Next Year in Person

Why Must This Passover Seder Be Like All Others?

Passover 5780 is going to be one we all remember for a long time. The world is reeling from the catastrophic health, economic, and psychological impact of Covid-19. How, in this context, can we possibly “celebrate” Passover in any true sense of the word? More specifically, because the coronavirus has eliminated travel and even moderately-sized gatherings, the Jewish world is facing the daunting task of trying to figure out, in real-time, how to conduct Passover Seders via social distancing. Grandparents will be separated from grandchildren; cousins won’t be joining one another in chanting the Ma Nishtanah, and friends accustomed to joining together will be forced to go it alone. Online resources have sprung up providing guidance on how to conduct a solo Seder, something that was virtually unimaginable in the past. But is this really the best option? Are we all to conduct Seders in silos, isolated not only socially but also experientially, from loved ones? I want to present an argument that, instead, we should try our best this year to make Pesah as similar as possible to the large, raucous family get-togethers of previous years.

Passover is not just any Jewish holiday. It is the quintessential do-it-at-home experience, filled with unique foods, rituals, songs, and traditions. While there are normally special services at synagogue one can attend (as with any Jewish holiday/Yom Tov), Passover isn’t about showing up to pray (as is, say, Rosh Hashanah or Shavuot) but about participating in a set of practices, with family, at home. Perhaps because of this amalgamation of factors, Passover also is the most widely practiced holiday amongst American Jews. The 2013 Pew Research survey found that while only 23% of U.S. Jews attended shul at least monthly, 70% said they had participated in a Seder last year—including 42% of Jews who consider themselves Jewish but do not identify with Judaism as a religion.

Nor is this just a modern evolution of Passover. I recently had the privilege of listening to a lecture from Dr. Elana Stein Hain, a scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute. She explained that both the biblical and rabbinic accounts of Passover stressed the home-bound nature of the holiday as distinguishing it from all other Jewish festivals. The biblical text of Exodus 12: 3-10, which depicts the way the Israelites would offer the Paschal lamb offering, focuses exclusively on how to prepare and then eat Paschal sacrifice God commanded. Unlike the descriptions of sacrifices in Leviticus, the Exodus text fails to mention offering anything to God, a role for priests, or any mention of the Temple whatsoever. The only thing that is stressed is the command to eat the Paschal lamb at home, with details about how to cook it and that it must be fully consumed, along with matza and bitter herbs, on the 14th of Nissan. Similarly, the rabbis in the Talmud (Tractate Pesahim 61a and 76b) determined that the primary consideration when evaluating the legal status of the Paschal offering was the availability of those who would be eating of the sacrifice, not the technicalities of the sacrifice itself. In fact, the Paschal lamb is the only sacrificial offering in all of Judaism where, if the offeror happens to be ritually “impure” (such as by exposure to death during a plague), the offering is still eaten because it is the consumption, not the offering, that ultimately matters.

In addition to this critical food component, the entire concept of the Seder is to create a structure for inter-generational learning. The rabbis modeled the Seder after the Greco-Roman Symposium as a didactic means to provoke questions and conversation so that younger generations would come to learn why the Exodus narrative should matter to them. The Seder is not a recitation of magical words and phrases; it is a conversation that requires interactivity and relationality.

Combining these two elements—eating food together in the home and teaching future generations about the meaning of Passover—are impossible to do in a solo Seder. The only way a Seder can work as intended is to find a way to come together in as close facsimile to the Seders of years past. How, then, should we maintain a semblance of normalcy by experiencing our Passover Seders collectively?  Were we living in the 1800s, this would be impossible. Fortunately, though, it is 2020 and technology has progressed to the point that there are incredibly powerful tools at our disposal to close the corona-distance we all face. Here are a few suggestions I plan to try this year:

  1. Zoom/Livestream Seders with other family members and friends. Anyone who is comfortable using electricity on a Yom Tov should have no concerns about using Zoom or other online conferencing platforms to connect with others. Of course, it isn’t as special as being together in person. But at least this medium enables family and friends to traverse the terrain of the Haggadah together, reciting familiar lines and collectively debating one another and conversation; it creates space for all of us to sign Had Gadya in all out of tune splendor; it empowers Bubbies and Zaydes to kvell when watching their grandchildren read or sing. And for those who might feel reticent about doing so, I encourage them to read recent permissive legal decisions that shed new light on how to analyze halakha in light of Covid-19. And if you don’t have family or friends with whom to Zoom, consider signing up for any of the local or regional virtual Seder options my colleague Rabbi Melinda Mersack pointed to in her recent blog post such as those available here.
  2. Prepare family dishes ahead of time together. My mother and my daughters have a Zoom date to make matzah balls together, and I plan on connecting with family members on Wednesday so that we can to make our family Haroset recipe together. In this way, we can share food traditions and customs with future generations to make sure they are preserved well into the future. Plus, when we join together for our virtual Seder (see #1, above), we will be eating some of the same foods at the same time.
  3. Create a new Haggadah together. Geographically disparate family members can work together to create their own shared Haggadah. There are many excellent options found at or by using Sefaria’s free digital resources.   There are also, as usual, a plethora of Passover supplements and inserts that can be curated to form a unique Seder even if using a standardized Haggadah. Being on the literal and figurative same page is a great way to foster continuity during a virtual Seder.

I’m sure creative readers can think of many more ways to foster a spirit of interaction. I invite you to list them in the comments below so other readers can benefit as well. But whatever the techniques employed, I urge you to find a way to metaphorically bridge the social distancing of this moment. Passover is not meant to be celebrated alone, on a desert island. It is a time for families to come together, across generations, to share in collective embrace and interaction as we retell the great Exodus narrative of the Jewish people. Let’s do whatever we can to celebrate together virtually this year. And, to tweak the traditional ending of the Haggadah, “L’shana haba’ah b’yachad“-may we all be blessed next year to celebrate in person with our loved ones!

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