Passover is a festival of questions, many of which can be summed up by the single query: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Here’s one answer: It’s the Jewish festival that non-Jews love to observe.
The seder, the ceremonial feast held on the first two nights of Passover, is one of the most intricate rituals in the Jewish calendar, kicking off an eight-day stretch of complicated and demanding dietary restrictions. The initial meal, which ranges from eating bitter herbs to reciting Talmudic passages in a foreign language, usually lasts for several hours—and dinner isn’t served until more than halfway through.
The festival commemorates the exodus from Egypt, a key step in the formation of the Jewish people. The seder is not just a retelling of the story, like the weekly Torah readings in synagogue; it’s an invitation for Jews to relive the liberation from slavery as if they had actually been there in Egypt, to teach the narrative to the next generation, and to claim the history of their people as part of their own individual identities. In other words, Passover does not seem like the most obvious festival for outsider participation.
And yet every spring, non-kosher restaurants, churches and student organizations around the U.S.—not to mention Jewish homes—invite non-Jews to relive the Israelites’ exodus from bondage. Even the White House has held a seder since 2008. What is it about Passover that speaks to non-Jews and entices them to participate in what is, at least in its traditional format, a multi-hour Hebrew service over a meal with no bread? Surely an option like the recent festival of Purim—where the law stipulates dressing in costume, swapping food baskets and drinking to oblivion—would be a more appealing choice?