Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, 3/24/23
I love inviting non-Jewish friends and people of all walks of life to come to our family’s Passover Seder. Those of us who have grown up Jewish, take the rituals, songs, and passages for granted. Maybe not the food which so many look forward to. But it never fails to impress me how a person who has never been to the seder and has grown up in another religion, is blown away by the experience.
The Passover Seder is a unique event: the ancient text, the intricate rituals, the domestic context, (Synagogue and cruise ship seders are strictly a recent phenomenon.) a storytelling gathering led by a family member (not a trained teacher or clergyperson.). Because of all these things and more, the Passover Seder is the most popular Jewish festival ritual among American Jews by far.
My friends who grew up in different cultures and religions always comment about one thing they experience around the Seder table. They are very moved by the custom of singing around the table. Passover table singing is an essential part of the seder ritual from Mah Nishtanah to Eliyahu Hanavi and from Dayeinu to Had Gadya. As a child I loved these melodies and grew to expect them every Passover no matter how badly they were sung. (In Israel, public spaces and businesses are filled with the sounds with Passover music just after Purim, just like the pervasiveness of Christmas music after Thanksgiving, that encompasses us in that season.) When I lead our family seder, I always make time for singing, especially in the second half. Back in Seattle, I organized an ensemble that played at the University of Washington Hillel Seder for several years. The special place of singing made this seder popular in the community and made me happy to share this music I have always loved.
But Passover table singing is not unique. Table singing is a central feature of home Sabbath meals. If your Shabbat meal is filled with song, it is all the more so that your Passover Seder will be a surround sound chamber of contagious melodies. One of the main reasons I founded Shabbat with Friends was to revive the powerful and nurturing experience of Jewish table singing on Shabbat. For many American Jews singing at the Seder is the surviving vestige of a way of life that was permeated by the acapella folk singing of the Sabbath. Shabbat is the weekly occasion to exult in our liberation from slavery as it says in the Kiddush: “Zecher l’yitzi’at Mitzrayim” a recollection of our unforgettable liberation from slavery.”
The iconic singing at the Passover table comes from the Sabbath, not the other way around. Passover is the culmination of the Jewish spiritual path of joy which is founded on the weekly joyful remembrance of freedom which, of course, is the Sabbath day.
May you have a most joyous Pesah and many Shabbatot as well!
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Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Rabbi Dov is the founder of Shabbat with Friends NM. He became a rabbi at 29 after schooling at UC Berkely, Harvard, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has maintained a blog for over twenty years, giving commentary on a wide range of themes, concerns, and passions.