The Mandate to Surprise on Passover

Maimonides instructs that playful storytelling is required at the Seder:
“One must make a change in the Seder routine on this night so the children will notice and ask and say: Why is this night different from all other nights?  How does one make a change? By distributing parched corn or nuts or by removing the table before them before they eat, or by snatching things from one another’s hands and similar things. “

The word for changing the seder routine is ‘Dvar Shinui’ –something different. We know that Passover is different because of the Mah Nishtanah, the 4 questions. The Mah Nishtanah describes how the Passover rituals are different from all other rituals. But Passover has its own ritual routine.

However, Maimonides instruction is more subtle. His intention is to shake up our tendency to routinize the seder. Use an attention grabbing surprise, a unique twist, an unexpected moment to capture the attention of the children and the guests and tell the story in a new way.
By following Maimonides, we avoid making our seder a rote ritual. Instead, with surprise we make the story fresh and real. The seder is a sort of surprise party.  One example of a surprise we did took place many years ago when I learned of the Jewish Aphgani custom of hitting people with green onions durng the dayeinu. The scallion is a symbol of spring, but also a reminder of the physical suffering our ancestors. The surprise caught the attention of everyone, provoked questions and created powerful memories.

The examples that Maimonides gives serve only as suggestions for we must be the masters of our own surprises. It is the anticipation of surprise and novelty combined with the loyalty to tradition and order that make the seder a beloved and unique religious experience. The capacity to surprise, to achieve some degree of spontaneity, is also a testimony that we are free persons.

This teaching about surprise at a seder also says something about the God we worship. God desires our hearts-Rahmana Liba ba’ei. God desires to see our heartfelt joy. That is the seder ideal.

Hag Sameah to all,

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

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