The Passover seder service as a paradigm for informal Jewish education

Picure: Seder plate by Amy Ross. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons by nd2 licence.

In this article Daniel Rose presents the Passover Seder service, commemorating the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, celebrated by Jews all around the world every year on the first night of the Passover festival, as a paradigm for experiential Jewish education, specifically found in informal Jewish education settings.

contents: introduction – jewish experiential education · the passover seder service · maimonides codification of the laws of the seder service · the art of storytelling · differentiated education – “all according to the son’s intellect” · education means innovation, fun, questions, and more questions · experiential education means educational resources · re-experiencing history · informal education sees all contexts and resources as educational opportunities · conclusion · how to cite this article

It is widely agreed that experience is central to the enterprise of informal education. John Dewey expressed this idea by suggesting that people are active centers of impulse rather than passive vessels, learning best when they are actively engaged in experiencing an idea or an event rather than passive observers to it. This experiencing is derived from the interaction between the idea or event and the person’s life enabling the experience to contribute to ongoing personal growth. This results in an educational philosophy that places importance on the experiencing of values personally with events to be experienced at first hand, rather than their being described to the learner. This has become synonymous with the term “experiential education,” often seen as the basis of the difference between formal and informal education.[i] Lewin and Kolb also place experience at the center of their educational philosophies[ii].

Experiential education has therefore become integral to informal Jewish education. In his article The Philosophy of Jewish Informal Education Barry Chazan suggests eight formal attributes that characterize informal Jewish education, presenting the uniqueness of informal Jewish education as the configuration and synergy of these eight characteristics. The second of these eight delineated characteristics is “The Centrality of Experience”.

Informal Jewish education is rooted in a belief that the experience is central to the individual’s Jewish development. The notion of experience in education derives from the idea that participating in an event or a moment through the senses and the body enables one to understand a concept, fact or belief in a direct and unmediated way. Experience in education refers to learning that happens through participation in events or through other direct action, or by direct observation or hearing…

In terms of informal Jewish education, learning occurs through enabling people to undergo key Jewish experiences and values. For example, an experiential approach to Shabbat focuses on enabling people to experience Shabbat in real time—buying flowers Friday afternoon, lighting candles at sunset, hearing kiddush before the meal, and eating hallah. This approach does not deny the value of learning about Shabbat in classes and from texts but it does suggest that cognitive learning about an experience cannot replace the real thing.

Chazan goes on to explain how the content of Jewish education, those aspects central to the education of Jewish civilization, such as Jewish rituals, the Jewish calendar, and Jewish values, lend themselves perfectly to this philosophy of experiential education.

Jewish education lends itself particularly well to the experiential approach because so many of the concepts that we wish to teach, such as Shabbat, holidays, and daily blessings, are rooted in actual experiences. The moral system of Judaism—honoring parents, helping the needy, social justice—is rooted in deeds. The cultural life of Judaism—songs, food, and holidays—is rooted in meals, singing, ritual objects and specific celebrations. Israel in Jewish life is not an abstract concept but a real place that can visited, touched, walked, and smelled. Jewish education is extremely well suited to giving experience primacy. And informal Jewish education is the branch of Jewish education, which highlights that primacy.[iii]

The Passover Seder Service

The Passover seder (literally “order”) is perhaps the most widely kept family ritual of the Jewish calendar, rivaling synagogue attendance on Yom Kippur as the most popular day of Jewish ritual observance in the year. It takes place in the setting of the home with friends and family sitting around the dinner table while the story of the Exodus of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt is retold with the help of the ancient liturgical text of the Haggada (literally “telling”). In the haggada, as well as the narrative of the story using a mixture of biblical and Talmudic sources, a guide to the rituals and commandments of the night are found, each one designed to heighten the experiential value of the evening’s re-enactment of the story.

The source for the very commandment of telling the Exodus story on this night is found in the Bible. In the book of Exodus (13:18) it is stated “And you shall tell your son on that day, because of this God did for me when I left Egypt”. From this verse, the many parameters of this commandment are learnt, including the central role of the child in the seder night, the date for its performance (the anniversary of the very day that this took place), and most importantly for our purposes, the manner in which we should tell this story. We are not told to tell our children how God took our ancestors out of enslavement in Egypt, but rather the story of what God “did for me, when I left Egypt”. From this the Talmud teaches us that each and everyone of us must see ourselves this night as if we were personally redeemed by God from Egypt. This forms the educational philosophy for the night’s proceedings. The rituals and commandments and narrating of the story are all focused on a re-enactment and a re-experiencing of the original historical and spiritual event 4000 years ago.[iv]

In this article the ritual of the Passover seder service will be analyzed and presented as a paradigm for informal Jewish education, precisely because of its experiential nature. With the help of Maimonides’ guidance to the ritual and laws of this evening, we will see how the essence of experiential Jewish education is contained in the practices of this festival, and can be considered a manual to good practice in the art of experiential Jewish education.

Maimonides codification of the laws of the Seder Service

MaimonidiesMaimonides, a 12th century Jewish scholar born in Cordoba in Spain, was arguably the most important Medieval Jewish philosopher and legal authority of his time. He was the first Jewish legalist, in the year 1180, to codify the entire body of Talmudic law in his magnum opus, the Mishne Torah. In the third of the fourteen books that compile the Mishne Torah, called zmanim (literally “times”), Maimonides codifies the laws of the Sabbath and festivals. One of the sub-sections in this book is entitled “Laws of Chametz and Matza” (the laws of leaven and unleavened bread). This is Maimonides’ presentation of the laws of Passover, the spring-time festival in which the Jews celebrate and commemorate the Exodus from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people. The seventh chapter in this section deals primarily with the laws of the Passover seder service and instructs us how best to officiate such a service. This will be the source text in our attempts to delineate a paradigm for informal experiential Jewish education.

The art of storytelling

It is a positive commandment of the Torah to relate the miracles and wonders wrought for our ancestors in Egypt on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan, as [Exodus 13:3] states: “Remember this day, on which you left Egypt,” just as [Exodus 20:8] states: “Remember the Sabbath day.” From where [is it derived that this commandment is to be fulfilled on] the night of the fifteenth? The Torah teaches [Exodus 13:8]: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: ‘It is because of this…'” [implying the commandment is to be fulfilled] when matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs) are placed before you. [The commandment applies] even though one does not have a son. Even great Sages are obligated to tell about the Exodus from Egypt. Whoever elaborates concerning the events which occurred and took place is worthy of praise.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matza, 7:1[v]

There are several Hebrew words that Maimonides could have used to describe the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus. We could have received the injunction to state, learn, teach, say, relate, or many other terms for transmitting a story. I believe that when Maimonides chose the word LeSaper (to tell[vi]) he wanted us to focus on the telling of the story as just that – a story, with all the magic and romance one can expect from a children’s tale. What is it about a good story told by a good story teller? Why can that experience capture the hearts and minds of the rowdiest, largest, most challenging group of children, placing them in the palm of the master story teller? I believe it is because it is just that – an experience. When a child, and for that matter the most cynical adult as well, is captured by a story, they are transported to another place and time, finding themselves experiencing the plot first hand, rather than from the removed perspective of an outsiders. This is why stories prove to be a powerful tool for the informal education practitioner, and why Maimonides enjoins this method of education for this unique evening of Jewish historical and spiritual education.

Maimonides then employs a classic Talmudic textual analysis, presenting a comparison between two verses from the Torah based on a common word found in both. One of the verses speaks of the matter in hand, the commandment to “remember” the day on which the Exodus took place [Exodus13:3], and the subject of the second verse [Exodus 20:8] is the Sabbath, where the command to “remember” is also found. Maimonides is clearly comparing our commemoration of these two historical events – the Exodus and the Sabbath following the creation of the world. What is it that we know about the way we commemorate the first Sabbath in the history of the world that we can transfer to the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt on this night? It is the experiencing of the first Sabbath through imitating the resting of God following the six days of creation that we must replicate on Passover. The active remembrance, the imitatio dei of the laws of the Sabbath that can help us actively remember the Exodus, by re-experiencing and replicating it. Maimonides is telling us that just as we experience the Sabbath every week, so we must try to experience the Exodus on the seder night.

An integral part of the re-experiencing this story, through the relating of it to our children, is that it must be done on the very night when it originally took place, in order to aid the experiential dimension of the commandment. This active memory is most unique to Judaism and the way historical events are remembered in Judaism’s festivals.

What else characterizes this night of Jewish ritual? Maimonides quotes the descriptive legal text introducing us to the other two biblical commandments of the evening – the matza and maror (unleavened bread and bitter herbs). Both of these rituals designed to enable the literal tasting and through this the experiencing of the story. The bitter herbs allow us to relate and re-experience in some way the bitterness of the years of slavery, and the unleavened bread, the very same bread that the Israelites ate when they left in haste for fear of Egyptian pursuit, is at one and the same time the bread of slavery and redemption.

The law is concluded with the instruction to those without children, even those who are wise, and presumably have studied the story to great depth and perhaps many many times before, even they have to tell the story once again, this year the same as last. If this was an academic exercise involving only the intellect, then there would be little reason for such a person to once again involve himself in the commandment. There is a finite limit to intellectual interaction with a concept. There is, however, no limit to an experiential spiritual interaction, which can happen on numerous unlimited occasions, each time unique and different from the times before. This is the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, every year on the night of the fifteenth of the month of Nisan.

Differentiated education – “All according to the son’s intellect”

It is a commandment to inform one’s children even though they do not ask, as [Exodus 13:8] states “you shall tell your son.” A father should teach his son according to the son’s knowledge/mindset.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matza, 7:2

A challenge to all educators, whether informal of formal, in many educational settings is the mixed ability group. Maimonides encourages us to be aware and sensitive to the intellectual differences of our children. In fact, a favorite part of the Passover haggada liturgy is the four sons, each one representing a generic personality type, advising us how to approach the educational content of the evening with them. Each son will engage differently with the story, and the challenge for the parent, or the educator, is to find the appropriate hook to reel the child in and stimulate his or her interest. In fact, the identity of each one of these sons is sourced in the Torah, where we find the commandment to tell the story to our children commanded four times, each one phrased slightly differently, focusing on a different aspect of a child’s interest and potential.

Education means innovation, fun, questions, and more questions

He should make changes on this night so that the children will see and will [be motivated to] ask: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” until he replies to them: “This and this occurred; this and this took place.” What changes should take place? He should give them roasted seeds and nuts; the table should be taken away before they eat; matzot (unleavened bread) should be snatched from each other and the like.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matza, 7:3

Sometimes change for changes sake is worthwhile. Maimonides here suggests that the educator should try every way possible to pique the interest of the child, not only to keep them awake at this late hour, but in fact to engage them, and therefore empower them, in the educational process. We aim here to motivate them to interact with us and with the ritual, by encouraging the asking of questions. When the child sees the father behaving in a peculiar way, he cannot help but enquire “what is so different about this night that you are behaving this way”? When a child begins to ask questions, they begin their educational experience as equal partner with the educator, challenging him as well as themselves to explain the significance of what it is that is occurring before their eyes. Perhaps a child’s questions is the ultimate experiential educational occurrence, where a child experiences the intellectual wonder and excitement of the pursuit of knowledge.

In fact, the liturgy of the evening as found in the haggada[viii] enforces the asking of this question, ‘why is this night different from all others?’ with the youngest child traditionally expected to ask this question four times, each time focusing on a different aspect of the rituals of the evening that are conspicuously different from our conduct on other evenings or festivals. These include enquiring why we only eat matza on this night (to the exclusion of leavened bread), why bitter herbs, why we dip vegetables on this night, and why we lean extravagantly to the left when eating. These four peculiar activities are formally part of the evening’s ritual, yet Maimonides chose not to rely on these rabbinically ordained innovations, but rather encourage the educator-parent to innovate his or her own creative peculiarities in order to encourage their child to engage in the educational spirit of the evening. An important message is contained herein. Not only is it important to be a creative innovative educator, but one should have enough self-confidence to attempt and no doubt succeed at this, rather than relying on the master-teacher and their advise. Maimonides therefore gives examples of creative ideas, but by no means limits us by legislating these examples. They are merely examples, to direct us to the spirit of the task.

Experiential education means educational resources

Whoever does not mention these three matters on the night of the fifteenth has not fulfilled his obligation. They are: the Paschal sacrifice, matzah, and maror. The Paschal sacrifice: [It is eaten] because the omnipresent passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt as [Exodus 12:27] states: “And you shall say: ‘It is the Paschal sacrifice to God.'” The maror (bitter herbs): [They are eaten] because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt. The matzah: [It is eaten] because of the redemption. These statements are all referred to as the haggadah.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matza, 7:5

These three matters are the three ritual commandments of the service, and together with the commandment to tell the story, comprise the legal obligations of the evening. Each involve the ingestion of foodstuffs, as educational resources that form the basis of an educational experience. The Paschal lamb, is the very same sacrifice that was offered by the Israelites on the very first Passover festival[ix]. The matzah is the very same unleavened bread eaten by the Israelites when they left in haste[x] without time to let their bread rise. The eating of the maror is designed to allow us to experience the bitterness of the enslavement in Egypt. Each of these food related ritual are intended to cause the experiencing of the event of the Exodus from Egypt, allowing us many generations later to feel that we have witnessed and participated in this historical-spiritual event.

However, Maimonides does not separate these three from the fourth commandment of the evening, the telling of the Exodus story. In fact, he equates them, stating that these three rituals are in fact referred to as haggadah, and without their mention, one has not fulfilled his duty in respect to this legal requirement. It seems that Maimonides is intertwining the experiential and cognitive aspects of the educational program, ensuring that we relate to the story of the Exodus in both an experiential and intellectual way.

Re-experiencing history

In each and every generation, a person must present himself as if he, himself, has now left the slavery of Egypt, as [Deuteronomy 6:23] states: “He took us out from there.” Regarding this manner, God commanded in the Torah: “Remember that you were a slave [Deuteronomy 5:15]” – i.e., as if you, yourself, were a slave and went out to freedom and were redeemed.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matza, 7:6

In this statement, we have the crux of the evening – the ultimate achievement of any educational program. That is absolute experiential education. Maimonides tells us on this night all our efforts must be directed towards the vital goal of experiencing the Exodus “as if we ourselves left the slavery of Egypt”. Over and over again we have highlighted that the focus of this evening is not one of cognition or of the intellect, but rather experiential as well as spiritual/religious in its atmosphere. In case we haven’t absorbed that message and taken it to heart, the concept is spelled out clearly for us here. The commandments of the evening are designed to allow us to re-experience an event from Jewish history, and if they are insufficient to achieve this goal, then do whatever it takes.

This is intimated by Maimonides’ choice of terminology. To “present” oneself [LeHarot] as if one was taken out of Egypt is an uncomfortable way of expressing this sentiment. It would have been easier to instruct one to “see” himself [Lirot] as if he had left Egypt. In fact, this is the term that is found in the Talmud[xi] and in the Haggadah itself. Why then did Maimonides change this accepted terminology? Traditionally we are very careful with our analysis of Maimonides’ choice of language as we believe he was very deliberate when choosing the terms for legal concepts. What message is he expressively conveying in exchanging these two separate Hebrew terms of the same root?

I believe he is encouraging our own communal, familial, and individual innovations in the evening’s proceedings in order to achieve the goal of experientially reproducing the historical event of the Exodus from Egypt. Maimonides represents the sephardi Jewish community [those Jews who originate from the Iberian peninsula as well as from Arabic and Persian backgrounds], originating in Spain himself. These Oriental Jews have many more colorful customs for the evening of Passover than their Askenazi [Jews of European origin] brethren. These include dressing up as the Israelites leaving Egypt, carrying matzah in sacks over their shoulders as they walk around the Passover Seder table, striking ones fellow with spring onions (to represent the whips of the task masters in Egypt), and the jumping over buckets of water (symbolizing the splitting and traversing of the Red Sea). These are all clearly attempts to experience the history of the festival, and each one has the participants “presenting himself” as if he himself had left Egypt. I am suggesting that Maimonides uses this term, “to present oneself”, in a deliberate attempt to encourage all Jews to participate in customs and rituals such as these in order to achieve the goal of the evening – the re-experiencing of the Exodus from Egypt.

Informal education sees all contexts and resources as educational opportunities

Therefore, when a person feasts on this night, he must eat and drink while he is reclining in the manner of free men.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matza, 7:7

The Charoset is a commandment ordained by the words of the Sages, to commemorate the clay with which [our forefathers] worked in Egypt.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matza, 7:11

Traditionally, a king, or even a freeman would recline while eating. While today this practice may seem to be most likely to cause indigestion and other gastronomic problems, in Talmudic times it was seen as a statement of extreme luxury and indulgence, much as in Roman times when the gentry would recline on loungers while being fed their food. On this evening of liberation and freedom, we are told that we must also feel as if we are breathing our first lungful of fresh air after many years of incarceration and enslavement, and we do this by eating as if we were kings, gentry, and most importantly, freemen.

The Charoset is a condiment that is eaten with the matzah and bitter herbs made from grated apples, ground almonds, wine, nuts and cinnamon. Maimonides explains that the charoset symbolizes the cement that the Israelites were forced to produce by the task masters in Egypt by resembling it, in order to build structures and cities under conditions of forced labour. Once again, this is an example of using the food of the evening to further advance the themes of the evening.


Informal experiential education sees every context and resource as a potential educational opportunity. In this case, even the dining of the evening can and should be used to achieve the educational goals of the evening. In fact, Maimonides would have us utilizing our dress, the food, the seating arrangements, our conversation, and even the entertainment of the evening[xii] delivering us to our ultimate aim of the Passover seder – to experience the historical event of the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt. I would see this goal, to experience the educational themes that we are attempting to educate, as a paradigm for good educational practice.

[i]J. Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1937).

[ii] David Kolb (1984), Experiential Learning, and Kurt Lewin (1948) Resolving Social Conflicts

[iii] Barry Chazan (2003),The Philosophy of Jewish Informal Education, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education

[iv] Eliyahu Kitov (1978), The Book of Our Heritage (Jerusalem, Feldheim Pubishers)

[v] All translations based on “Maimonides Mishneh Torah: A new translation with commentaries and notes”, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, (Moznaim Publishing Corporation, New York/Jerusalem)

[vi] In fact, Maimonides chose to use a different word from the word found in his biblical proof text which is LeHagid – to state [Exodus 13:8].

[vii]  as seen when towards the end of this law Maimonides instructs even those without children to tell the story

[viii] And in the Talmud, Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 116a

[ix] This sacrifice, as all sacrifice in Jewish law, is no longer offered since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70CE. The term ‘Paschal [Lamb]’ – Pesach, is a play on the word Pasach which literally means ‘passed over’. This is a reference to the segment of the Exodus story where God passed over the houses of the Children of Israel while performing the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn. This is the reason for the Hebrew and English names for this festival: Pesach and Passover.

[x] They left in haste, escaping the Egyptian army, ordered to pursue the Children of Israel upon Pharaoh having a change of mind.

[xi] Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 116b

[xii] There are several after-dinner folk songs found in the Haggadah, each one with an appropriate Passover theme as its subject, that are traditionally sung by the whole family and their guests.

Picture: Picure: Seder plate by Amy Ross. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons by nd2 licence.

How to cite this article: Rose, Daniel (2007) ‘The Passover Seder Service as a paradigm for informal Jewish education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

© Daniel Rose 2007

Last Updated on July 8, 2019 by