Tag Archives: Seder

Seder Celebrations are Jewish History to the Core

During Holy Week this year, I participated in Congregation Beth Sholom’s (frozenchosen.org) 2nd Night Community Seder, my third with this warm congregation. Seder is observed during the eight-days of Passover (seven if in Jerusalem). Pesach (Passover) commemorates the events of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. In the Bible, the Exodus story is found in the book of Exodus, chapters 1-15.  The Passover, proclaimed by Moses, was instituted in Egypt as the key last event preceding Pharaohs releasing the children of Israel.

Passover was intended to be observed by the Israelite’s after their deliverance. Instructions for its observance are contained in Exodus, chapters 12-15. Seder, as such, was formalized after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  Before Passover is celebrated, each Jewish household is thoroughly cleaned and all forbidden items such as yeast, yeast breads, etc., are eliminated.

Pesach is one of the most commonly observed Jewish holidays, even by otherwise non-observant Jews. According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), 67% of Jews routinely hold or attend a Pesach Seder, while only 46% belong to a synagogue.

Generally a written Hagaddah is used which contains the various readings and songs in proper order. It was a treat to be seated with CBS member Michael Silverbook who described some of the key during the evening. At the same time, he was hosting three deaf gentlemen, using his phone to dictate what was happening at each moment, showing it to one who communicated to the others via sign language. Michael’s wife, and former Rabbi Frederick Wenger and his wife also were at our table.  I should note that the meal was catered by Aladdin’s Restaurant who yearly does such a fine job of serving kosher and excellently prepared food with great service.  The 2nd Night Community Seder is offered to non-CBS members for a fee, which includes all food and the ceremonial wine; I paid this fee in advance.

You can read the entire text of a Reform Judaism Haggadah by clicking this link. (http://jewishfederation.org/images/uploads/holiday_images/39497.pdf)

The entire celebration lasts 3-4 hours and is a delightful time of listening, learning, and celebrating Israel’s liberation. This is a family affair with all members of the family participating. Rabbi Michael Oblath, who replaced Rabbi Wenger, led the readings and singing from the Haggadah. Each act performed is symbolic.

  1. Sanctifying the Day
    2. Handwashing
    3. Dipping Parsley in Salt Water
    4. Breaking the Middle Matzah
    5. The Seder Narrative
    —The Four Questions
    —The Four Children
    —The Ten Plagues
    —Explanation of Passover Symbols
    6. Handwashing
    7. Blessing at the Start of the Meal
    8. Blessing over Matzah
    9. Eating of Bitter Herbs
    10. Matzah and Charoset Sandwich
    11. Dinner
    12. The Afikomen Dessert Matzah
    13. Grace after the Meal
    14. Praises and Blessings
    15. Closing Section and Songs

I particularly enjoy the four questions asked of children, children’s search for the afikomen, drinking the ritual four glasses of wine, the ritual drops of wine of a plate for each of the plagues, singing of Dayenu, and the sense of community this celebration brings annually.

Some Christian churches conduct Seders in their churches which has created some degree of controversy and animosity within the Jewish community. Last month Christianity Today ran several articles dealing with the pros and cons of Christians observing Seders in their churches. I suggest both for a balanced view. Personally, I think Christians should respect the argument that having these celebrations amount to cultural appropriation. I attend to better understand Jewish tradition.


Several years ago, I asked a Rabbi friend what he thought about Christians doing Seder in their churches. He wryly answered, “Why don’t they do Yom Kippur?”

I’ve previously written about my local Seder experiences in these two columns:
Lubavitcher (http://www.churchvisits.com/2015/04/seder-in-anchorages-lubavitcher-community/) and Reform, (http://www.churchvisits.com/2014/05/at-seder-a-community-reflects-on-liberation-from-slavery/).

My thanks again to the wonderful community of Congregation Beth Sholom and their acceptance of me at their synagogue, allowing me to experience various festivals of their faith of which Seder is only one.



Seder in Anchorage’s Lubavitcher community

Last week was a perfect storm of faith community gatherings, celebrations and commemoration. I attended two Seders — Protestant and Jewish — and an Easter service. The previous Sunday, I attended a Ganesh Puja at the Sri Ganesha Temple of Alaska, the northernmost Hindu temple in the world. I hope to write about that in a future column, but suffice to say, I enjoy meeting people of faith wherever they gather. Expressions of deep faith, regardless of my personal beliefs and no matter where I find them, are wonderful to see and experience, expanding my knowledge of our community’s customs.

Lubavitcher Seder

The Jewish tradition of celebrating Seder has fascinated me, partly due to this marvelous story of Jewish liberation from slavery as recorded in the Torah in the Book of Exodus, and partly because of its contemporary parallel in today’s culture. Seder is a Passover celebration in the Jewish tradition rooted in its scriptural centrism. Some Jews celebrate Seder in their homes during Passover with friends and guests. I’ve been told some of these celebrations can last many hours. Community Seders are offered at Jewish synagogues for members and the community. (For explanation of Lubavitcher, see http://tinyurl.com/m4m2nhk)

I attended the Jewish community Seder at the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska on April 3, the first night of Passover. (Last year, I celebrated Seder with Congregation Beth Sholom, reviewing that experience in a previous column.)

I was warmly welcomed when I entered Lubavitch Jewish Center and made my way to the synagogue. In the hallway outside, I was repeatedly welcomed by various members of the Jewish community, making me feel as welcome as if it was my home. Assistant Rabbi Levi Glitsenstein warmly greeted me. Soon Rabbi Yosef Greenberg came, ensuring I was seated with a congenial group of people. My table included a newly met couple from Anchor Point, the curator of the Alaska Jewish Museum, and a recent member from South Africa. I soaked up the conversation as the evening progressed, learning much about Jewish practices.

Rabbi Greenberg’s wife, Esther, was responsible for the Seder, its presentation, serving, and beautifully decorated tables. Greenberg’s daughter Mushky, and wife of Rabbi Glitsenstein, organized the marvelous participation of the youth and younger ones in the festivities of the evening. The synagogue was full with tables set for six to eight people.

The Seder follows key readings from the Haggada, contained in approximately 150 pages, including the history, prayers, blessings, and key elements of the Seder and their significance. Throughout the evening those assembled were encouraged to participate verbally during these readings, partaking of the various elements literally and symbolically. Both rabbis led out in these communal readings.

Seder follows these key elements: Kaddish: blessings and first cup of wine; Ur’chatz: hand washing for vegetables, Karpas: appetizer dipped in saltwater, Yachatz: middle matzo breaking, Magid: the Passover story, Rohtzah: ritual hand washing, Motzi Matzo: matzo blessing, Maror: eating of the bitter herbs, Koreich: making a matzo sandwich with bitter herbs, Shulchan Orech: the meal, Tzafun: afikoman eating, Bareich: after meal prayer, Hallel: praise songs, Nirtzah: say “Next year in Jerusalem.” In all, four cups of wine are drunk during this celebratory meal.

As Greenberg introduced each of these sections of the Seder, he would either ask those gathered a question, or relate a brief anecdote regarding the significance the particular item. I found it an exciting learning experience, because he phrased his questions in such a way that all would have to stretch their knowledge and imagination to follow him. During countless visits in the faith community, I’ve found it extremely rare that a spiritual leader follows this question-and-answer approach to elicit responses. It was a true learning experience.

It also extended to the children and youth. A key part of the service is devoted to the “four questions,” posed to the younger ones and prefaced by a general question — “What makes this night different from all [other] nights?” — that is answered in 4 parts: 1. On all nights we need not dip even once, on this night we do so twice; 2. On all nights we eat chametz or matzo, and on this night only matzo; 3. On all nights we eat any kind of vegetables, and on this night maror; 4. On all nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, and on this night we all recline.

The children responded beautifully. After the meal there was traditional dancing by groups of men and women, separately, to “Hava Nagila” in long hand-clasped lines circling around two or three tables. It was breathtaking to look and listen. The words mean “let us rejoice, let us sing, awaken brethren.” Another song sung was “Dayenu,” which means “it would have been sufficient.” A lengthy song, a typical verse is “If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!”

Concluding impressions

My first impression of the Lubavitcher community is one of warmth; to each other, and to strangers. Rarely do I experience this kind of hospitality in any faith community. Next, I loved how this group showed they lived their history through this celebration where every element is designed with meaning. I was thrilled seeing the training and support they give to their younger generations. So many faith congregations just plow the surface. This one plows lasting and deep. My visit was not without some minor learning experiences. Going back thousands of years, these people have developed a unique set of traditions that serve them well. Although I committed a few faux pas, I learned from them and have nothing but admiration for this wonderful faith community.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

At Seder, a community reflects on liberation from slavery – 5/17/14

Passover was celebrated by local Jews last month, just before Christian Easter. I attended a Seder this year at Temple Beth Shalom. Each year they conduct a community Seder at their synagogue on East Northern Lights for Jews and non-Jews. A modest fee is charged to partake of their Seder, but no different than dining in a local restaurant. In fact, the food was prepared and served by a well-known local restaurant, Aladdin’s.

Seder marks a special time of remembrance for religious Jews where Passover, and Israel’s ultimate deliverance as a people from Egyptian bondage under Pharaoh, is commemorated. It’s held in homes on the first night of Passover, and communally in synagogues on the second night of Passover. I’ve been told home celebrations of Seder can be relatively brief or last 4-6 hours, or even longer.

The overarching importance of Passover is its recognition of the beginning of Israel’s identity as a separate unique people, via their exodus from Egypt.

Seder is performed using a Haggada — huh-gah-da — as a guide. The Haggada, printed and in the hands of celebrants, outlines the various rituals, and the connecting story. There are many different Haggada’s available, based on the various traditions Jewish people represent, such Morrocan, Separdic, Yemeni, Ashkenazi and others. The earliest Haggada dates to CE 170. Usually a Rabbi leads the Seder, reading from the Haggada. The Haggada reads from back to front, an unusual twist for me considering my non-Jewish orientation. Rabbi Michael Oblath led the Seder.

Unlike many religious celebrations I’ve attended, Seder is very family-oriented. A wide range of ages was represented, with many children. I often write about aging churches having few children and youth. I was overwhelmed by the youthful vibrancy represented by the attendees.

Seder starts with a series of readings and rituals, followed by the full Seder meal.

To begin, candles are lit and a solemn prayer to God is said, ending with “May your light surround us always.” A blessing for the children is invoked. Miriam’s cup is then filled with water by the women present, a reminder of the Exodus. During the Seder, four cups of wine are consumed, one for each of God’s promises regarding Israel’s promised freedom.

• I will bring you out …

• I will deliver you …

• I will redeem you …

• I will take you to be my people … (Exodus 6:6-7)

The order of the Seder speaks to the themes of slavery and freedom. Kadesh: The first cup of wine is drunk remembering the first promise. “I am Adonai, and I will free you from the slavery of Egypt.” Urchatz: Hand-washing without a blessing. Karpas: Greens (parsley) are dipped in salt water to remember the tears of the Israelites in slavery. Yachats: The middle matzot of three is broken in half. The Seder leader takes the largest of the two pieces and saves it as the “afikoman” to be hidden for the children to find later. Magid: The story of the Exodus is told and invitations are extended to partake in the Seder. Four questions are then posed which must be answered. 1. Why do we eat matzah on Passover? 2. Why do we eat maror at the Seder? 3. Why do we dip foods twice? 4. Why do we lean in our chairs at the Seder? These questions are ritually answered, after which an object lesson called “The Four Sons” or “The Four Children” is recited to teach children the Exodus story from four vantage points: The Wise Child, The Wicked Child, The Simple Child, and The Child Who Does Not Think to Question. The Exodus and deliverance is further expounded upon, including the 10 plagues, where a drop of wine is placed upon one’s plate from the wineglass as each is recited. In rapid succession blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first born are signified. Then the second glass of wine is consumed. Rachtzah: Another ritual washing of hands, this time with a blessing. Motzi Matzah: Blessings over the matzah is given, after which a small portion is consumed. Moror: The moror (bitter herbs) is blessed and eaten along with charoset, a sweet filling. Korekh: Placing moror between two pieces of matzah and eating like a sandwich. Shulhan Orekh: The Passover meal is eaten beginning with a charred egg. Tzafun: The hidden matzoh is sought by the children, found, and consumed. Barech: An after-meal blessing is given, followed by the third cup of wine. Hallel: Songs of praise are sung. Nirtzah: Concluding prayer for the acceptance of the night’s service, expression of hope for the Messiah, and drinking the fourth cup of wine.

The entire Seder teaches about God’s leading Israel out of Egyptian slavery, done in a spirit of joy and celebration. I enjoyed the unique items various participants brought and shared with their tables. A woman at my table brought a wonderful Yemeni cheroset, while others brought special wines. It was a beautiful time of reflection and joy. If you’ve never tried a Jewish Seder, I urge you to try this one. I appreciated the warmth the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom extended to me that night.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.

Original ADN Article