wine and mazzot

So many roots and rich layers to mine in Pesach, so many ways to go! The challenge is not shortage of material – the very opposite. When one is faced with a seder, the simplest run-through only up to the meal – a straight reading at full speed – would still likely take at least an hour. The wonder is really that such a slim creation – so relatively "short" in volume – can be so jam-packed.

"Hagada" / הגדה is a cousin of the Hebrew word lehagid / להגיד – "to tell" – as the mitzva obliges us to do. The seder outlined in it is a model to use, and provides an orderly framework to do so – seder in Hebrew means order or sequence. But within that basic framework there is no single "best" way to make the most meaningful or "doable" seder (especially within one's individual situation or constraints) – just as there's no one method to produce the ultimate "perfect"-for-everyone kneidel / matzoh-ball.

The mitzva incumbent on us is to "retell the story" – but this doesn't have to follow one lock-step rote "how". (Especially if you do two instead of the single seder in Israel). Nor is this just a simple celebration of some past event and that's that. The seder is an educational vehicle by design. It encourages everyone's active participation. And it calls on us constantly to question, examine, share, find relevancy with today and to each individual personally. The standard set by the hagada itself shows that was all clearly intentional in what is meant by "retelling".

If the messages and purposes get lost in an effort to cover everything, then one might end up feeling like they hadn't carried out what was actually intended. Doing a straightforward regular seder is great, like any terrific book we reread. And note that when one rereads something, one often finds new insights each time. This shows us that a real ongoing "dialogue" with a text is taking place. A seder, at its best, is in fact a dialogue.

So let's just suggest that a simple yearly rereading isn't the only way you have to go. Like a really good poetry collection, some parts suit better at different times, and to cover all parts with the real attention they deserve sometimes takes longer than the time at hand (or isn't so suited "as is" for a particular audience). Applied to the seder, the reality is sometimes some of us feel rushed, or forced to pick and choose anyway to some extent, and/or some guests may feel "lost" or less engaged for a variety of reasons. So here are some alternative suggestions to get you thinking…

Is your family planning an original seder night?

Send us pictures or write us about it on our Facebook page or via email - and we might publish it. :)

Balance and Rotate the Focus


Create a slightly different balance between old and new. The hagada's own examples reflect the importance of relevancy, so it expects no less from us than to take a part in keeping that kind of connection going.

Whether you can "do it all" or not, consider rotating the seder's focus from year to year. You can concentrate on an approach/style, theme, message, or what best suits your particular group at this particular time at this seder… You can rotate what to emphasize, and vary topics and themes over a few years. This might be as simple as focusing on just a few parts of the Magid / מגיד for example. Perhaps you will edit in one place and add in another, and each year this could change somewhat. The important thing, in the spirit of the hagada itself, is involvement, thinking, sharing, questioning, conveying that "we", for example, in the "we were slaves in Egypt, and then this happened to us, and then we chose to…, and from this we've learned that…, and next we will….". Because the hagada – and Pesach more generally – makes clear throughout that the story did not stop – it is still ongoing now.

Find Ways to Encourage Being a Part

The hagada emphasizes and reinforces that we can and should continually question, see anew, learn and be actively present. In fact, this is part of the responsibility we received together with our freedom from slavery. The concepts of this chag resonate to this very day in our contemporary lives and world – we just have to take the time to add, share and compare our own experiences and what we observe around us now.


A theme can be a concept, perspective or emphasis, or how you go about your seder, etc. Here we provide some examples of directions and ideas – some little, some big.

Sample Topics

Sample topic: Purity, fertility, hope...

There seems to be practically no end to these. So here are just a "few" topics, sketched in more general terms, just to get you cookin'. Some of them overlap and/or segue into the next. As one may notice, most actually take their cues and jump off either directly or logically from hagada text or symbols. To see some examples of how a topic might be fleshed out or utilized, see Let's Talk About It and Let's Get Busy, some other suggestions under "Sample Ideas" below and in our other sections. (Because of the very nature of Pesach, what it involves and how it's celebrated, there's rather more flexibility and interchangeability in what is usable or pertinent to one's Passover seder, class lesson, youth group event or community activity).

  • Avadim hayinu / "we were slaves", what enslaves us personally, what enslaves us as a society or in the world…
  • Purifying oneself for a new beginning, arrogance (like as represented by chametz / leavening or Pharoah or a slaveowner…) versus "cleaning house", starting over, self-examination…
  • What constitutes a "miracle"
  • Respect for G-d's creation – nature – beauty, balance, interdependency of its interlinking parts, abuse of, environmental crisis…
  • Freedom, liberation, redemption, faith, taking responsibility, covenant…
  • Purity, fertility, hope, spring, birth, rebirth, renewal…
  • Jewish identity & its evolution
  • Assimilation pressures & ways of dealing with them
  • Identifying with , caring about & for the stranger – born of our own experience ("love the stranger as yourself for you were once strangers in Egypt" [Leviticus 19:34])
  • Bitterness of experience produces greater empathy & mercifulness vs. rejoicing in the fall of one's enemies and callousness – when do we cross the line too far one way or the other?
  • Stereotyping, prejudice & discrimination of a person, group, culture, background or set of attitudes…
  • "Tolerance" vs. acceptance & appreciation of differences (they aren't the same, and neither side is necessarily a clear-cut positive or negative in every instance)…
a man inside a cardboard box Avadim hayinu / "we were slaves"
What enslaves us personally?
the word empathy highlighted in a book Caring about &
for the stranger
the world and a toolbox Tikun olam -
fixing the world
  • Differences/contrast from the rest of the year of Pesach practices, the seder; how are we as a people different from others? (And not?)
  • Freedom in terms of simplicity, abundance & balancing between the two; complacency vs. alertness, adaptability and agility
  • Freedom to have choice & control over one's fate vs. being bound with no personal control or imput (slaves have neither, nor can they question)
  • How does one view "we are not fully free as long as others are still enslaved"?
  • Tikun olam (helping to "fix the world"); action is emphasized in Judaism – taking action in ha-olam hazeh / this world helps to bring olam haba / the coming world (what do we each personally think of as "olam haba", for that matter?)
  • Social injustice; poverty & economic injustice; political injustice…
  • Thankfulness, "thanksgiving day", appreciating every effort by others – even if not complete, Dayenu, looking at what is accomplished as opposed to what's lacking or a shortcoming, "it takes a village to…"
  • Personal prejudices, stereotyping, labeling, preconceived notions & presumptions, seeing beyond one's own shoes & thinking outside the box
  • From giving up … to standing up… to being counted…
  • Individual – to group – to ethnic group or religion or national identity (who in fact are we these days?)………………

We haven't exhausted this by any means.

Sample Ideas

These range from minor tweaks to larger alternatives. (We've also included a couple more "out there" ideas people have done or been invited to. Even if not everyone's "cup of tea" for using in their own seder, some of those may still be useful for a classroom or other group learning situation).

a road sign says 'new stuff'

1. The "contributive seder"

Some do potluck, where each person is responsible for some food or course. Well, being responsible for a "piece of the seder" is kind of like this. Each guest or family coming is responsible for one thing in the seder outline. It can range from slightly to very different – from just going around the table reading (this depends on both your invited crowd and what you choose to request or might be able to realistically expect) to a pretty different experience. We'll give you a few possible ways this has been done:

  • The surprise method – Each person is assigned a part (or possibly two) by the card taped under their seat. Some have suggested it's even better if no one knows who's doing what. One just pops up when it's their turn. You can do this with no notice given until being seated or allow about 5-10 minutes to think before starting the seder. (Children are allowed to discuss with their parents, of course. No one wants to feel bad or caught short somehow. Or whatever is on the seats of one family, they would end up doing with whom and how they see fit with those children). Even if this is limited pretty much to simple reading, one has a bit of time to think about it. One can add a dramatic voice or style, pose a question and some discussion, or suggest a new symbol to go with what's involved in one's reading, etc. It's up to that individual however they choose, how simple or more usual – or not – as they choose.
  • The semi-surprise method – each guest pulls one part out of a hat when arriving. Since there's generally some schmoozing before starting, this also gives a bit of percolating time.
  • The pre-prepared method – give the assignments out some days before the seder.
  • Note: You can limit this to certain parts of the seder, for example – to "easier" things, e.g. each is responsible for one seder symbol, or "you do plagues, he's doing something with Dayenu, etc…". Or attack it head-on by what are often considered "harder" portions to get through meaningfully in a straight read-through in a seder, like only parts of Magid readings and material. By the way, it can really help sometimes if one finds ways to encourage more noshing during a seder, not less.
a woman talking dramatically
One can simply add a dramatic voice or style...
a man playing guitar Encourage your guests to bring
their interests or talents
into your seder.

You can alternatively be in touch with guests ahead of time and allow people to choose from a list, or suggest what may suit someone's style or talent. That becomes their personal contribution to the seder.

Again, the idea here allows for quite a range. First and foremost, one wants something better than what some occasionally experience at these gatherings – e.g. "whew, I made it through feeling on the spot or getting through my turn at reading" (and when do we eat already?). So that it's at least more relaxed "participation", maybe more thoughtful, maybe a personal added little touch. Or you might have among your guests at least some that go "all out". It could be as little as a bit more polished and easy reading for the shy guy; to adding one's personal perspective; to adding one's panache, style, interests, opinion or talent to one's "assignment". A teacher, scientist, shop-worker, new mother, someone who sings or draws well or loves poetry…, a grandparent with the wealth of more years of observations and experiences, really anyone who simply shares a memory, symbolic token or photo, experience or feeling that is associated with the subject of their part – big or small – all are ways of increasing, connecting to, expanding and more successfully sharing the "telling". Not only does the participant become somewhat more invested but so do the hearers – given the likely curiosity and attention factors that come into play. Dialogue – or perhaps better described more broadly as any sort of give-and-take communication, and also more personally connecting to the seder's messages and each other – those are the goals.

2. Role-play

As mentioned elsewhere, there is a Sefardi tradition of often acting out parts. You choose what part of the seder to apply this to, or to a few. A couple handy props and costume bits might be good to include in this – set it up as improv, or alternatively plan ahead. If the aim is to increase youthful involvement and interest – maybe have the kids plan a skit and dress up, or make simple puppets as another option (or slightly alter some very cheap store-bought ones – we have these in practically every child-related store in Israel, it seems).

While this might more typically have been applied to a story part of the Magid that seemed to lend itself easier to role-play – making it feel more personal and alive, you don't have to be limited to that. It can also be applied to arba hakushiyot / the Four Questions, or plagues, etc. It could also be as simple as one person throwing on a robe or handed a rod or whatever and playing a character from the Magid – the rest of the seder participants could interview him like at a press-conference, with whatever questions that come to mind – Pharoah or man-on-the-street or even a camel ("I was there"!) could make a great potential interviewee. Or if you've enough guests comfortable with this – hand out cards to volunteers for a couple characters to question (e.g. "do you know me? – try to guess") or improvise. Or offer this to the children. They often come up with some of the most interesting responses and/or questions as characters or questioner. Characters or the "audience participants" could also take the roles of "witnesses", "reporters", "investigators", "trial judges", "prosecutor", "best friend of..", "cousin of…", "neighbor", "local vendor", "tourists", etc.

a sign saying Stage Door There's a Sefardi tradition
of acting out parts.
a kids wearing an improvised costume It takes little to whip up a bit of
improvised quick costume on the spot.

Another "take" on some customs comes from those who have sometimes chosen to do their seder outside, since the Israelites were outside once that trek started. If that sounds like too much, still if the weather permits (granted usually more trustworthy in Israel), one might consider it worthwhile to do a little short part of a seder outside – like everyone just gets up and goes outside for a song during this (stretch your legs!, let the air revive you, shake things up a little), or go outside for your singing after dinner. Throw in some percussion or a tambourine or drum, why not? This also adds nice symbolic sides – a reminder of Pesach as "chag ha-aviv" [the holiday of spring] and staying connected to that aspect. Be those Israelites for a moment in the fresh air, no longer bound, and also feel thankful for the abundance of the season around you (and that we aren't in 40 years of tents and wandering in that Sinai desert anymore either).

3. Personalization

a man thinking
    • Question, question, question.
      • Just as the hagada and its originators did and encourage us to do: So why not start your seder with a new question? Or go around and everyone contributes a question. Or add a question to each part of the seder. Or each person is responsible to come up with one question to bring to the seder – generally or assigned to add a question to one specific seder part, or to add to the original arba-a kushiyot (ma nishtana). Or start off before your four questions with asking everyone to think up one thing that is different about Pesach and/or related to its themes. (Even someone saying-' it's different because I traveled from there and rarely see you guys', that is relevant, thankful, personalized and terrific.) Or to ask one thing that they don't understand or know or are unsure about. Encourage new exploring and new debate. Turn to the children and say – what do you want to ask? Or reverse it with: "what do you know/have learned about Pesach that maybe some of us adults don't know – help us learn today".
holding hands
    • We want people of all ages and backgrounds
      to feel a freedom to ask and to use it
      (and even to challenge here and there):
    • i.e. to not feel embarrassed by what they don't know, are less skilled at, or didn't get in the past – perhaps in not knowing much of their heritage or having good opportunities earlier on, or they came to be interested at a later stage in life, or they have new perspectives than before…. The leader starting with "you know, I never knew that….", or "I never thought of it this way before, but…", etc. This may help your guests feel more at ease about likewise opening up. All can learn (and should keep learning) at any age and "there is no bad question". An adult that can confess to changing his mind or to not knowing something and wanting to ask/learn can actually be a pretty good model and encouragement for a child also. (Saying "I don't know, let's look it up or ask together" is usually viewed by a child very positively.) The characterization of the "wicked or scornful child" is particularly useful in this regard if turned on its head. Like if you had a discussion that analyzes the guy: How did he end up feeling that way? Maybe he was alienated or felt embarrassed, or shortchanged in exposure and positive connections to his heritage. What could change his attitude? In this way, one is also in effect asking people – "What helps you feel more comfortable and "connected'?"
  • Contemporary & experiential contributions
    For example, Dayenu – discuss adding events to a contemporary Dayenu – what people might contribute could be something national, current from the news, Jewish, family, personal… Dayenu is in part remembering to appreciate each positive thing, each person, each fortunate and constructive occurrence, development or kind act; also it can be viewed as reminding us that bits add up, and so do the parts of a group or society or family, and what each brings to that. G-d did his awesome parts and then we made a covenant – we also are expected to carry this on and do our parts – and they do add up.

(See more suggestions in Let's Talk About It.)

4. Make it easier and more inclusive for those less familiar and/or preoccupied on and off with little ones, etc.

an older man wearing glasses Have hagadot with larger print for people with eyesight issues
  • If you are the leader, try to keep frequently updating everyone where you are in the seder or reading (and what's coming next).
  • Some people have eyesight issues – you'd never know because maybe they never bring it up. Ask ahead of time and try to have some hagadot with larger, easier print if possible, or blown up pages with a Xeroxed copy.
  • Take post-ups, cut them into thin tabs, label them and tab key sections of your hagadot. Or better – post on a poster or banner the whole "Kadesh urchatz…" (our table of contents, so-to-speak, with a few added subdivisions like in the Magid part) – it helps keep folks oriented more quickly and easily than flipping through the book, especially those who are less accustomed to a seder or get distracted for various reasons. "Getting lost" during this evening, which does happen, is not a great feeling.
  • Try to balance your Hebrew and English for those who may be less familiar, so they can still feel included. You can also label some things on the table in Hebrew & transliteration (or put the labels on nice cards to make flags on skewers to pop into stuff) to help introduce more Hebrew use into your seder and more sense of ease with it.
  • Post Songs (including transliteration if you can): You could buy a large newsprint-paper sketch pad propped up on a chair or something on one side of the room or put up some poster boards. Post them on windows or a wall or curtain... Appoint a song leader or two with a pointer. Ask a child to take on leading a song (which they learn/practice ahead of time). If you post the lyrics on the back of the chairs of your guests, each occupant becomes the pointing leader for that song since his chair is turned around and used. This does beat those instances of singing the first three recognized words or stanza and then too many doing a dwindling impression of "peas and carrots" substitutions, no? Singing can be such a positive part of things, it’s a real shame not to encourage it. (You could alternatively do hand-out sheets with transliteration. But keep in mind that then everyone's nose is down instead of all drawn up and together, and there's already enough of the former in a seder as is. For those that remember Mitch Miller of early TV fame, he and that "follow-the-bouncing-ball" had a smart thing going).

And on the far side, for the more curious or adventurous (or various degrees of whacky)…

a tear in a paper reveals the words 'think outside the box'

(In the large majority of instances, the author has either taken part in these personally or some friends have at some point in their lives… or a couple are reportedly being contemplated in a next seder): 

1. Origami and such 

  • Bring out origami frogs when you get to the plague part. Or get a container of those cute, inexpensive plastic frogs that you press a point to flick them into hopping (you can have a container or basket for aiming them to hop into too).
    Find video instructions for making origami frogs here:
origami animals
  • Origami birds can be handed out for spring, peace hopes and good fortune. You can find video instructions for the flapping kind here. There are alsofar  simpler versions of origami birds that younger children can handle preparing. For example, check out these instructions for a very easy bird to make. (You can find even more by putting "easy bird origami" in "search" in YouTube.) *You can also write Pesach – related messages on the birds (or other simple animals, or cut-outs instead of origami) – to place around the seder table for everyone to read and comment on.
    • Or – if you are not observant and do write – start the seder with everyone writing a message or thought or question or something they feel thankful for, etc. on a bird to rotate around later or discuss.
    • If you are observant and don't write since this is a yom tov : Have everyone write these things before coming. Upon arrival, each little note can still accompany a bird by tucking it into any origami fold, or attaching it with a paper clip (we checked and using a paper clip is permissible on Shabbat so….).
  • • The same notion can be done with the frogs - with a small marker that night or ahead of time, depending on your observance. Just make it a 1-2 word "modern plague" suggestion - e.g. gotten from each guest - to be reviewed and discussed together at the seder. ***As to preparing this in advance with the imput from your guests: This is why we have email and sms, no? You can also have your kids take on the job of contacting the guests for this purpose (or ask another family member - cousin, grandparent, etc. - to take on this mission :) .

*See more in this vein in Let's Get Busy.

2. Make a different kind of centerpiece

For example – (yes, really!) – how about a red-colored jello with symbols in it to depict the ten plagues (maybe not for actual eating, depending on what you use for your symbols). As you can see in the photo, this actually has been done. As best we understand the recounting of this marvel, the red jello stood for blood, some kids' toys were used as beasts, frogs and varied needed bugs, mini-marshmallows were added on top afterwards for hail, sunglasses were used for darkness, candy for boils, and hopefully you are getting the drift here. Those lucky enough to be guests and witnesses to this creation are likely still talking about it at every seder since, and the kids must have had a ball as helpers in the preparation.

(With thanks to Liora Minkin for sharing this amazing idea – it certainly takes talking about "what's different tonight from all other nights" to a whole new level!).


3. Play with your Food

a palette with different spices

Ok, so you have your traditional seder plate. But likely there are also more helpings of the items scattered around for the farther ends of your table. Let your inner artist come out: Take a tray or large plate as "canvas". Make a seder-related picture or pyramid shape or flower for spring, simple bird design for nature and peace, etc. using those symbol-ingredients - just like the caterers do for fancy occasions (or many mothers when enticing their smaller children to eat some meals). Who says playing with your food need be a bad thing? Maybe treat it as a project involving the kids. 

4. Expand your cultural horizons

  • Learn (and then teach or perform) one of the songs with a different melody or using another ethnic version – e.g. in Yiddish or Ladino (like "Who Knows One"). YouTube is great for finding such variations.
  • Make a few different kinds of charoset – they vary both by what's traditional in an ethnic group and often between relatives, for that matter. Be creative and try adding something different. They all tend to have some kind of nuts and fruit, and maybe something to sweeten (and sometimes tart) and/or wine plus maybe some other flavor or spice addition – that still leaves the specifics wiiiide open. Ask your kids for ideas and help – their imput is certain to be interesting. Have your guests compare and try to figure out what's in each version (See also our recipe section).
  • The author has had some mixed family backgrounds – both Ashkenazic and Sephardic. The result was a family seder that leaves you never needing to eat again that month. There would actually be parallel food, one from each culinary tradition for every single course of the meal (and heaven help you if you didn't take a portion of both). You don't have to be that crazy-overboard (despite the wonderful memories and it truly was delightful!), but a few courses of one or another ethnic background than your "usual", or borrowing from another tradition for one dish is certainly a terrific thing. If you find out some bit of background or interesting tidbit on the culture to mention together with your dish, that's even better. Here's an example to help start you off - why not make Boomwailas for dessert?

5. Put handy dictionaries around the seder table 

a dictionary

This was a fascinating experience.

  • If you are primarily English speakers, even using English dictionaries works. Take key seder words/concepts as the seder progresses. Like "liberation" or "plague" or "thanks". Stop (anyone can request this at pretty much any point). Look up the definitions and roots. The author was invited to a friend's family seder where they just tend to do this kind of thing (and not necessarily only at their seder), and it provoked the most interesting discussions that fed right back into the hagada material.
  • If you have a few Hebrew-cognizant guests (they only need to be Hebrew-familiar enough to use a Hebrew-to-English dictionary) – take key words from the seder. Same process. Stop. Look them up. See what related words surround them – to add to a discussion, or simple "wow, cool" added element to the proceedings. Hebrew has a largely three-letter root system – and occasionally some of the tangents those roots having taken from simpler joint meanings can really add unusual perspective. "Language archeology" can put a whole other twist on a seder, and is not so far from some of the language-delving done in some discussions by sages in our past, for that matter.

6. Add songs that also speak to your experience

Add songs like from labor movements, folk, liberation or spring or justice themes, etc. The author attended one seder with strong labor/socialist-Zionist roots in the family and a very laidback playful attitude. Everyone was throwing in songs like "Go down Moses", "Union Maid", etc. When someone started on "The Internationale", the mother/hostess suddenly ran in from the kitchen, jumped up on a chair and started swinging her towel around like some quintessential made-for-the-movies matriarch of freedom and human rights, waving her revolution flag. It’s a catchy spirit – that's the point. And spirit is welcome in the seder!

7. Some more unusual spins

a space colony Asimov-ian seder?

Solve-the-mystery seder, time-machine seder, the "Trivial Pursuits" – modeled seder (the guests had to bring questions on cards for this), the "Jeopardy" seder, the feminist seder, the dis-ordered seder (putting the parts of the seder in a hat and doing it in the order that parts were pulled out – which besides the comedy and confusion, if nothing else teaches one to appreciate somewhat more the logic of an ordered seder!), the space-age seder, a "close your eyes and point to map before doing each part" seder and improvising it out in suitable fashion, a bevy of musicians all performing parts, a memories/what's personally important or meaningful + bring mementoes / tokens / symbols seder, the environmental-awareness seder, and too many more to completely recount here. However, if you have a thought for an idea and want to bat out how one might carry it out, or have certain constraints or special needs situations that you want to discuss how to handle, you are welcome to contact us and we'll try to help. (With thanks to Liora Minkin for a few of the examples in this zany list too).

See also the rest of our Passover packet