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Making a Seder in the Shadow of Corona

Why is this night different than all other nights?

In two weeks this question will be asked in many homes, and there isn’t a single household for whom these words will not have taken on a new significance. Leil Shimurim Hu. A night of vigil, a night when we do not go outside, a night when we will in fact be quite confused if, when we open the door to those in need and to Elijah the Prophet, somebody is actually there and enters. In light of all this, how can we make a Seder according to halacha (Jewish law) – beyond hoping that by then everything will be different and we will be able to joyfully celebrate our emergence from isolation to freedom?

Over the last several days and weeks, there have been poskim (those involved in the analysis, clarification and dispensation of Jewish law) debating whether it is permissible to allow the use of technology to connect with others during the Seder. This is not a straightforward halachic question, especially considering that the day in question is a holiday, not Shabbat and not a holiday that falls on Shabbat, and that there are certainly several poskim who already permit the use of electricity on holidays. Moreover, issues of malacha (activities that are considered “work” and are therefore forbidden on days of rest) are more lenient on holidays, and there are also certain allowances regarding the use of fire on holidays. However, connecting via technology includes the use of a computer, a camera, a microphone and a loudspeaker. These activities involve additional malachot, beyond just lighting a fire, and it is difficult to avoid these malachot when using technology to connect.

Just as every one of us looks different on the outside, so too do we have different ways of practicing our Judaism. Each person will choose his or her own way of observing the Seder, and there might even be more than one appropriate halachic stance. However, in my opinion, other than in extraordinary circumstances when there is concern of potential danger to the life of someone in isolation (safek pikuach nefesh), I prefer to see in this enforced reality an opportunity for creating a Passover Seder uniquely designed to meet the needs and character of its limited participants. Next year we can look back at certain aspects of this year’s Seder that we wish to never repeat, or perhaps we will decide that some things worked so well for us that we would like to continue doing them at future Seders with others.

With this in mind, I offer a number of suggestions, all in line with halacha, that might add to the unique Seder that we will soon each experience in our individual homes:

Preparing for the Seder:

Ahead of this year’s Seder, you might consider sending messages, ideas and suggestions and recipes to loved ones (and encouraging them to send to you, as well) so that they can feel your presence at their Seder and you can feel their presence at yours.  This way, for example, even though many parents will be conducting Seders alone, they will feel their siblings, children and grandchildren with them through the ideas that they have sent. It is also a good idea to ensure that afikoman (hidden matzah) presents take into consideration that isolation is likely to continue and are thus tailored to meet the needs of children during this unique period (games, books, etc.).

Seder Night – First Part:

Maggid (reciting the main section of the hagadah) can be done early – up to an hour and a half before the start of the holiday, when everybody is sitting around their individual tables or on couches in their own living rooms, dressed in their holiday finest. Participants can gather around the computer, each in their own home, and connect to those with whom they had planned to do the Seder, even inviting the participation of anyone else who wishes to join (“let all who are hungry come and eat!”).

During this time, you can read the entire maggid section of the hagadah, beginning with ha lachma ania (“This is the bread of affliction”). You can sing ma nishtana (“Why is this night different than all other nights?”) and vehi she’amda (“This is what kept our fathers and what keeps us surviving”) and together recite the two paragraphs of the hallel prayer or the whole hallel. You can also choose to sing the songs that appear at the end of the hagadah that are usually saved for last the part of the Sederincluding echad mi yodeah? (“Who knows one?”), chad gadya (“One little goat”) and more.

Those who are interested might even want to spend time discussing issues of slavery and freedom that may have touched us personally throughout this period, as well what it means to be a community versus each person staying in his or her own home.

Seder Night – Second Part:

A few minutes before the holiday begins, it will be time to stop all preparations, close the computers and recite the evening prayers. After this, we will sit at the holiday table, say kiddush (the blessing over the wine)wash our hands (urchatz) and do karpas (raw vegetables dipped in salt water) and yachatz (breaking the middle matzah). Then we will recite the opening paragraph of ma nishtana and its response: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”. At this point, we will skip ahead to the paragraph that begins “Raban Gamliel says: Pesach, matzah and maror”.  

During this part of the Seder, or later, as we eat the meal, we can share the teachings, surprises and messages that we received prior to the holiday (and have not yet opened) from those with whom we shared the first part of the Seder: Texts they recommended we read, games they suggested we play, songs they thought we might enjoy singing, drawings, pictures, etc.

When the Holiday Ends:

When the holiday is over, I recommend once again reconnecting over the computer so that participants can share stories and experiences from their individual Seders at home and things that happened throughout the day.

On the 15th of whatever month we will be in once quarantine is over, I recommend getting together as a family to celebrate the collective emergence from isolation to freedom. (I see this as a one-time celebration, not something that will be added to our yearly canon of holidays.)

Making a Passover Seder in the shadow of the coronavirus quarantine is a challenging issue. For some of us, it will be the first Seder that we have made by ourselves, without having even planned on doing so. But it is especially in these unique circumstances that I see an opportunity for renewed Judaism, a chance to create something unique for each of us within the traditional Seder, to connect anew to this night of vigil that repeats itself each and every year. And who knows, maybe we will find ourselves adopting new traditions next year and beyond.

Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch is the Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.

Schechter Rabbinical Seminary (SRS) trains the next generation of Jewish leaders who inspire and influence Israeli society, as well as raise a committed Jewish voice for religious pluralism and tolerance. SRS graduates lead communities throughout Israel and the world in the spirit of enlightened, intellectually engaged Judaism. Since SRS was founded in 1984, 101 rabbis, among them 27 women, received Masorti/Conservative ordination.

Avi Novis-Deutsch is Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. Ordained as a Masorti rabbi by the SRS in 2003, Rabbi  Novis-Deutsch also has an MA in Jewish Studies from JTS. He served for nine years as a pulpit rabbi at two Masorti congregations in Israel, most recently, at Haminyan Hamishpachti Masorti Kfar Veradim. Rabbi Novis-Deutsch also worked for two years as a Jewish educator in Berkeley in the Bay Area, California.  He is married to Dr. Nurit Novis-Deutsch. They and their three children live on Kibbutz Hanaton.

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