Seder Challenges

Rabbi Mordechai Scher

Sometimes it’s worth knowing someone has been here before me. So many of us, as hozrim beteshuvah, want to share the light of Torah with family and friends. Pesach is one of those prime times. We may be the first for generations to do a complete, traditional seder. We want to offer the opportunity to family or neighbors. We enter into this with mind and heart. What will be interesting? How do get a message across? The logistics in place – seats, pillows to lean on (if you use them), haggadot (all the same? or varied, on purpose? with explanations? without?) ,enough food? We all know the idea.

The anticipation and trepidation builds up as Pesach approaches. People are invited; more places added. Then, the big night and ‘big show’ arrives. And what happens?

Well, that often depends on the invitees.

My first such experience, while a young student at Bar Ilan in the late seventies, was to help make seder for soldiers on reserve duty at Neot Hakikar, by the Dead Sea. The truth is, I didn’t know what I was getting into. As it was, many of the soldiers knew more than me, and we had a great though quick seder with a nice atmosphere. That entire Pesah was really enjoyable. Later, I spent Pesach on reseve duty myself several years in a row. Despite the field conditions and dangers, everyone always took it in good spirit and made it as good a holyday together as we could, no matter what sort of lives we had back at home.

I didn’t do anything like that again for a few years. Then we had my parents once or twice for seder when we came to work in America. They were thrilled to be with their kids and grandkids, and polite about it all; but clearly the whole seder night thing was a bit much. Much longer than during my childhood when every year we met for an extended family joint-effort meal where the haggadah occupied a short and fast part of the evening, and everyone got home at a late, but still decent hour. What’s with this two in the morning stuff?

Next, I had to do a community seder at least one night for our shul. I put a lot of thought and effort into preparing interesting explanations and ways to engage the congregants (about 50 people) in learning something during the seder. About 30 minutes into the seder, on of the older participants loudly inquired ‘when are we going to eat? People are getting hungry!

The last time we tried this was about eight years ago. My wife and I had come to a new community for her work. Still here. There are almost no traditional households in the entire town. So, of course we decided to make Pesah at home and invite people for seder. (My approach is to keep one seder night just for family. We need it for our sanity, and to enjoy a seder without pressure.) We invited my mother in from the East Coast (my father had died the year before), and some people who were marginally involved in our marginally functioning (since defunct) shul. About 30 minutes into the seder, you guessed it; one of the guests asks ‘when are we going to eat.’ Although Jewish, and originally from the New York area no less, he (a gentleman probably in his 50s or maybe 60) had no idea that there was much more than kiddush and a meal. He had come emotionally and physically unprepared for even a moderate length seder before getting to some real food. That, with the fact that my elderly mother (may she live, be well, and have much satisfaction from her children) was fading, led us to speed things up quite a bit. One more reason we were glad to have the next night to ourselves.

So, the seder is a big part of the Jewish experience; and making seder with challenges is a part of the teshuvah experience. I suspect that some of us have had greatly rewarding and enjoyable times; and some of us have found it to be a bit more challenging and even frustrating.

Originally Published March 18, 2009

30 comments on “Seder Challenges

  1. We had two great seders, not ending too late. Tired participants offered few comments, but we still sang Dayenu with gusto and scarfed down the necessary quantities of shmurah matzah and romaine lettuce.

    Bonus: my seven-year-old FFB granddaughter said the Mah Nishtanah in Ivrit and in English! We all clapped, and she was so happy.

    Im yirtzeh Hash-m by you, fellow BT’s: lots of cute, wonderful FFB grandchildren!

    Chag Kasher v’Sameyach.

  2. There’s a lot to be said for gaining understanding of the Haggadah in depth during the month prior to Pesach, but letting the narrative flow reasonably smoothly at the Seder itself. This does not rule out the occasional planned (preassigned?) vort to illuminate the text.

  3. This post – and many of the comments here – echo one big theme of MANY posts on this blog: there is a clear difference between “wanting to share the joy of Judaism” and “hoping my non-religious relatives will get with the program, hint, hint”.

    I am puzzled why so many here have ignored the basic rule of good outreach – and simple good manners: accept your guests as they are, and tailor your event to their needs and limitations.

    No excuse here – you know your own family’s history: if the haggadah was abridged, then simply reading through the whole thing is enough of a stretch. Burdening this situation further with pre-existing agendas (“I wish they would be proud of my children’s Torah knowledge!”) is a recipe for disaster.

    Those not living in Israel have the “advantage” of two seders, which can have different tones.

    Practical tips that have worked for us:

    – smallest wine glasses possible. The halachic measure is 90ml. That’s a sherry glass, not a wine glass.

    – extended carpas. As mentioned by another posters – raw veggies and dips take the edge off the reading. (I also loved the “Yemenite style” coffee-table with cushions approach, must try it.)

    – several Seder plates. It keeps people involved and speeds the technical aspects. This can easily be combined with the “Yemenite style” coffee-table-n-cushions approach, to let relatives wander around and shmooze. Which leads to:

    – accept different levels of involvement. Avoid cheerleader-itis and set aside agendas.

    – everybody reads. We usually do a round robin with each one reading in the language of their choice. You can then limit comments to the reader – although that works better if you assign specific portions of the Haggadah beforehand (“now Yossi, Ari, and Gila will tell us about Pesach, Matza, and Maror”). This also naturally limits the number of comments. Which leads to:

    – limit the comments. It’s not just necessary, it lets the haggadah itself speak. If we’re honest with ourselves, traveling that web of associations once a year is enough – and crucial – for even observant people. And the little Divrei Torah can obscure that. Kinda like the High Holidays – just putting your mind where the liturgy guides you is a growth experience.

    In addition to the suggestions of other posters:

    …hide haggadahs with commentary.

    …use prize tokens to limit comments on any single passage. “That’s it, no more candies – let’s move on.”

    …be blunt with sem/yeshiva and other frum guests. Describe from the start the type of seder you’re planning, and the limitations of the less-religious guests. BTs especially must make it clear that this is a conscious choice, and they don’t need “help” to make a more yeshivish evening. Be explicit!

  4. Honestly, this is just as much a problem for converts as BTs! Thanks for this post!

    My husband and I struggle with this every year, even though as the most observant family members we’re still nowhere near Orthodox (he has a large Jewish family).

    The older generation likes the comfort of the traditional text and doesn’t “get” that all the G-d-language alienates the many non-Jewish spouses and in-laws attending.

    Some of the younger generation (ours) wants the seder to be meaningful, but has totally different ideas of what that means.

    With all the different ideas and expectations, and the default way of interacting with each other paralleling the wicked son, the extended family seder is always a trial.

    We’re hosting this year for the first time, and made sure to send out:

    1. a schedule (when we’ll start, when we’ll eat, when we expect everyone to go home)
    2. food specs (so many of them simply don’t know what is and isn’t KFP)
    3. “assignments” to think of some people, events, and concepts related to specific parts of the seder, so they come prepared to participate
    4. planned for extensive non-matzah vegan appetizers to munch on after karpas

    I pretty much expect that nobody will be thrilled with the seder itself, including us, because of all the compromises required, but you do what you can, and try to be gracious adn a good host.

  5. The Seder is a collection of mitzvot can literally be done by every man, woman and child in complete accordance with halachah. We have a centuries old instruction manual (the Haggadah) that tells us what to eat, what to say, what to do, what to feel, and when to do all of these things.

    Enhancements are nice, to the extent that everyone present buys into them. However, nobody HAS to go beyond what is written in the Haggadah. The Haggadah quotes Rabbi Hillel on remembering the Bet HaMikdash. We would do well to remember his quote from Pirkei Avot: all the rest is commentary!

    Chag kasher v’sameach (A happy and kosher holiday) to all!

  6. Another vote against weighing down the already ponderous obligation of the seder. Chazal gave us a full plate here, literally and figuratively. Every year a couple of new insights keeps it fresh, but the script has already been written for us.

    And, you know, the kids have their things to say, but you really have to make sure they understand that we can’t hear them all, or even most of them. They may not be able to comprehend the simple physical limitations of the night, of their exhausted parents and, if there are non-frum guests or beginners, everything that portends, but their expectations personally should be appropriately primed. Why some educators seem to be so thick about this, and load up the kids with the expectations of being able to say scores of divrei torah that night, is beyond me. You really do get to relive that feeling of being “short of breath” because of the “groaning labor”!

  7. The Jewish Press used to print a list of public Passover seders. I would like to see the OU, NCYI and Agudah work together to compile and distribute that list to Jews who need it.

  8. IMO, if one has guests who are not textually fluent or observant, the educated host, by all means, should be able to offer compelling, but simple comments based on a range of commentaries without alienating one’s guests or feeling that he or she has dumbed down one’s own fulfillment of Sipur Yetzias Mitzrayim.

  9. Technical point: The primary night of the seder is the first night. While we do a second seder, it does not make up for one who failed to do the mitzvot of passover the first night. Therefore, having guests, particularly those who would otherwise not have a seder, is preferrable the first night. So a family only seder is better the second night.

    Secondly, I have found my seder prep and Torah is done before Passover begins. While there is some discussion at the seder, I find the hagaddah and ritual really compelling as well as the simple act of gathering together. Good tunes, simple directions, brief explanations may really be dayenu. And when I was in israel in 1975 and had seder at a prominent rosh yeshiva, it was exactly that way.

  10. There is a haggadah called “A Different Night,” published by the Hartman Institute, which is designed for families with differing levels of observance. It has a lengthy introduction explaining what is halachically required and what is additional, and offers suggestions for how to satisfy many different guests. For example, they suggest having a “karpas course” with a lot of vegetables and even eggs to help people have more patience in waiting for dinner.

  11. Bob, I think that’s pretty ovbvious considering the fact that we’ve had a Holocaust and so forth but what are the ideal conditions needed to hold a simple seder? Doesn’t the seder itself remind us that we don’t live under ideal conditions? I’m not trying to create dissention here but point out a fact. Why the overkill on something so special and yet so simple? My rav gives various answers from various opinions but no none can really say it’s ‘gospel’ because the Torah speaks of seven days for the seder, so then we have added to it (Torah) which is an issur in itself. Is it any wonder this as become so burdensome for so many and then they can’t wait until its over. What’s the joy in that? Stress, anxiety, impatience to name a few of the conditions I hear people speak of, that being many Jews of all walks of life regarding the seder … it need not be.

  12. Plenty of esteemed rabbis have made aliyah themselves. They have a whole range of attitudes toward the state. We in chutz l’aretz need reminders that we don’t live under conditions ideal for a Jew.

  13. Bob, If I act like I’m galut then I do loose the meaning of Torah Judaism. Is this not why we have so much assimilation today? Now that Israel is established, it should first and foremost be the engine that all chagim are to be set by. Rabbinic opinions are just that opinions, and I do respect the rights of such opinions. But why do these rabbis punish us with extra days for being in galut but discourage us from leaving galut for because the refuse to recognise medinat Israel? This question is being raised not just by me but Israelis who come here. And who are the rabbis to punish someone whom they don’t know? Are we not acting like the catholics?What does politics have to do with the land as it is? Chagim outside of Am Israel don’t have same meaning of feel as they do within it. What I find in all of this is a form of control and intimidation. How stringent can one be before loosing the whole meaning of what Hashem intended for us. The seder then becomes a burden rather than a delight. Preparation is necessary as in all things, but what is going too far? To each his own minchag but there comes a point went we have to ask what are we really doing. To keep miztvot is a challenge in itself but do rabbinical opinions help or hender the joy of a chag? Is this how the Carite movement start from long ago? Just a thought.

  14. Pesach, you’ll need to act like you’re in golus as long as you’re in it. If you throw the rabbinic opinions overboard to satisfy your own desires, you have lost the meaning of Torah Judaism.

  15. I like Micha’s idea in fact we did the same thing. Why make the seder like a neurosis. Keep it simple. We observe the one day like in Israel and that’s it, yes we are orthodox. But I’ve decided that this diaspora nonsense has gone on far enough, I have answer to Hashem and not the rabbis,period.We also ate roasted lamb,it was wonderful. Chicken just doesn’t cut it, its poultry and not meat. Yes, we had shamurah matzos which enhanced the atmosphere. I must say that true meaning of the seder came into fruition for us. Furthermore the long extended seder takes away from the true meaning for me, if other want to continue for longer-feel free. At the local Chabad house its 2.5 hrs max. I sure I have sent ‘shock waves’ here but this the way it will be for us from now on until Maschiach. I hear poeple in our community say that ‘hate’ Pesach because of all the work involved – maybe because of all of the burdensome excess halacha, can we not keep it a simple chag – would love to see comments.

  16. Last year we used a low coffee table, put it on a carpet we bought for the occasion and sat around it with lots of pillows. We got the idea from some neighbors of ours across the street who follow Temani customs. It was a gorgeous setting. When we leaned we really leaned; it wasn’t a farce. Also, we used soft matzot, which are far tastier and easier to eat than the brittle dry kind. Cute scene, how the kids dropped off one by one and fell asleep around the table.

  17. What works for us as far as all the beautiful Dvar Torah and commentaries that our kids bring home from school (boys and girls). We just discuss very few at the Seder itself – basically we just concentrate on explaining the Haggadah itself and try to make it fascinating (eg expand on the Ten Plagues, and the miracles of going out of Mitzrayim). Then at each subsequent meal during Pesach (mostly the Yom Tov and Shabbos meals but also Chol Hamoed if we’re not too tired from that day’s outing) out come the notebooks and each child has a chance to read at least one of his commentaries. At that point, we have the patience and time to listen, dicuss them in depth and enjoy them.

  18. Great ideas & we have done similar things in my home. We also have a seder just for us, but we make it the FIRST seder. The kids are very excited to give their divrei Torah and when we have the first seder with the entire focus on our immediate family, our children (some, now adults) are much more patient & willing at a second seder to have guests who are less than interested or monopolize the Magid time. We also take turns with commentaries/questions, etc. so everyone has a turn to participate and we still finish by midnight. The trick is to keep things moving and not to spend too much time on any one part of the Haggadah. I also have given my mother in law a full meal before candle lighting or a bowl of soup after Kiddush to tide her over until the meal (usually just fish & soup anyway). Even though we have not washed yet, my older kids understand that Grandma is still getting way more than she would anywhere else she would be. I really think this gives our kids an appreciation to respect others and reach them at their (interest) level.

  19. In central Indiana, we’re in the western fringe of the Eastern Time Zone, and are also on Daylight Savings Time now (Boo!, which makes any seder start way late because Kiddush has to be after dark. This year, that would put the earliest start for the first seder some time after 9 PM. This creates a major challenge, especially for families with little kids. The second seder is pushed even later, because preparation for it can’t begin until dark.

  20. Some great ideas!

    I’ll point out that over the years, we’ve successfully done most or all of the suggestions here – and then some. It just wasn’t my intent to give a list of Rx here. I wanted folks to see and hear some of the frustrations that occur; and maybe someone won’t be taken so by surprise.

    BTW, the suggestion I’m most proud of is that early on (probably the second or third year my wife was making the seder) we did two things. One, I told my wife to keep the meal simple. Every year I’d watch her and other folks get a bit frustrated with all the food that wasn’t eaten. And they worked so hard! But after cups of wine, and portions of matzah, the appetite isn’t the same. So she started making a simpler meal, and the result was she worked a little less hard preparing, she was less frustrated with leftovers, and nobody at the seder missed anything anyway.

    The other big innovation for us was one seder just for our home. No guests. With all the work and worry of a hostess, my wife couldn’t really learn and enjoy herself. By keeping the second seder just for us, she got a chance to sit and learn and enjoy. It was a great addition for shalom bayit in our case.

    (Now, we usually go to her best friend’s family, so it isn’t such an issue. But going away wasn’t something I readily agreed to, either.)

    So, what other crazy or frustrating things might someone anticipate? ;-0

  21. I can totally relate to the author’s struggles. We want to make the seder meaningful to our non-observant family and friends, but it never quite takes off – we usually make the best impression by serving a nice meal – but spiritually it unravels. I get very disappointed by this! I really want a spiritual seder after all my hard work, but everyone jokes (good naturedly) about when is the food coming? My family didn’t know there was a second half to the haggadah – they always ended it after the meal!

    A couple of small things that has worked for our non-observant family and guests: they leave graciously after the meal, and we continue (with some relief) on our own. Also I’ve started suggesting they eat before arrival. My husband and I try to pick just one or two things to say (that we hope will pack a punch, but hasn’t yet sunk in…).

    But on a positive note, my family (and my sister-in-law’s family) do continue to come back year after year, and depend on me to make the seder. We hope one day we will make a spiritual impact.

  22. I once attended a seder where 4 girls each had at least 4 commentaries each on every part of the seder, which made at least 16 commentaries on every part of the seder. It was an absolute nightmare for me. I did not enjoy that seder at all, I wanted to scream out loud with frustration and anger. The Rebbes and Morahs should warn their students that few people have the patience or endurance to listen to 16 commentaries on every part of the seder, and it is not necessary or even desirable to recite every possible commentary on every part of the seder.

  23. May I suggest that each Pesach Seder start early as possible.

    May I also suggest that during the magid part of the seder, we read only 1 or 2 commentaries on each part of the hagadah, and if anyone has more commentaries, those can be said during shulchan orech. When my stomach is empty, especially late at night, I do not have patience to listen to many commentaries on the hagadah, but once I get some food inside of me, my patience goes much higher and I can happily discuss commentaries.

    Finally, may I suggest that each Pesach Seder finish soon after midnight.
    Our generation is weaker than previous generations in every way, and I believe that I speak for many Jews when I say that the Pesach Seder is not supposed to be an endurance contest, and that a very lengthy seder is not necessary or even desirable. How much endurance do we really have after drinking four cups of wine?

  24. Bob, yes that can be a challenge of a different sort!

    When I was in college my father’s cousin in Haifa had me up for Pesah. He uses Konditon for the 4 cups. I was literally under the table (slid right off my chair!) by the end of the third!

  25. My challenge has been staying alert. Even with the lowest alcohol wines available, I start to get groggy, so I typically mix in some Kedem grape juice.

  26. According to, I think it’s the yerushalmi, the real question of the Rasha when he asks “What is this Avoadah to YOU” is really “Why are YOU putting us through all this again, when are we going to eat already?” hence the reply – hika es SHINOV. So try that next time.

  27. Thanks for sharing your experiences! When I grew up, we had, just as you put it, “extended family joint-effort meal where the haggadah occupied a short and fast part of the evening, and everyone got home at a late, but still decent hour.” Then later it became more of a “Happy Passover, pass the matzo please.” Then I went to my finance’s parents’ house for Seder (in Boro Park no less). I’m just glad I didn’t embarrass myself by falling asleep in my dinner, although I came close!

    We have gone through several rounds of our own Seders now. My parents come sometimes, but they always want to start early, and want to speed up the whole thing. This year, with the 2 day Yom Tov followed directly by Shabbos, they made a preemptive strike by saying they’d come down Saturday night for a short visit. I already knew there’d be no way they could take a 3 day stretch. My wife’s parents will be in Israel (we’re expecting a new niece/nephew over there any moment now…), so we’re discussing our options. What looks most likely is a joint Seder with a few other families in our community, most of them BTs too.

    But no matter how we do it, I always learn something from it, so however it works out this year, some good will come of it.

  28. I find that people enjoy a longer Seder much more if they’re not hungry when it starts. I also make everyone in my household nap during the afternoon before the Seder (even me!), which helps. You could suggest that to your guests.

    How about serving various salads after Karpas? Maybe that would be enough to keep people going.

    Also, perhaps you could get a few ideas ahead of time from your guests on how to keep them involved. If they know in advance what to expect, they are likely to be more into it. Perhaps they would be willing to prepare something to contribute — ideas or commentary. People who are involved in interesting discussion and sharing their ideas are likely to be more engaged in the experience.

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