Green Onions and Lamb: Bringing New Traditions into the Seder

Posted on March 25, 2021

by Hazzan Ben Tisser 

The liturgy of the Pesach seder includes the verse “V’nomar l’fanav shirah chadashah — we will sing before God a new song.” In translation, we should be very familiar with this phrase. It is presented in the command form “You shall sing…” twice in the Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, recited each Friday night. In the case of Pesach, however, we offer the verse as not a command from above, but as a promise of humanity.

So how do we do this? How do we take the Seder–a ritual prescribed as early as Mishnaic times, 2,000 years ago–and make it relevant? We have learned to include contemporary songs and readings, relating the ancient story of the Exodus to our times. This year will be no different, except that in many ways we will feel the impact of the story much more personally than perhaps ever in our lifetimes (for many of us). We can finally begin to see the end of the chaos this pandemic has created. We are experiencing the beginnings of freedom that the miracle of science has gifted us. In that way, dayeinu–it’s enough if we stop there! By relating our present situation to the Exodus from Egypt, we have more than fulfilled the commandment that each of us is to see ourselves as if we had actually left Egypt.

But there’s another dimension of the Seder which is so vitally important. That is the element of tradition. This is as much prescriptive as it is personal. There are those elements of ritual which have been part of the Pesach experience for thousands of years, and then there are those traditions which have developed over centuries and across different communities across the world. As a child, I recall adding several new elements to our Seder: a fourth matzah in solidarity with the Jews of the former Soviet Union; Miriam’s Cup filled with water, recalling how, by Miriam’s merit, God provided B’nei Yisrael with water in the desert; different types of Haroset as our family grew (but never without my Grandma Diana’s prune-based Haroset, strong and pasty enough to hold together the largest of pyramids!).

With just days to go until the Seder, and with this year still being very different for so many of us than we are accustomed to, why not add something new, meaningful, or even fun to the seder?! Here are some interesting and fun customs you might consider to enhance and add meaning to your own Seder:

  • Using masks or other fun homemade props for the reading of the Ten Plagues
  • Dressing up nicely (yes, even that which can’t be seen on Zoom!) – we’re free!
  • Do as Jews from Iran and Afghanistan: during the singing of Dayeinu, whip those around you with green onions
  • Do as Syrian Jews: during Yachatz, break the middle matzah into the shape of a Hebrew letter
  • Consider the tradition of Jews from Gibraltar (if you can stomach it): add dust from actual bricks into your Haroset for an authentic, historical experience
  • If you are ready for warmer weather, pretend you’re in South Africa where it’s autumn and include lots of apples in your meal
  • Do like Moroccan Jews: just after reciting Ha Lachma Anya, the leader of the Seder carries the Seder plate around, tapping each participant and guest on the head with it while chanting, “Bib’hilu yatzanu mi-Mitzrayim — ha lachma anya” — “We left Egypt in great haste — this is the Bread of Poverty”
  • If it is your custom to sing Chag Gadya at the end of the Seder, assign a “part” to each person present (in person or on Zoom) and as you go through the song have each person make a silly noise or act appropriately (or, inappropriately!) to bring the song to life!

Whatever you do, however or wherever you celebrate, I pray for all of us that next year we will reach “the promised land” and be able to celebrate the Festival as we truly desire! Robyn and the kids join me in wishing each of you and those you love a Zisn and Kosher Pesach — a sweet and Kosher Pesach!