The Passover seder is in general an act of transferring memory from the older generation to the younger one, but its main emphasis is on the children. The Haggada is oriented first and foremost toward children; its very name, which literally means “telling,” refers to the act of telling our national-historical narrative to our descendants, as it says, “And you shall tell (vehiggadeta) your child” (Exodus 13:8). To be sure, the text of the Haggada, like its content, is quite largely influenced by this overarching purpose.
In light of this emphasis, the tendency to seat the children at the seder table, immaculately groomed and completely silent throughout the evening, besides being undoubtedly unpleasant for the children, completely misses the original point of the seder. The children are not merely afterthoughts to the grand scheme of the seder; they are the seder’s chief intended audience.
Indeed, in many places the unofficial custom is to allow the children some measure of freedom to leave the table and play. “Stealing” the afikoman is, of course, one method designed to pique the children’s interest, even if they do not understand the meaning and purpose of the afikoman itself. Some adults will even go so far as to join the children in their games, allowing them to feel more at ease, more like benei horin – free people on this unique night.
In the most general sense, it can be said that the sages went out of their way to ensure that the Passover seder would be the Jewish people’s most memorable ritual. Indeed, even the most assimilated Jews, who have all but completely forgotten their traditional past and the faith of their ancestors, often cherish their memories of the seder night.
There are countless stories relating that even in the harshest and most remote locations, such as the Gulag camps in Siberia, the one ritual that the Jews preserved was the Passover seder. This is no coincidence, but rather a focal point of the seder: “In order that future generations may know” (Leviticus 23:43). On the seder night we transmit our heritage to every single Jew, even those whose lives have taken them far away from that heritage.
The Passover seder can be compared to a kind of opera, but one that is more complex than any kind of opera the world has seen. It is a combination or recitations, melodies, and various activities that can only be described as a kind of theatrical game: Raising, lowering, covering, uncovering, standing, sitting, washing hands, pouring cups of wine for one’s fellow participants, and on and on.
In addition, there are also elements that cannot be found in any play, and these are the essential parts of the seder night. There are unique tastes, smells, and sounds: the taste and smell of the matza, maror, and haroset, the special foods of the festival, the cracking and crunching of the matza. All of these elements join together to form a complete performance that engages all the senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste – creating an indelible memory that is passed along to the next generation.
As noted above, this powerful memory is not always accompanied by a complete and accurate awareness of the meaning of the events that the seder night commemorates. Nevertheless, something will inevitably remain, even if it is only the simple question: “What is this?”
This essay appears in the Steinsaltz Haggada, and is part of a new text-learning resource for Passover developed by the Global Day of Jewish Learning. This resource is available for FREE and can be downloaded in full at theGlobalDay.org/Passover. This project is the flagship international celebration of Jewish texts that takes place annually in November. For more information, visit theGlobalDay.org.