An old Jewish saying is that we fall out at weddings and come together at funerals. With the former it can be over who is seated where and next to whom; with the latter, we appreciate how trivial such things are and how precious family is.
The same can happen in the festival calendar too, falling out at Pesach and coming together at Yom Kippur. With the former, arguments are not just over the seating plan, but also the “right way” of doing the seder; with the latter our thoughts are on the priorities in life, not the broiguses.
Still, the vast array of different customs at Pesach is part of what make it such a colourful occasion.
Often the debates can start before the festival does — such as whose turn is it to host the family? This is quickly followed by deciding whether it is worth investing a set of hagaddot, so as to avoid last year’s mayhem, when everyone brought their own copy and were constantly on different pages.
Wine, matza and seder plate (Getty Images)
When clearing the house of hametz and planning the meal, family origins come to the fore. For the Ashkenazi, it is not only the five types of grain that have to be avoided — barley, rye, oat, wheat and spelt — but also anything that could be confused with them, such as rice, peas and beans.
However, the Sephardi allow the latter three foods. So be careful as to what you cook for whom.
As for what happens in a home where there is mixed-marriage between the two: according to some, it is the man whose traditions are followed; others reckon that it should be the one who actually does the cleaning and cooking. Of course, in the best households, they discuss and come to a mutual agreement.
Then there is the question of the first born, who are supposed to fast on the day before Pesach, as an act of sympathy with the first-born Egyptians who lost their lives in the final plague. If you are Ashkenazi, it only applies if the first-born is male; but in some Sephardi groups, it is whoever is the first-born, male or female. Know your roots!
Preparing the seder plate may seem simple, but it is laced with decisions. What greenery to use? For some homes it “has to be” parsley; for others only a lettuce is “the right and proper way”. In fact, it could equally be a green pepper.
This is far from a minor detail, for although most children would say that the matzah is the most important item — representing the bread that did not rise because of the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt — the greenery is far more crucial than most people realise.
It symbolises spring time and the period when the Israelites left Egypt and when future Passovers should occur.
Had that not been specified, then because the Jewish year is lunar (354 days), not solar (365 days), Passover would move around the year, as does Ramadan.
It led to the Jewish year being intercalated, with the addition of a leap month (Adar II) seven times every nineteen years lest Pesach be in December one year and fall in August a few years later. So value the greenery, whatever it is!
You may also wish, as increasingly happens, to add items. An orange is common, which has become associated with the rights of Jewish women. Others have an olive, a sign of peace, to express hope for harmony to reign over the Land of Israel.
Alternatively, traditional items are being changed. Vegetarians sometimes choose to substitute the shankbone — symbolising the sacrifices in the Temple — and have instead a beetroot, whose colour reminds of them.
At last the seder starts, and so do more variant traditions. One crucial decision to make early on is what happens with the Afikomen, the piece of matza reserved for the end.
In some homes, it is the job of the children to steal the Afikomen from the table and then negotiate a suitable reward for returning it. In other homes, an adult hides the Afikomen and it is the children’s task to find it (along with a reward for doing so).
Much more controversial is the length of Pesach and whether or not to add an extra, eighth day, as do the Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora. For their part, Progressive Jews keep seven days, partly to be in line with the original biblical command and partly to align with the practice in Israel.
Whatever one’s background, it is highly traditional to punctuate the formal part of the seder with impromptu questions, be it about the festival, Jewish identity or anything else.
For although Passover is about history and is a gastronomic simulation exercise to make us feel that we too were slaves in Egypt, it is equally about the Jewish future and keeping the message of Judaism alive.
This include the famous freedom cry first uttered by Moses that has since reverberated around the world and applies to all who are oppressed — Let My People Go. But Pesach is also the first leg of the journey to Sinai, receiving the commandments and reinforcing the covenant between God and the people of Israel.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of The Naked Rabbi