Last year, Rabbi Leah Berkowitz decoded for us the symbolism attending each step in the Passover service  (“Why Is This Night Different?”). This year, for tonight, the First Night of Passover, she takes us through the evolution of this ancient and significant ceremony. —Ed.

1850ukr_pesah Jews celebrating Passover, Lubok, 19th century. (Image via Wikimedia)

The ritual of the seder has changed over more than 3,000 years. But a key element remains: the command that believers not merely remember the children of Israel’s release from Egyptian bondage, but re-experience the story told in the Book of Exodus. During the seder, ritual foods are consumed; there is the linkage of memory and hope; and the Haggadah (see below) offers all kinds of discussion, interpretation, dialogues, questions, stories, and testimonies on the Passover story. The Passover seder has always been a call to change the world, to change oneself, and to move from bondage to liberation, from slavery to freedom.

In Biblical times, the ceremony of remembrance consisted of the eating of the paschal [Passover] lamb, pre-slaughtered in the Temple. In Talmudic times (the centuries before and after the common era, which Christians date from the year of the birth of Christ), the seder became a meal modeled on Greek and Roman banquets and symposia: reclining while eating, which was the custom of free people; drinking; singing; and having philosophical discussions. In the medieval period, the seder was shaped by a response to anti-Semitism and Christian persecution of Jews.

By the time of the Enlightenment, Jews were leaving the ghetto and being influenced by Western democracy and freedom. That initiated a creative interaction between two stories—the Passover freedom story and the Western, especially American, democracy story.

In the contemporary period, the Passover story and the text utilized in the service, the Haggadah (“the telling”), entered new paths by becoming more inclusive. Indeed, there are texts directed at Jewish Buddhists, Jewish vegetarians, Jewish gays and lesbians, Jewish Zionists, feminists, and so many others. (See Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s account of the 37th Annual Feminist Seder in New York City.) Each of the Jewish religious denominations, from Modern Orthodox to Conservative to Classical Reform to Traditional Reform to Reconstructionist to Renewal, published its own Haggadah.

One of the most interesting versions of the Haggadah has been the mystical and spiritual approach found in the Kabbalah and popularized by the Hasidim. Before the last 20 years, these versions were printed only in difficult Hebrew. Now they are available either wholly or partially in English.

Probably the most widely used Haggadah is the version published nearly 90 years ago by the Maxwell House coffee company as a promotional piece to persuade Jewish families to purchase its coffee for the holy day. Many jokes have been made about this Haggadah, which has no commentary and presents only the plain text.

Recently, a Jewish journalist who published his version and commentary of the Haggadah interviewed President Obama. At the end of the interview, he presented the president with a copy of this Haggadah (since Mr Obama has been in the White House, he and his family have attended a White House seder presented for Jewish staff members.)

When the journalist gave him the new Haggadah, the president asked in mock disappointment, “Does this mean we can’t use the Maxwell Haaggadah at a White House seder?”

The seder is rich, deep, profound. The 15 steps that form the structure of the service are meant not only to help family members remember the story but to allow that story to resonate in their life and the life of the world. The service seeks not only to trigger remembrance of an ancient event but to allow that event to take place in the heart and soul and life of all who attend.