Seder Night and Home Schooling

Gavriel Cohn,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Gavriel Cohn
grew up in the Jewish community of London. He is currently a student at University College London (UCL).

In our present situation, in which many quarantined families must resort to home-schooling, perhaps it is apt to ask what the ideal method of Jewish education is.

Historically, formal Jewish education was often rudimentary and rigid. In fact, in many instances it proved ineffective. Shaul Stampfer, an emeritus professor at Hebrew University, describes the condition of elementary education prev‎alent in Nineteenth Century eastern Europe, the hedarim:

Many heder teachers were highly unqualified and were neither learned nor creative. The physical conditions in which they taught were poor, they worked long hours… physical punishment in heders, such as whipping and slapping, was standard and administered often.’

The shtetl children’s days were long, filled with rote learning and the fear of corporal punishment, much like those of school pupils in Victorian Britain.

Perhaps the ideal model of Jewish education can be found thousands of years before the hedarim of Europe and in an entirely different context; one not normally associated with schooling: Seder Night. The purpose of Seder Night is not merely to flick through a wine-stained Haggadah or to feast at a lively family meal, although those are important. The primary aim of Seder Night is to transmit the story of the Exodus to one's children, to pass-on to the next generation what happened “on that day when I left Egypt.” To achieve this effectively our rabbis of old proposed some quite radical teaching methods.

On Seder Night, our first task— the Sages instructed— must be to capture our children’s attention. The Rabbis advised the Seder leader to act unconventionally in order to drive the children to ask questions. They understood that children would only listen if they themselves sensed the need to, if they were in search of answers. The Talmud recommended that, with energy and fun, one should distribute roasted seeds and nuts (the ancient equivalent of Haribos), yank food out of one’s child’s hands, and even carry the dining room table away into another room! All in order to provoke the children's curiosity until they fervently demand: “What’s going on? Why is this night different from all other nights?!” It is only after the children themselves have inquired and then wait puzzled, eagerly anticipating an answer, that we can then begin our response: “Our forefathers were slaves in Egypt…”

Secondly, we are instructed to pitch the Exodus account according to the capacity of each child, to tailor the story and its messages to every individual participant— young and old, wise or simple. This ensures that everyone gains some insight and information, that no one is to be dismissed, deprived of an education. It was for this reason that, in the past, some great rabbis even recited the Haggadah in the vernacular and not in its original Rabbinic Hebrew, so that everyone present could understand. As the Sages stress, “according to the ability of his son, a father should teach him.” This is the message of the Four Sons.

Furthermore, recounting the Exodus is not to be limited to a verbal presentation, a lecture from father to son, but rather one must incorporate both visual and experiential learning. We eat matza— the bread of our affliction— chew bitter herbs, and dip vegetables into salt-water ‘tears’ in order to taste and feel the suffering of our forefathers. We also recline and drink four cups of wine, like Roman aristocrats, in order to physically demonstrate our status as free people. Far from being arcane rituals, these practices aim to create a wholesome learning experience like no other, utilising our body and senses to retell, almost to relive, our ancestors' journey from slavery to freedom.

From these pedagogical requirements to re-enact the Exodus story, a rich abundance of traditions arose in many Eastern Jewish communities. One Yemenite Jewish custom, for example, has the Seder leader encircle the table with a knapsack slung over his shoulder. Whilst leaning on his walking stick, he recounts his miraculous escape from Egypt, entrancing the children present. To this day, Persian Jews take turns at lightly beating each other with spring onions, mimicking the Egyptian taskmasters beating of their Jewish subjects. These ‘beatings’ of the spring onions, however, are unlike the corporal punishments once found in the hedarim of eastern Europe or within the Victorian classrooms. The Persian spring onions, like the entire Seder Night affair, should instead prove highly effective in educating one’s children.

In short, Seder Night, first outlined by the Talmudic Sages of old, is a learning experience, not merely a recital of various Hebrew passages. It is perhaps home-schooling at its best. A lesson filled with curiosity, joy, personal-attention, and theatrics— guaranteed to keep everyone engaged! A worthy model of Jewish education indeed.