Whether you’ve been doing it for years or are brand new, leading a seder is
a challenging job.
“Many arrive at the seder vaguely expecting to hear the great tale of the
Jewish people’s struggle for freedom,” writes David Arnow in his new book,
“Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts and
Activities” (Jewish Lights, 2004). “Year after year they leave with a
gnawing sense of disappointment. The haggadah comes close to telling the
story, but it does so in a way that creates confusion, if not frustration.”
Unless, that is, a good seder leader creates a seder that not only is
engaging and fun, but applies to today the issues that inhere in the Exodus
How to do that?
Here is what Arnow and some other veteran seder leaders suggest:
Do Your Homework: The leader should be prepared to open discussion during
the seder, and can only do that if he or she knows the text of the haggadah
well. Arnow’s densely packed book provides not just historical context for
the different passages in the haggadah, but outside sources, fictional
stories and related material that can fuel long discussions.
Don’t Just Send Invitations – Send Assignments: David Aaronson, who has been
leading his family seders for 20 years and this year gave a workshop on
seder leading at Temple Israel of Hollywood, asks his guests to come dressed
for a long journey.
He also asks them to write out their own Four Questions, which he puts in a
basket and reads a various points in the seder.
Write Your Own Haggadah : Cut and paste from other haggadahs or source books
and compile the texts that are most relevant to you.
Setting the Stage: Make setting the table part of the experience. Lori Krop
sets out on display all the seder apparatus that her kids have made over the
years and lets them choose. She also invites the kids to decorate the table
with props – little frogs or bugs, perhaps.
Really Recline: Aaronson takes a radical approach to the seder table: lose
it. He conducts the first half of his seder in the living room, where guests
are not sitting in front of empty plates wondering when the food will come,
and where creativity can really flourish.
The Food: At the risk of upending hallowed traditions, many seasoned seder
leaders have opted for cold or room-temperature food, so that the kitchen
doesn’t become distractions to the real focus – the haggadah.
Any Questions?: Seder leaders have become somewhat shameless in the ploys
they use to elicit good questions. Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of
Century City hands out vouchers for dollar amounts that he cashes in after
Yom Tov. The biggest reward goes to someone who can ask a question the rabbi
Krop uses candy as rewards and throws out “freedom riddles” or sometimes
hides questions under people’s plates and lets them ask it.
Keep It Fun and Moving: With all these questions and answers, make sure to
keep things fun and moving. Aaronson recommends breaking into song at any
point in the seder, and Krop keeps out a basket of small instruments.
The Plagues: One opportunity for lots of fun, ironically, is the plagues.
Aaronson has guests pantomime the plagues. Some family use puppets or toys,
or throw Styrofoam for hail and plastic bugs for locusts. Professionals and
fundraisers have made a business out of this, and boxes and bags of plagues
are available at Judaic stores and online.
Bargain Circus: The afikoman exchange has long been – and was meant to be –
a highlight for the kids, but Krop makes sure it also stays on the freedom
In addition to some small Passover-related toy, her family exchanges the
afikoman for a commitment they make to do a mitzvah throughout the year.
The Cup Runneth Over: Aaronson recommends keeping Elijah’s cup empty, and
then having each guest pour a little of their own wine into Elijah’s cup.
The Courage to Change: When it comes to the seder, traditions seem to be
firmly entrenched. Introducing new rituals or ideas – or even just
eliminating some tired ones – might seem sacrilegious.
“It takes tremendous initiative and work, and in the end I think it’s worth
it,” Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein said.