While remembering the deliverance from Egypt remains one of the most widely honored obligations in modern Jewish life, just how long that remembrance should take varies even more than preferences in kneidlach texture.

As a young reporter living far from home, I remember my delight at being invited to First Night seder at the home of a revered rabbi. Along with his wife and their children and grandchildren, he had gathered half a dozen “orphans” like me. As expected, the rabbi tackled the rituals and retelling of the Exodus story in way more detail than my father had ever done. That was fine; he and his rabbinical-student eldest son engaged in a debate about each point that I found fascinating, and they invited input from all of us.

But around midnight, when nothing had been eaten yet except slivers of matzah with as much of the sweet and bitter herbs as we could load onto them, and the most delicious egg-dipped-in-salt-water I’d ever tasted, the urge to honor our ancestors had waned considerably. Little children had long ago disappeared to snooze on the sofas, and their elders, assisted by the many cups of kosher wine, were nodding off in their seats. Dayenu, it was enough already!

On the other hand, there are those who zip through the Haggadah so fast, cutting away so much of what they deem unessential, that if it weren’t for the matzah and absence of bread and maybe the cup for Elijah, the night is no different than any other. And that surely defeats the purpose!

What must make the Seder nights different than all others? What are the bare-bones (not counting the burnt bone) of a proper Pesach observance?

Guidance can come from one’s choice of Haggadah. They come in wider and wider range, from fabulously lavish, glossy volumes to the more basic Maxwell House version favored by so many households, to the multi-lingual one containing the Four Questions in everything from Klingon to Zulu, to the hand-written, hand-illustrated, photocopied versions families put together for themselves, with help from their children’s Hebrew School classes. And these days, of course, you can check out an even broader array online, and download the version of your choice.

To take it to the basics, where better to look than Dummies.com. It lists the 15 basic steps of a complete seder, from Kiddush said over the first cup of wine, to the final, joyful declaration: “Leshanah haba’ah bee-rushalayim – Next year in Jerusalem.”

Within that, there are endless options for elaboration, to add songs, prayers and anecdotes, but one thing remains clear: While this is a remembrance of suffering and enslavement, the story ends happily, with freedom.

As the writer says: “If you aren’t having fun, you aren’t doing it right.”

 

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