A New Thematic Approach to the Passover Seder
JNS.org – How is this year’s Passover seder different from all other seders? More often than not, the answer might be, “Nothing’s different at all.” David Silberman’s Haggadah offers not one, but six possible solutions for seder participants who are starving to mix things up.
As his children grew older and intellectual discussions became possible, Silberman—a dentist by practice who also teaches a weekly Talmud class at his local congregation, United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOS)—says he was “tired of looking at the various analytical or exegetical explanations that varied from paragraph to paragraph within the Haggadah.” Rather than continuing to slog through the same routine each year, Silberman produced the most proactive solution possible: he compiled his own Haggadah.
Published in 2014, “The Mosaic Haggadah” identifies six color-coded themes central to the Passover story—freedom, contemporary (the Haggadah as a modern story), family and community, gratitude, redemption, and Israel—and intersperses essays on those subjects throughout the traditional text, allowing users to follow one theme/color throughout the night.
“Since the [Haggadah] text itself is a disparate collection of various excerpts, overall messages and topics are blurred,” states the introduction to Silberman’s Haggadah. “As a result, a seder participant could easily lose sight of the forest for the trees. … It is the purpose of this Haggadah to identify these themes and present them with an emphasis on one theme per reading of the text. In this manner, the topic at hand can be discussed and analyzed within the framework of the traditional seder and hopefully remembered and internalized.”
The essays include previously published writings (or speeches and quotes) by names as well-known as David Ben-Gurion, Elie Wiesel, Maimonides, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan, Abraham Lincoln, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and Natan Sharansky. Other essays in “The Mosaic Haggadah” come from more moderately known or lesser-known scholars, Silberman himself, media outlets, and anonymous sources.
Eight years ago, Silberman decided to incorporate contemporary sources and voices into his Passover seder.
“My family and guests received it enthusiastically, so I knew that I had found something different, which allowed everyone to participate in lengthy conversations that went above and beyond the text itself and contributed some depth and meaning to that night,” Silberman tells JNS.org.
Thus, the idea for “The Mosaic Haggadah” was born. Silberman says some of the themes he chose—such as freedom and redemption—are “rather evident in the text of the Haggadah itself.” Since the Hallel prayer, a liturgical expression of gratitude to God, is included in the Haggadah, gratitude found its way into Silberman’s six themes. Israel, the author notes, is mentioned in the Haggadah and represents “one of the endpoints of the journey of leaving Egypt.”
“It seemed to me that the idea of coming from a foreign land to Israel is an extremely contemporary story that we see every day of our lives, to this very day,” he says.
Other themes in “The Mosaic Haggadah,” such as “family and community,” require slightly more interpretation.
“The seder has always been a family affair, and the rules of the Passover experience involve that for generations, a family and pre-arranged groups have embraced the Passover seder as one of the most celebrated annual events,” Silberman says.
The “contemporary” theme, he says, was inspired by “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices,” a 2007 Haggadah written by Mishael Zion and Noam Zion.
“In a certain way, all of us are experiencing or have witnessed gratitude and redemption in our time,” says Silberman. “We’ve made changes for ourselves, our communities have changed… and I wanted to emphasize that much of what happened to the Jews as they left Mizraim (Egypt), and has been celebrated on the Passover holiday year after year, is a relevant theme.”
How did a dentist come to write a Haggadah? Silberman recalls that when he was 16, his father would bring him—or “perhaps drag me”—to Talmud classes led by Rabbi David Novak in Oklahoma City. Eventually, Silberman fully embraced Talmud study and generally gravitated toward an analytical approach to texts. For the last nine years, Silberman has been leading a Talmud study group on Shabbat for both men and women at Houston’s UOS synagogue.
Silberman’s affinity for textual analysis, then, resulted in his desire to create a more meaningful seder experience.
“As my children grew, I adapted the [Haggadah] text and approach to be appropriate for their age… This continued as an intellectual study of the Haggadah itself, which is not very long, so it’s a very embraceable unit of subject matter,” he says.
Silberman recommends that each family or group “conduct a seder that’s appropriate for the guests that they have.” He says that “Mosaic Haggadah” users can read as much of the traditional Haggadah text as they’d like in Hebrew or English, choose a theme, and then see how the theme goes for them throughout the night.
“If you have very young children, admittedly this Haggadah may not be for them… If the people are the type who are willing to engage in intellectual discussions, then the text of the Haggadah becomes almost secondary to the themes that are presented in this ‘Mosaic Haggadah,'” he says.
Silberman further suggests that users “read the different essays out loud, compelling everybody to pay attention to the reader, and then to discuss [the essay] as they may wish, and then move to the next passage in the Haggadah, eventually arriving at another essay relevant to that chosen theme.”
The author himself has already used all six themes in his book for the seder, and has moved on to new ones such as miracles, which might be among the themes if there is a second edition of “The Mosaic Haggadah.”
“Everyone has a miracle story,” Silberman says. “That theme generated by far the greatest levels of participation and conversation than any other theme [I’ve used at a seder].”
Indeed, Silberman encourages seder participants to look for their own themes. He says, “They may identify themes I have yet to find that are no less meaningful for themselves and their collective group.”
Ultimately, Silberman hopes “The Mosaic Haggadah” is an easy-to-use book that makes the seder ritual more meaningful, memorable, and modern.
“Passover may have occurred some thousands of years ago, but in a way, Passover occurs or can occur every day,” he says.