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Chris Thompson: At Seder, a community reflects on liberation from slavery

Chris Thompson

Passover was celebrated by local Jews last month, just before Christian Easter. I attended a Seder this year at Temple Beth Shalom. Each year they conduct a community Seder at their synagogue on East Northern Lights for Jews and non-Jews. A modest fee is charged to partake of their Seder, but no different than dining in a local restaurant. In fact, the food was prepared and served by a well-known local restaurant, Aladdin's.

Seder marks a special time of remembrance for religious Jews where Passover, and Israel's ultimate deliverance as a people from Egyptian bondage under Pharaoh, is commemorated. It's held in homes on the first night of Passover, and communally in synagogues on the second night of Passover. I've been told home celebrations of Seder can be relatively brief or last 4-6 hours, or even longer.

The overarching importance of Passover is its recognition of the beginning of Israel's identity as a separate unique people, via their exodus from Egypt.

Seder is performed using a Haggada -- huh-gah-da -- as a guide. The Haggada, printed and in the hands of celebrants, outlines the various rituals, and the connecting story. There are many different Haggada's available, based on the various traditions Jewish people represent, such Morrocan, Separdic, Yemeni, Ashkenazi and others. The earliest Haggada dates to CE 170. Usually a Rabbi leads the Seder, reading from the Haggada. The Haggada reads from back to front, an unusual twist for me considering my non-Jewish orientation. Rabbi Michael Oblath led the Seder.

Unlike many religious celebrations I've attended, Seder is very family-oriented. A wide range of ages was represented, with many children. I often write about aging churches having few children and youth. I was overwhelmed by the youthful vibrancy represented by the attendees.

Seder starts with a series of readings and rituals, followed by the full Seder meal.

To begin, candles are lit and a solemn prayer to God is said, ending with "May your light surround us always." A blessing for the children is invoked. Miriam's cup is then filled with water by the women present, a reminder of the Exodus. During the Seder, four cups of wine are consumed, one for each of God's promises regarding Israel's promised freedom.

• I will bring you out ...

• I will deliver you ...

• I will redeem you ...

• I will take you to be my people ... (Exodus 6:6-7)

The order of the Seder speaks to the themes of slavery and freedom. Kadesh: The first cup of wine is drunk remembering the first promise. "I am Adonai, and I will free you from the slavery of Egypt." Urchatz: Hand-washing without a blessing. Karpas: Greens (parsley) are dipped in salt water to remember the tears of the Israelites in slavery. Yachats: The middle matzot of three is broken in half. The Seder leader takes the largest of the two pieces and saves it as the "afikoman" to be hidden for the children to find later. Magid: The story of the Exodus is told and invitations are extended to partake in the Seder. Four questions are then posed which must be answered. 1. Why do we eat matzah on Passover? 2. Why do we eat maror at the Seder? 3. Why do we dip foods twice? 4. Why do we lean in our chairs at the Seder? These questions are ritually answered, after which an object lesson called "The Four Sons" or "The Four Children" is recited to teach children the Exodus story from four vantage points: The Wise Child, The Wicked Child, The Simple Child, and The Child Who Does Not Think to Question. The Exodus and deliverance is further expounded upon, including the 10 plagues, where a drop of wine is placed upon one's plate from the wineglass as each is recited. In rapid succession blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first born are signified. Then the second glass of wine is consumed. Rachtzah: Another ritual washing of hands, this time with a blessing. Motzi Matzah: Blessings over the matzah is given, after which a small portion is consumed. Moror: The moror (bitter herbs) is blessed and eaten along with charoset, a sweet filling. Korekh: Placing moror between two pieces of matzah and eating like a sandwich. Shulhan Orekh: The Passover meal is eaten beginning with a charred egg. Tzafun: The hidden matzoh is sought by the children, found, and consumed. Barech: An after-meal blessing is given, followed by the third cup of wine. Hallel: Songs of praise are sung. Nirtzah: Concluding prayer for the acceptance of the night's service, expression of hope for the Messiah, and drinking the fourth cup of wine.

The entire Seder teaches about God's leading Israel out of Egyptian slavery, done in a spirit of joy and celebration. I enjoyed the unique items various participants brought and shared with their tables. A woman at my table brought a wonderful Yemeni cheroset, while others brought special wines. It was a beautiful time of reflection and joy. If you've never tried a Jewish Seder, I urge you to try this one. I appreciated the warmth the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom extended to me that night.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.


Chris Thompson