These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] The Purpose of Two Seders

Posted on April 3, 2013 by The Director of Digital Media

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Posted by Ben Barer (Fall '10, Fellows '12):

Having only one seder last year, while in Israel, followed by having two this year, has led me to reflect on why this custom is maintained, and how best to perpetuate it as a meaningful one. Like the other holidays that are celebrated one extra day outside of Israel, this practice originated because of a lack of clarity about the calendar. If the new moon was spotted, and the news was rushed to Jerusalem and verified there, there might not be enough time to get that news out to Babylonia (or wherever Jews were in exile). As a cautionary measure, then, those Jews celebrated an extra day to be sure that they did not treat the actual holiday as a normal day, and work on it. While we now have a set Jewish calendar, and I could tell you when Pesach will fall in the year 5973 (2213), the custom has persisted in most of the Jewish community.

While seders specifically are a ritual that requires a lot of preparation, and therefore having an extra can feel cumbersome at times, I think that all Jews who decide to keep with this tradition have a lot to gain. This assumes that some thought is given to how those two nights can complement one another, though. Speaking for myself and my generation, I see two tendencies in seders that can be in tension if expressed in the same night (or drag the ritual into the wee hours of the morning). One tendency is to have a ‘traditional’ seder, with lots of reading in Hebrew (or English) and extrapolating what the mediaeval commentators have said, with history and family lore taking a prominent role. The second tendency is to be much more creative, drawing this ancient ritual into contact with our deepest fears and hopes. This is precisely why I think that having two seders can be beneficial. By having two distinct nights to live out this elaborate ritual dinner, we can express both of these aspects of our connection to Judaism. We can pay tribute to the past one night, while bringing the ritual to bear on the present on the other night. This also avoids worries of doing the same old thing twice, especially because we will most likely wish to celebrate our ‘past seder’ with different people than those we wish to celebrate our ‘present seder’ with.

What might this look like? For me, the ‘past seder’ will include more singing of the traditional songs and reading the classic Exodus narrative, while at the ‘present seder’ many will want to tell the story of liberation more autobiographically, including modern political and existential issues that arise for them with the classical telling. Inviting those who have had few or no seder experiences before will also be very different at the two seders. Having a family seder as the ‘past seder’ makes the most sense, especially if talking openly about politics and ways in which this bedrock of a Jewish ritual does not work for some around the table would be more stressful with family than with friends. On the other hand, we must remember that the questions in the Haggadah, though concise, provide the blueprint for our seder — and it should be one composed of a plurality of views, as expressed by the four children. So while family may be too close for comfort, I strive not to shy away from inviting a motley crew to the ‘present seder,’ as part of the goal of such a seder should be to arrange the various elements and then let the guests take it where they will. Hoping to be surprised is one of the joys of having a second opportunity to explore this ritual.

I see historical ‘relics’ of Judaism like this one as potentially divisive issues in the liberal Jewish community, as they can easily be seen as customs that should no longer have any effect given that technology (the calendar in this case) has evolved. This view can lead to apathy about the ritual, but I think it serves equally as an opportunity for a creative re-thinking, adapting the ritual despite its nature as being from a different historical context. This is how traditions remain robust, standing the test of time.