Happy or sad on Seder night? And how about a timetable?

The dilemma posed by the Seder and how to make a reasonable timetable that allows for discussion without reaching the small hours.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple,

 Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple


Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg once pointed out that we face a dilemma on Seder night.

Seder is a moment of memory, but which memory are we talking about – happy or sad?

The Haggadah tells us to imagine that we are the Hebrews of the Exodus, but what memory is uppermost in our minds – the bondage or the freedom?

There are two possibilities. We can think back to the hard times when we had no independence, no time to call our own, and had to jump to the command of our taskmasters.

Alternatively, we can think of the liberation, when the metaphorical chains were gone.

Greenberg says that every generation must decide for itself which memory to emphasise.

If we focus on the past we remind ourselves what it was like to be powerless.

If we think of the present and future we are no longer powerless but we have a new problem, that of learning responsibility.

Neither memory is easy. The thought of the past recalls our victimhood and suggests that we will always feel unsafe because of the resurgent masters of today: as the Haggadah says, “In every generation they rise against us to eliminate us”.

On the other hand. if we concentrate on the liberation we no longer need to be frightened … but now we need to make sure that we can be responsible towards others and not make them afraid of us.


How long should the Seder take?

Let me tell you what our family does.

We have a timetable for Seder night.

The first hour brings us to the meal, then we eat (for which we allocate another hour), then the second part of the Haggadah brings us to Chad Gadya.

All told, then, our Seder takes about three hours.

Others take much longer but we don’t see the need to prolong the proceedings into the small hours. Our arrangement still allows plenty of time to talk about the time-honoured rituals and to inject explanations.

Not only is there a timetable; there is an agenda. One of the great things on the agenda is the links between ancient rituals and modern applications.

Think for instance of the four sons. What would happen if the text spoke of four daughters? Would a feminine perspective be different? Indeed, is there a female take on freedom as a whole?

Another idea – the ten plagues. What do the plagues tell us that connects with ecology, conservation and pollution?

The slaying of the first-born – is there anything we should be talking about in relation to family dynamics (oldest child syndrome? youngest child? middle child?).

Dayyenu: what sort of Jewish world would we like, and is it up to God, to human beings… or to both in partnership?

Hallelour praise of God for His boons. Instead of obsessing about our problems, what good things do we enjoy? Are we sufficiently grateful for our blessings?

Afikoman: are some things in life always present even when we can’t see them?

The more we search for new meanings, the more the Seder comes alive.