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Why Is This Feast Different?

I was wondering the other day why family gatherings for Passover are so different than those for Thanksgiving?

So many people find Thanksgiving to be an exercise in family dysfunction. In fact, an entire niche of the travel business is now catering to those escaping the drama of their family’s Thanksgiving mishegas. In contrast, Passover is still family-centered, generally lacking the psychodynamic fireworks of our more secular fall feast.

Perhaps the difference lies in what we do for these gatherings. On Thanksgiving, all there is to do is eat and talk. Without a structure or direction, family tensions and rivalries rise to the surface. If not handled tactfully, they can explode like a mishandled soufflé. Passover, on the other hand, is carefully orchestrated. There is an order to the evening. That is what the word “seder” means: order, as in the order of the service. (I am sure the four cups of wine help lend a mellow mood to the evening, as well.)


Whether one covers the entire Haggadah or selections of it, there are paragraphs to read and songs to sing. (Is it an axiom that the family who sings together, stays together?) There are questions to ask and points to debate, which gives the discussion a focus.

Indeed, the entire Passover seder is highly structured and directed. This is the power of ritual: It brings us together, bridging our differences with a shared purpose and identity. There is little time to focus on our differences when we are busy reliving what unites us. By the time we get to the free-form intermission of the meal, the ritual of the seder has worked its magic, binding us together by shared memories and experiences.

That is why I think Passover remains the last great refuge of the family feast. It is true that for some of us, the family gathered around our table may be one of friends because our own blood relatives live far away or because we have joined our fate to that of the Jewish community as converts. Nevertheless, it is within family that Passover remains most vibrant, evidenced by the role of the youngest child reading the Four Questions, to all the effort made to make the Seder engaging for the children, the next generation to carry the story into the future.


At its heart, Thanksgiving dinner is really about each of us, as individuals, and about what we each received, for which we take a sometimes guilty moment to be thankful. The ritual of the Passover seder, however, reminds us about the collective “we.”

It is about how our ancestors coped with oppression, not just in Egypt but in every age, and how we learned the hard way the importance of loving the stranger, since we know viscerally what it is like to be strangers in a strange land. It is also about how, when we stick together, we can survive almost anything, even the unthinkable.

As my mother of blessed memory would often say, “Blood is thicker than water.” That is really what family is about. While we are often attracted to the universal aspects of the Passover narrative, and justifiably so, at its heart, Passover is the story of our family, from our father, the wandering Aramean, to us sitting around the seder table this year and next.

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Jeffrey Weiss

posted April 11, 2006 at 8:17 pm

You got no family discord on Passover? Even granting your general premise, I have my quibbles with that detail. Thanksgiving, Passover, weddings, funerals. In my experience there is no family event so structured and sacred that families can’t find ways to consistently blow ’em up…1:-{)>

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posted April 11, 2006 at 9:12 pm

This was a nice passage about Paasover meaning; however, you obviously don’t know what Thanksgiving is REALLY all about in the American tradition. It is not about the “ID” or the “individual”. It’s about giving thanks for all blessings especially FAMILY and the love of human beings as a community ! That’s why to most American families, Thanksgiving is THE most important American national holiday. Was there a need to criticize a traditional American holiday to uplift the meaning of Passover ? Without a doubt, Passover is born of centuries of religious tradition, noble beliefs and rituals and carries with it a singular remembrance for God’s Chosen People and their heritage & history and God’s promise to His people, and thus, should be observed by all those of the faith; however, nobody apparently got through to you about the fact that Thanksgiving is about families and the greater community of humanity as family gathering together to share the appreciation of God’s blessings and deliverance to be able to share what is most important…that is giving thanks and appreciation for FAMILY and the binding ties of love between and within them that has been blessed by God (or Hashem, if you will) and all the good fruits of the earth and of heaven that He continues to give to us as individual families and as a family of many peoples and to pray for His continued blessing. Unfortunately, the “commercialism” (and can be expected when a nation of peoples are so loosely bound) of American society has drowned out some of that message to others who don’t care or don’t share in that singular appreciation. It is in no way comparable to the intricate and ritualistic guidelines of Passover, but it is equal to Passover in its attempt to bring people to together in Mitzvot for ONE day and for that ONE day to aknowledge that we are not about the “id”, we are about ONE family under God borne together to share in His blessing for our nation of many diverse peoples. Yes, it’s not enough alone to observe a single day, but to many it keeps a light burning in their hearts about who and what they are supposed to be and be about in this world. In this world, anything that helps that thought is welcomed. For all those who are not Jewish, it is a time when people (American forefathers) borrowed from sterling examples such as Judaism to promote the obligation to give, to love and to share in God’s deliverance and bounty for His family residing as a unique nation amongst nations here. Shalom.

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posted April 18, 2006 at 1:47 am

I wish the seders I attended this year were indeed without mishegas and family drama, but sadly, it was not so. In fact, even given reading the Haggadah and following the “order”, my husband and I have made the commitment not to repeat this year’s disappointment and next year we will hold our own, small, immediate family seder or go to visit different family members rather than have the holiday ruined for us by dysfunction.

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posted April 1, 2008 at 12:06 pm

I read that rabbis of the Talmud fretted over the high price of Passover goods in ancient Babylon. In what tractate do I find that?
Thanks, Daniel

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