or submit a blog entry to firstname.lastname@example.org. Most importantly, be sure to thank the change-maker directly.
This was my first Pesach away from home. I am a first-year college student and although I love my college and my vibrant Hillel community there, I was looking forward to spending the seders with my own family. And yet, as much as I wanted an idyllic Pesach at home, I knew that it would be impractical, given the amount of class I would miss while traveling. Logistically, it just didn’t make sense, so I stayed on campus. It was clear to me that there was a reason I was supposed to be at college instead of at home. And so, rather than accepting an invitation to someone else’s first night seder, I decided to host and lead my own.
My mother has led the family seder every year I can remember, so a woman at the head of the table is definitely not foreign to me. However, the idea of leading it myself was intimidating. I have never been confident asserting my voice in Jewish ritual (for example, saying Kaddish for my dad always made me nervous). I decided not to let this fear stop me and I reached out to other first-year students who might be uncomfortable going to a large communal seder, not have a smaller seder to go, or just not seek one out in the first place.
I expected about fifteen students, but even more showed up. The diversity of the group was wonderful, ranging from hopeful converts to unaffiliated Jews who had never before experienced a seder to Orthodox students who had never missed one in their lives. Consequently, the discussions during Maggid were rich with viewpoints informed by various religious ideologies and academic backgrounds.
In planning the seder, one of my priorities was to make a safe space where all of the attendees could feel comfortable. Before beginning, I made it clear that everyone was welcome at this seder, and explained the orange on the seder plate to illustrate my point. To make the seder interactive and inclusive, we took turns reading paragraphs from the Haggadah during Maggid. Only a few people were familiar with Hebrew or Aramaic so we conducted most of the seder in English. We sang rousing renditions of Chad Gadya, Echad Mi Yodeia, and Adir Hu.
Since I’m known for my feminist tendencies, nobody was surprised that I included Miriam’s Cup and discussed the strong women who are the backbone of the Exodus story. People also appreciated that I used (and encouraged others to use) gender-neutral language. We had a lot of really good conversations about the Four Sons: do we gain anything from them being male, or do they actually reflect children of any gender? How do we rationalize pushing away the Wicked Child from the Jewish community? What are the feminist implications of the Haggadah’s use for the feminine you in “you should say [to the Simple Child]?”
Although I definitely missed my mother’s charoset and all the customs we have at home, I really enjoyed leading this seder. I am so happy I was able to provide and facilitate a Pesach experience for all those people. As much preparation and stress as it took to plan, I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.
Jewish tradition has four names for the Passover Holiday—Hag HaAviv (the Spring Festival), Hag HaMatsot (the Holiday of Unleavened Bread), Hag HaPesah (the Holiday of Passing Over), and Hag HaHerut (the Festival of Freedom). Each of these names represents a different aspect of the holiday.
However, there seems to be an additional name that would be fitting for Passover — Hag HaHinukh — the Holiday of Education. Indeed, no other ceremony in Jewish life is as dedicated to educating the next generation of Jews as that of the Seder. The educational mission of Seder night begins in the Torah itself, in three different verses, which instruct us to educate our children about the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
The key verse in this educational paradigm can be found in Exodus 13:8:
וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם:
And you shall explain to your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
What this verse seems to be stating is that while you are eating matsah, you should explain to your child all that happened to you while you were leaving Egypt.
The same educational call is found in the Mishna, Tractate Pesahim 10:4:
מזגו לו כוס שני וכאן הבן שואל אביו ואם אין דעת בבן אביו מלמדו…. ולפי דעתו של בן אביו מלמדו.
A second cup of wine is poured out; and the son should then inquire of his father. If the son doesn’t have da’at (understanding) to do this, aviv melamdo—his father teaches him…. And according to the da’at of the child should the father teach him.
This Mishna describes the moment at the Seder when the child’s curiosity should be piqued. After all, why are we suddenly having a second cup of wine when we normally have only one? Here, the expected response of the child is depicted. However, in the event that the child does not ask, the parent is obligated to teach. The Mishna delineates an additional requirement: that the parent teach the child according to the child’s da’at — the child’s understanding, or intellectual capabilities. It is a remarkably modern approach, that of individualized education. The Mishna here is communicating that the one-size-fits-all educational model doesn’t work; education must be child-specific.
Continue reading Yaffa Epstein’s words of Torah in this spring’s Shema Bekolah.
Looking for help engaging the wide range of people at your seder? Check out the Many Ways To Tell Our Story, JOFA’s handbook of activities for people of all ages and styles.
When my family sits down to the seder table on April 14, we won’t be passing around the Maxwell House Hagaddahs. We don’t use the Sacks one, anything by Artscroll, or even something from JPS. We will be using “Our Family Haggadah.”
The brainchild of my mother and Savta in the mid-90’s, this DIY publication has been a work in progress that is currently in its fifth edition. While the first versions most likely contained dozens of copyright infringements, the current version is getting closer to an original family document.
We realized that the people around the table wanted something traditionally authentic, intellectually challenging, and unique to our family. As you can see, we have cut many portions of the traditional hagaddah, but have done our best to maintain the essential pieces while creating more opportunities for discussion and questions. Without the pressure to get through so much text, we have the comfort and opportunity to truly be open to any questions that might arise.
If you don’t want to use our haggadah, and don’t have the time to make your own, consider cutting out a few sections and replacing them with open discussion or guided Q&A. You will be surprised to see people refreshed by the change and the chance to make the seder experience more personal.
Seder Table Activities
The other way we’ve adapted our seder is by adding in new activities and games each year. We realized that there is often down-time during the meal (shulchan orech): as soup is being served, between courses, and during dessert. So we play games! We’ve tried a number of different activities over the years including our own versions of Cranium, Mad Gabs and most importantly Jewpardy. It’s not so simple to create your own games, so use the ones other people have already made. Pick a game, print it out, and you’re good to go!
An Activity for Every Family
This last suggestion is more than a game – it’s an interactive reimagining of a 2,000+ year old tradition. Anyone can run this activity at their seder:
Whatever the true origin of the orange on the seder plate, the idea of placing symbolic items on the seder table feels as old as Passover itself. But in addition to the six symbols on the seder plate, the orange, and Cup of Miriam, we can add our own symbols.
Before the seder, send out a casting call to your participants asking them to bring their own Passover symbol to place on the table. They can bring anything they want, but must be ready to explain how it is symbolic of a Passover theme or concept. Before the seder begins, place each of the symbols on the table. As the seder progresses, take periodic breaks to allow the table to discuss one of the objects. Solicit suggestions from the group as to what the item might symbolize and then ask the person who brought it to explain what it means to them.
At the end of the seder, or once all of the symbols have been presented, vote on which item added the most to the seder experience. The winner gets a reserved space at the table next year!
I wish you the best of luck with a meaningful Passover seder. If you’re looking for divrei torah and other content for your seder, visit http://www.jofa.org/Education/Holidays/Holidays for some great articles and resources.
The seder is my favorite Jewish ritual, and every year, I have the best of intentions. In line with the rabbinic notion of preparing for a holiday thirty days in advance, I begin preparing for Passover as soon as Purim is over. I buy the newest haggadot that seem like they’ll provide interesting material. I go to a class about the haggadah given by someone who I expect to say something insightful, meaningful, and thought-provoking. And then I tell myself, this year will be different. I will actually sit down with all my haggadot before the seder. I will study them and use them as a springboard to develop my thoughts about the Exodus, redemption, and its relevance to our lives.
Sometimes it really works out that way but mostly, I am still holding tightly to this goal right up until the afternoon of Erev Pesach, hours before the first seder, when I am forced to recognize that it will simply not happen. I will likely have to wing it, assuming that is, that we still want several tasty charoses variants (the family standard is to have at least two) and bug-free romaine.
It is certainly not the cleaning that keeps me from delving into the haggadah in advance. I take the rabbis very, VERY seriously when they say that this isn’t spring cleaning. We do what the halakhah requires, but the search for chametz in our house does not involve dry cleaning the drapes. So what’s my issue? What is holding me back from preparing new content for the seder? And does it matter?
We can start with the fact that I love to have a festive table — no, make that a festive room. I decorate the room with wild beasts on the chandelier, frogs on the walls, and bug rings on the napkins. Lording over everything are little naked Moshes in baby baskets (Party City in the baby shower aisle!). The baby baskets are set inside vases with water, nestled into bigger baskets of grass. How could I possibly read anything until I’ve plastered every bare space with Exodus ambience? This may be one reason my adult children and my young grandchildren love our seders. It is not only the rituals and “k’zayit“s that make this night different — it’s about the sights, the smells, the textures, even the silliness.
And although I haven’t been reading my new haggadot, I have been cogitating about the Exodus and redemption. Sometimes the discussions that come from this process are the most interesting. As beautiful, meaningful, and special as the seder is, its most important purpose may be to set a tone for the rest of the year. If we can feel our Judaism so dynamically on this one night and enjoy it so profoundly, I know we have it in us to try a little harder to engage with it throughout the year.
So will this night be different? I don’t know. Though there’s still time for book-based prep, I know that whether I download articles and divrei Torah from years past on JOFA’s online library (at 6:05pm Monday night) or have my own divrei Torah ready in advance, my bugs on the napkin rings will make me smile, at least one of the charoseses will be weird and I can hope the spirit of the seder will carry over to the rest of the year.