"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of Ascent Quarterly

Dear Yerachmiel,

  The Passover seder has always been extremely important to my parents as a time for family gathering and as an expression of Jewish identity in a non-religious way.  I have many fond memories of the family seder and it helped keep my identity strong enough to be open to tshuvah. At this stage, however, my father's seder has become increasingly uncomfortable for me and especially for my wife and two children who have none of the positive associations that I do.  Why?

            1) The hagaddah used is not genuine but an avowedly anti-religious document;
            2) If we try to initiate a discussion of any kind, we are cut off;
            3) Our two children who eagerly prepare all the songs and look forward to the seder for weeks are prevented from singing all of them; and
            4)  My mother does not Pesach-clean the house.

We have offered to host the seder, have a seder with them during Chol Ha-moed, or have each participant prepare to discuss a subject of their choice.  All to no avail.  Any advice you could give would be most appreciated.  It would also be helpful if you could list those elements of the seder which Jewish Law deems essential.

A.L.  / New York

Dear A.L.,

  The Passover activities can be thought of in four categories:

            a) Mitzvot from the Torah that are still fully applicable; 

            b) Practices no longer biblically obligatory since the destruction of the Holy Temple, but reinforced by the Rabbis as full mitzvot in order to maintain their remembrance;

            c) Associated mitzvot not mentioned in Scripture; and

            d) Customs.

In category a) would be:

            1a) Not eating chametz,

            1b) Not owning chametz, 

            1c) Chametz not being found on your property;

            2)  Eating a sufficient amount of Kosher-for-Passover matzah;**

            3)  "Telling [about the Exodus] to your children on that day"; and

            4)  Those laws which apply equally to all the Festivals.

Examples of b) would be eating the Bitter Herbs and the Afikoman matzah.  Biblically, we no longer have to, since it is clearly stated [Ex.12:8] that they are to be eaten together with the lamb of the Passover sacrifice. Nevertheless, the Sages decreed it to be fully obligatory, even today.

Examples of c) would be the Four Cups and Reclining. 

Examples of d) abound.  One of the most obvious, mentioned in your letter, is the Songs.

I presume by "halachically essential" you were referring to category a).  Of course, all mitzvot are absolute requirements; nevertheless, the ones cited in a) are definitive for Pesach.  Without them it may still be a nice affair, and some of the mitzvot of seder night may even have been fulfilled, but to consider it a legitimate Passover seder would be fostering a contradiction, even when b), c), and d) are performed enthusiastically.

Perhaps by arriving before the holiday begins and staying over until it ends, bringing your own matzah, and carefully refraining from all cooked food you could save yourself from stumbling over 1), 2) and 4) of these indispensable strictures.  To do so, though, would certainly create an extremely unpleasant set of new problems!

Now let us turn to 3), a brand-new dilemma for you now that you have thinking children of your own.  Are you fulfilling your obligation to your children to show them how basic Passover is to our Jewish identity in a way that you feel is satisfactory?  How do they evaluate the decision that grandparents' seder outweighs the "real" seder that they learn about in school?  Surely one reason Judaism seemed irrelevant to many of us as kids was because we saw the adults arouund us didn't really believe it.

Many people mistakenly calculate that the laws of Pesach can be pushed aside for the sake of the mitzvah of "Honor your parents."  From a Torah perspective, this assumption has no validity.  One of the two biblical source verses says [Lev. 19:2]: "Your parents you should respect; my Shabbat you shall keep; I am G-d."  Why are these three major statements crammed into one verse?  The traditional interpretation is, "You have to listen to your parents unless they tell you to break Shabbat (or any other commandment), because the G-d who tells us to honor parents is the G-d who commanded all of us, including parents, to keep Shabbat, etc."

In conclusion, I feel strongly that you should make your own.  It is a privilege as well as an obligation to conduct Passover seder in a properly cleaned-for-Pesach home, and according to the guidelines to which Jews had adhered for thousands of years.  Don't relinquish it.  Passover is a celebration of the root and beginning of Judaism, and if the root is weak, even strong branches won't endure [see Avot ch.3 - end].  The question is how to talk it out with your parents so that peace will prevail and they can remain secure about your love and respect for them.  Will it help if you emphasize the obligation you feel towards your children rather than stressing your own commitment?  Maybe they will empathize, seeing how strongly they feel about their relationship with you. Of course you will go to see them on Chol Ha'moed.  Perhaps, after a year or two, they and your siblings will all come to you for the seder. 

Please please let me know how it turns out.

Yerachmiel Tilles

Redesign and implementation - By WEB-ACTION