7 Seder Traditions from Around the World
“Mom, what’s with the four dozen green onions?”
“They’re for the seder table – go put one at each place, please.”
Yes, at my seder, our hands smell like green onions – not like sliced apples and cinnamon. For many years, my family (and my extended family) has taken up our scallions during “Dayenu” and proceeded to beat each other gently (well, not the children) during the song’s chorus. We borrowed this custom – representing slave beatings – from the Jewish communities of Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq.
During years of having seder with my sister and brother-in-law (both Rabbi Torop), and now on my own, I have found new ways to expand what it means to celebrate Passover, a most joyous, challenging, thought provoking, and meaningful time in our Jewish year. Not only do I strive to keep the seder lively and engaging for everyone around the table, but also to broaden their understanding of what it means to engage in this sacred storytelling.
Although we always talk deep into the night about justice, freedom, and faith, the truth is that in my little world, it is one thing to speak of injustice, and something wholly different to face it. Nonetheless, because we know what it is to be strangers and slaves in another land, many of us can translate our yearly reminder to strive for freedom for all people into our ongoing battles against the modern injustices we see in our own country and around the world.
At the same time, as we recreate meaningful traditions and rituals at our own seders, we may fail to acknowledge that not all seders are the same and that not all Jews are the same. Not only is this night different from all other nights, but each seder is different from all other seders. Through its work, the URJ’s Audacious Hospitality team reminds us that not all Jews are Ashkenazim, and not all Jews have taken the same European path to our seder tables. The more we can do to open our doors to those whose experiences are not our own, the more we will create richer seders and more robust storytelling – for ourselves and for them.
Discussing the ways in which we dress our seder tables is an easy conversation starter. Adapting seder rituals and traditions from other parts of the world helps ensure a unique dialogue. Here are a few ideas to try at your seder table this year.
- In India, guests traditionally dip their hand in red paint, symbolizing the Passover sacrifice, before pressing them onto paper to create a hamsa. These symbols, believed to offer protection from evil, are hung around the room to protect seder participants.
- In a custom from Yemen, romaine lettuce, a form of maror (bitter herb), is spread all over the seder table. According to halachah (rabbinic ruling), horseradish is not to be used as maror. Instead, lettuce that truly is bitter is to be used as maror on the seder plate. (When greens weren’t in season in the spring in Europe, horseradish became the replacement for bitter herbs.) Ancient communities, however, continue to use lettuce for maror.
- To symbolize the weight of slavery, in a Tunisian tradition, the seder plate is laid gently atop the head of each seated guest before it is set onto the table.
- Lacking the ingredients to make charoset (a sweet mixture of fruit and nuts), Union soldiers used a brick to symbolize it at their seder in a field during the United States’ Civil War.
- In Gibraltar, artichokes are used for maror (and I’m sure they debate whether to garnish them with melted butter or mayonnaise!)
- In Iraq, it’s traditional to pour a little wine – representing each plague – into a glass and then smash the glass against an outside wall to break it.
- A Moroccan custom involves passing the matzah over the heads of all the seder participants before reciting Ha lachma anya (This is the bread of affliction), alluding to the Angel of Death “passing over” the houses of the Israelites.
Incorporating one or two of these customs from Jewish communities around the world can remind us of two important things. First, our Jewish community is broad and deep, with traditions and experiences not only rooted in our common texts and history, but also developed in beautifully different ways around the globe. Second, even as we struggle in dark and narrow places to bring freedom to people – Jewish and not – everywhere, enacting our sacred rituals has kept us hopeful and kept us connected to our own traditions and our own people through times of both darkness and light.
May this season of telling and retelling and of continued striving for justice help guide us toward moments of light and hope.