Shabbat of Pesakh I: How Long Should It Take?

In the Talmud, the ancient compendium of Jewish law and lore, we find that our ancestors the Sages envisioned our Pesakh Seder to have one primary motivation: prompting our children to curiosity. No modern expert in pedagogy would disagree that the key to meaningful learning is in being curious, in caring about learning the answer to some question that arises in our minds. So we see in Mishnah Pesakhim:

They pour a second cup [of wine] for him. And here the son questions his father. And if the son has insufficient understanding [to question], his father teaches him [to ask]: Why is this night different from all [other] nights? (M Pesakhim 10.4)

I have had a number of people ask me in the days leading up to this erev Pesakh: how long should the Seder take? As one friend put it, “two minutes is too short, and two hours, well….” The Haggadah itself doesn’t help much; it is full to the brim with all kinds of supplementary material, added by different authors in different times, but with the same goal: to make the Seder experience meaningful. To show you its relevance, and perhaps thereby to pique your curiosity, not just your child’s. We are each different in that regard, and that’s why there are so many Haggadot.

And so we know what we’re supposed to do – the Torah tells us that we must successfully transmit this story to the next generation. 

And so we have to ask ourselves not only how long does it take? 

but how long does it take me? 

What does it take for you to settle down, to notice, to begin to wonder?

The Talmud’s Rabbi Akiba, who lived during the Roman occupation of Israel, used to throw toasted grain at children during his Seder to keep them alert. (Some of us have been known to throw mini-marshmellows for hail during the recitation of the plagues.) That’s nice, since it keeps the children wondering what crazy thing you might do next. But what would it take for them to actually ask you – or for you yourself to formulate in your own mind – a real, living, curious question about some aspect of the Seder?

You would be done at that moment.

חג שמח וכשר

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