How is our Charedi Seder different from all others?

The table is resplendent in white and silver. The matzot – our own version of the marmite phenomenon, inspiring either love or hate – look extra crunchy


We begin after nightfall.

While Charedim often bring in Shabbos earlier than the official time, Pesach is treated differently. No Orthodox shul will start maariv, the evening prayer, until the appointed time, meaning every Orthodox seder takes place under cover of darkness.

The table is resplendent in white and silver. The matzot – our own version of the marmite phenomenon, inspiring either love or hate – look extra crunchy.

I’m sitting in an armchair, pillow propped under my left side for leaning purposes. As free men and women, we are supposed to recline while we drink our cups of wine, as royalty once did. For two nights – Orthodox Jews living outside of Israel have two sedarim – we are acutely reminded of what a precious thing it is to be free.

My father, as is common at the seder table in Charedi households, is wearing a kittel – the long white robe also worn on Yom Kippur. One explanation for this custom is that the leader of the seder thus looks like an angel, free of sin. The other, darker explanation is that, to prevent us becoming arrogant in our freedom, the kittel reminds us that death comes to us all – traditionally, the white robe is also the garment one is buried in.

Maggid, the telling of the story of going out of Egypt, is perhaps the most important part of the ceremony. As a child, this section seemed interminable; now it feels shorter every time.

At our table, we discuss some questions each year. What does “dayeinu” – “it would have been enough for us” - really mean? How can we possibly say, for example, that if God had led us out of Egypt, but had not split the Red Sea, that it would have been enough?

We say matzah is the taste and texture that it is because there was no time for the bread to rise when our forefathers had to leave Egypt in a hurry, but surely two weeks prior to leaving Egypt, the children of Israel had been told (Exodus 12:18): “On the evening [of Passover] you will eat matzot”?

To give one specific answer would be misleading – there may be a dozen different responses to the same question. All great Jewish scholars have their commentaries on the seder, and we have a special custom of our own, instituted by my father – prior to every Pesach he buys a new haggadah, introducing us to a range of further insights on the redemption story.

There are also important concepts which we return to on an annual basis. When we talk of the “Four Sons”, there is always the reminder that although the “wicked son” speaks with such derision, he is still there, at the table, and although in his current state he would not merit redemption, there is always hope for the future.

Although we all take turns reciting parts of maggid, with great thoughtfulness my father always reads the ”wicked son” paragraph so that no-one else around the table will feel as if judgement is being passed on them if they are selected to read it.

At the end of maggid, we have the second cup of wine, and then the second washing of the hands. This is the point as children at which we used to spirit away the afikoman, the special piece of matzah to be eaten at a later point in the meal. In some houses the father hides it for the kids to find, but in our house it was vice-versa – we would hold it for ransom, and exact a fair price (usually a new toy) for its safe return. We still hide it, but negotiations these days are far less cut-throat.

What is it about charoset that speaks to the Jewish psyche? In our house my mother (whose cooking is so good that one year I didn’t have chametz for days after the end of Pesach because I was still going through leftovers) makes three different types of charoset – Moroccan, Persian and Yemenite. We do not, as far as I am aware, have any family from these three places. Yet, as with so much regarding Pesach – and indeed, Judaism in general - our non-Ashkenazi brethren are far wiser than we are.

The meal is always fantastic, but we go easy on the wine. There are still two more halachically-mandated cups to get through, after all. Could they be done with grape juice? Yes? Will I be doing them with grape juice? Absolutely not. There’s nothing better than belting out the tunes of Hallel and Nirtzah while drunk with freedom – or rather, ever-so-slightly inebriated on Kedem or Manischewitz.

Speaking of which, on we go, through to the songs which sound so simple – “who knows one? I know one” – but which have, we are told, deep mystical kabbalistic significance - “God is one, in the heavens and on earth”.

Last year “father bought chad gadya” – one kid goat – for “two Zuzim”. This year, despite the Brexit-related currency fluctuations, he’s managed to do the same. With sound effects, we jump from cat to dog, from dog to stick, stick to fire, fire to water, water to ox, ox to slaughterer, slaughterer to the angel of death, and then finally to God, finishing off the last stanza in an operatic tenor.

We usually finish at about 1.30am – which is early by Golders Green standards. It is not unusual for such sedarim to go on until three or four in the morning.

“Next year in Jerusalem”, we say. “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem”, say residents of that city.

It’s a reminder that, although we are far away from our previous circumstances of slavery, and the idea of a Pesach in the Holy City is no longer an impossible dream, we still seem far away from the greatest hope of religious Jews – the coming of the Messiah and the construction of the third temple – and the ultimate redemption.

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