A Seder Meal for One.
The day before Seder, I had a breathless conversation with an older single I know whose ‘plans had changed’ last minute (as they so often seem to do with this person), who needed a place to go for the Seder meal.
I said no.
I said no for a few reasons, not least because I had my hands full with a ton of non-religious family members who also believe that Seder isn’t actually something you ‘do’, at least, not yourself, but something that you show up for, say your lines, eat your boiled egg, then go home and tick the box.
But the person pulled a half-successful guilt trip on me that they had nowhere else to go blah blah blah so in the end I compromised and invited them for the morning meal after Seder.
I was so exhausted. I was so tired.
And this person stayed in my house for four hours on one pretext after another, until finally when they went to the bathroom, I saw an opportunity to escape and went ‘to sleep’ in my room until they finally got the message and left.
Recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about how so many of us unwittingly ‘enable’ bad behavior, and massive yetzer haras, through some misguided attempt to ‘do good in the world’. Sure, in theory, it’s a great wonderful, amazing thing to have people around your Seder table who otherwise would have no-where to go.
But at what point does it stop being a mitzvah?
At what point does enabling other people’s selfish, freeloading behavior stop being a good thing?
You know why that older single had no-where to go on Seder night? Because she’s exhausting to be around. That’s why. She doesn’t treat people so nicely and she has a lot of bad middot.
Do you know why I’m doing something completely different for Seder next year? Because even the very minimal requests I set for my Seder were ignored.
People didn’t buy haggadot for their kids….they didn’t prepare a tiny something about anything related to the Seder…they didn’t have the patience to sit through Hallel and made the fact they wanted to leave so obvious that there was no choice except to comply…they didn’t help-with-a-single-thing with the Seder.
They left it all to me.
Now, if they were 80 and feeble, fair enough. If they were ‘lost Jews’ who had never seen or heard of a Seder before in their life, fair enough. But that’s not the case. We’re the same age, and they’ve sat at someone else’s Seder every year since they were born, for more than four decades.
After I was inundated with so many people’s ‘freeloading behavior’ this year, and after I found myself getting so upset about it all, I realized there was something else going on, here, that God was trying to draw my attention to, namely:
I was enabling these people’s bad middot.
And I don’t want to do that anymore.
You might be reading this hand to mouth in horror, thinking what is the woman saying?! This is terrible, shocking, awful!!!!
It’s a free country, you’re allowed. We’ve all been so brainwashed into believing that we have to be the ‘solution’ to other people’s problems, it’s totally understandable if you are having that reaction. I also had that reaction to myself, initially, and thought I’d totally lost the plot. But then, I started to think things through more carefully in hitbodedut, and to dig a little deeper, and here’s what I came to:
God for sure wants me to help other people, as much as possible. At the same time, He for sure doesn’t want me to take all the responsibility for ensuring they have a Seder to go to, or people to hang out with, or a nice life.
For example, it says very clearly, that it’s the father of the household’s responsibility to recount the exodus to their children.
If that father has his head permanently in his business affairs, or prefers to play cards at the Seder table, or doesn’t value his own yiddishkeit enough to make any real effort to pass it on to his kids – it’s not down to me, to fix that problem.
What’s more, there’s the law of natural consequence at play here. The natural consequence of having guests who I experience as ungrateful, entitled, freeloaders is that I don’t want to have them back.
IFFFFF, guests make it clear that they really want to share the responsibility, IFFFFF they make a huge effort to participate, IFFFFF they offer to buy in the desserts, and clear the table, and wash up – then I probably would be extremely happy to have them back. Who wouldn’t be?
But, IFFFFF the guest is totally self-absorbed and self-occupied, IFFFFF they act like they are doing you a massive favor, by being there, IFFFFF they make ‘perfunctory’ noises about helping that you know aren’t the least bit sincere, and then scarper before the dishes have even been taken off the table – then, I really don’t want them back, until and unless something massive changes in their behavior and their attitude.
This is the law of natural consequence, and we ignore it at our peril.
As I was mulling all this over, I had a chat with a friend of mine, Gila, who I have invited for Seder a couple of times down the years, but who has always turned me down. Partially, it’s because Gila and I live in different cities. But the real reason is much more awe-inspiring:
Gila often does Seder all by herself.
I asked her if she would share her experience of that more widely, and she very generously agreed. Here’s what she told me, in her own words:
“Seder is a very personal experience, and I wanted to do it my own way, of course still within the framework of halacha. I read the ma nishtana myself, I did both sides of the ‘Mishar rotam’ dialogue that many Sephardim traditionally do at the beginning of the Seder. It could have been a bit weird or awkward, but I embraced Seder night, and I really enjoyed it.”
I asked Gila, why didn’t you want to go out and be a guest at someone else’s Seder? She told me:
“I really wanted to feel the holiday. I wanted to concentrate on the Seder, and not get so distracted by everything else that was going on around me. There are lots of segulot you can do when you’re having a Seder by yourself, so I really took advantage of it. I drank all the wine you’re supposed to, and I ate all the matzah.”
What happened about hiding the afikomen?
“I just put it away somewhere, so I didn’t see it. And I really enjoyed the idea that I really was eating the afikomen – and only the afikomen – for dessert. Usually, you have to supplement the afikomen with more matzah, but I was eating only the real thing. I also really loved preparing for the Seder. “
This year wasn’t the first time that Gila has done a Seder by herself.
I asked her what she finds challenging about doing it by herself.
“Beforehand is the hardest part. When people start asking me, what are you doing for Seder? That can be a hard question. It’s hard anticipating being alone, and worrying about how society views me. Other people’s reactions are the main problem for me, not actually doing the Seder. The first time I did it, my parents thought I was nuts, until I explained to them how the Seder actually went.
“For someone who has never done it, who has never enjoyed the fruits of their own labor at the Seder, it’s so gratifying to be really involved, and to not just be a guest. Even the shopping was enjoyable and meaningful. I was using my own hands to create the Seder!”
Gila has now done Seder by herself on 5 different occasions.
She’s very happy to still be a guest at other people’s tables, if that’s suitable for her and her hosts, but she told me something about the reality of being an older single at other people’s Seder that made a very profound impact on me:
“Even if you have a bad experience at a Seder, you need to take responsibility. You can’t just accept an invitation to someone because you feel you don’t have a better alternative. When I first decided to do Seder by myself, as an older single in my 40s, it’s because I had never made it myself, and I felt it was just time to do it. When I took that decision, it showed me that I really have a choice about how and where I do Seder, and that was liberating. In general, when you know you have a choice it also makes you more tolerant since you take responsibility for what you want to do, instead of blaming other people.”
I will share more of Gila’s tips on how to do a Seder for one below, but I didn’t just find her experience liberating for some of the singles out there, who maybe are sick of being guests around other people’s tables.
I also found it liberating for myself, because it underscored the point God had been trying to teach me that everyone has a choice.
If a person truly wants to experience a Seder, there is nothing stopping them.
I don’t need to relate to people as nebuchs¸ unfortunates, because they aren’t used to making a Seder, or don’t find it easy. It’s a mitzvah! It’s a privilege! It’s an obligation – their obligation to recount the Haggada and eat matzah and drink four cups of wine.
If they care about the mitzvah, they will find a way to pull it off.
(It’s a whole other story, but I have friends in Costa Rica who are going through a very tough time, financially. This year, they only had enough money to buy the minimal matzah and wine for Seder night, and they just ate vegetables the rest of the week. Talk about mesirut nefesh for the mitzvah! Amazing.)
And if they don’t really care about the mitzvah – then having them back year after year is just enabling them to keep ticking a box, and just keeping them stuck in that place of being a permanent, uninterested, entitled guest.
And I’m not going to do that, any more.
It’s not helping me, for sure, but Gila’s story also showed me that it’s also really not helping them. Or their kids.
So, if you’re young enough and healthy enough to change your kitchen over and cook for three days straight – do your own Seder. If you’re single, consider doing it alone, or consider inviting your other single friends and doing it together. If you have a family and you’re approaching your fifties without ever having done your own Seder, make a decision that next Pesach is the year you finally grow up, and take responsibility for yourself and your families.
Making Seder is hard work, for sure, but it’s a mitzvah, and every ounce of effort you put in is repaid, spiritually.
If you want some more guidance on what to actually do on Seder night, take a look at the Seder Guide on the Torah.org website. And HERE is where you’ll find a run-down of the customs and minhagim that Rabbi Berland follows on Seder night. Finally, I have discovered two excellent cookbooks for Pesach, which contain simple, pretty healthy food that is not a pain in the bottom to put together, but tastes pretty good. You can get A Taste of Pesach #1 by clicking the bold, and also check out A Taste of Pesach #2.
And now, let’s end with Gila’s dos and don’ts for how to do a Seder for one:
PERSONAL SEDER DOS:
- Try to get excited about it.
- Appreciate that you have a choice of how and where you do Seder, and that if you really want to do it in your own home, you can.
- Run the Seder exactly how you want it to go, and include any segulot or customs you want.
- Have realistic expectations.
- Prepare for Seder properly – and enjoy preparing for it.
PERSONAL SEDER DON’TS:
- Don’t do a Seder by yourself if you’re not in a good frame of mind, or if you feel isolated.
- Don’t a Seder by yourself if you can’t be alone for a meal on Shabbat.
- Don’t tell yourself you have no choice, except to be a guest at someone else’s table. You always have a choice to do the Seder yourself, if you really want to.