Adjust the traditional text to create an engaging, impactful ceremony.
passover seder table setting from overhead
Credit: New Africa / Shutterstock

For hundreds of years, the 15 ritual steps of the Passover Seder have been a template for Jews to celebrate the end of their enslavement in ancient Egypt. "Passover can be such an inspiring and such an engaging experience, and that is what it was really built to be," says Rabbi Leora Kaye of the Union for Reform Judaism. But even this ancient tradition offers modern opportunities for customizing the ceremony to suit your family's style, whether that means shortening some sections to accommodate small children, adding opportunities for discussing current events, or emphasizing some elements over others. "This is a ritual that has been around for hundreds of years, and the reason it's been around for hundreds of years is because part of Judaism, in any strain, is actually about adaptation and moving forward," says Kaye. "It's about how we adapt what is there so it works." Ahead, how to modify, abridge, or alter your Seder—which can be quite long!—for your family.

Talk about your family's expectations.

A Seder has no specific, prescribed timeline—"It can take anywhere from 45 minutes to four hours, depending on who your family is and what they want to do," says Kaye—so it's important to reach out to your loved ones in order to find out which parts of the ritual they consider essential before you start cutting, especially if your virtual guest list includes people from a variety of different religious depths. "There are certain elements for sure in the 15 steps of the Seder that people, even if they're not deeply connected to their Judaism, will feel like, 'Oh, well, it's not really Seder if we haven't dipped some parsley in some saltwater, or if we haven't eaten matzah,'" says Kaye. "[But] the Seder was always meant to be an opportunity to sit together over a meal, drinking wine or juice, making sure that the people that are there are really just sharing story after story after story—so if we become too focused on what we're 'supposed' to do, then we're missing out what we were supposed to do."

Keep the conversation going.

At its most basic, says Kaye, "the core of the Passover Seder is really about asking questions—that is the essence. The story of Passover is about going from slavery to freedom, being in an oppressed place and then going to a place where you have much more openness. The idea is that the biggest difference between somebody who is enslaved and somebody who is free is the ability to ask questions." Part of the ritual includes four traditional questions, usually posed by the youngest person at the table, but Kaye likes to deepen the discussion by setting a timer and having a different person ask a question every time it dings—anything from a non-religious question about the weather to more complex, current events-based discussion starters about voting rights or the criminal justice system. "Some families will send around ideas and instructions before the Seder starts, asking guests to come with a question that's been on their mind for the last six or 12 months," says Kaye. "The whole idea is really instilling in everybody sitting around the table, 'Let's just keep asking more questions of each other and learning what we can from each other.'"

Tweak the traditional text.

While some of the Seder steps are simple and straightforward, others—like the longer prayers and blessings—can feel daunting to less experienced leaders. "I think some of it is going to be about how comfortable people feel with various elements," says Kaye. There's an entire section that's a blessing after the meal, and you don't want to sit there and look at this long prayer and feel like you don't know how it goes, and you don't know the tune, and you don't know what to do." But if you and your guests follow a less-strict religious tradition, you can adjust those moments to suit your own comfort level. "Because of the way the Seder is organized and is even described," says Kaye, "it's possible that if you don't know the way the blessing goes you can at least take a moment and say, 'Let's take a moment of gratitude right now—perhaps we won't say the entirety of the blessing after the meal, but we can take two minutes to go around and everybody say one word of something they're grateful for this year." Following the spirit of the ritual can be even more powerful than the letter. "I believe that if you're so focused on all the things you have to do and getting them exactly right,"says Kaye, "you might be missing some of the more creative, engaging opportunities to really bring people into the story."


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