Considering Passover Rituals


Rabbi Geri Newburge


There is a story about Rabbi Akiva at the Passover seder in the Talmud. He would distribute roasted grains and nuts to the children so they would stay awake and they would ask questions.

Later on in the same passage, Rabbi Eliezer teaches: One grabs the matzot on the nights of Passover and should eat them very quickly on account of the children, so that due to the hasty consumption of the meal, they will not sleep and they will inquire about the meaning of this unusual practice. (Pesahim 108b-109a)

But the idea of engaging the children predates these thoughtful rabbis. In the Torah portion for the first day of Pesach we read, “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and your descendants, and when you enter the land God will give you, as promised, you shall observe this rite. When your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to God, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’ (Ex 12:24-27)

Even when our ancestors were still in Egypt, they focused on the primacy of telling the next generations about what they experienced. Of course, how we tell the story is open to interpretation and creativity, and the Haggadah is a testament to the various ways we share the narrative, from the asking of the Four Questions to the Four Children to the manner of counting of the Ten Plagues.

As with other holiday traditions, the seder practices evolved differently in different locales. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew and am familiar with many of the elements my ancestors developed for this holiday meal, but there are several inspiring and engaging Sephardic traditions worth considering for your seder this year as we seek to keep our children (of all ages) engaged with the ritual.

The first minhag (custom) that quite literally helps tell the story is a “reenactment” of the Exodus from Egypt. After either the step of Yachatz (breaking of the middle matzah) or during the Maggid, many Sephardim wrap the afikoman in a large napkin, tie it with a string and give it to one of the children at the seder. Then the child slings the napkin over his or her shoulder while the leader of the seder asks a series of questions to the child:

1. “From where have you come?” The child answers: “I have come from Egypt.”

2. The Passover seder leader then asks: “Where are you going?” The child answers: “I am going to Jerusalem.”

3. Finally, the Passover seder leader asks: “What are you taking with you?” The child then points to the sack or napkin full of matzah.

Some communities extend this reenactment beyond the children and include all seder participants!

A second minhag found in the Sephardic tradition is to place maror — the bitter herbs — at the very center of the seder plate. This follows the understanding of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century mystic from Tzfat.

This practice has contemporary implications. By placing maror in the middle, we expand our understanding of the Haggadah to include our people’s bitter experiences beyond ancient Egypt. We remember the Jewish people’s persecution under the Babylonians and Romans, countless inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms under the tyranny of too many oppressors. Maror includes the bitterness of concentration camps, and it even allows for reflection on the contemporary resurgence of antisemitism.

Last (for this column but there are many other practices worth exploring), is a Moroccan tradition that transitions into the Maggid section of the Haggadah. Everyone chants the Hebrew: Bibhilu yatzaanu mimitzraim ha lachma anya benai chorin (“It is with haste that we came out of Egypt, and this is the bread of affliction we ate.”)

While these words are chanted, the head of the family holds the seder plate above the head of each attendee, circling three times and often reciting a blessing for each participant.

We can never receive too many blessings, and I hope these rituals bring a renewed sense of wonder and inspiration to you and your loved ones for a meaningful seder. Wishing you a zissen Pesach!

Rabbi Geri Newburge is the senior rabbi at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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