Passover Playtime: The Ultimate Guide

“The First Book of Jewish Holidays,” 1954, Text by Robert Garvey, Pictures by Sam Weiss. BM690.G32.

“The First Book of Jewish Holidays,” 1954, Text by Robert Garvey, Pictures by Sam Weiss. BM690.G32.


This past Saturday evening, Temple Beth Israel hosted its annual Sisterhood Passover Seder. In addition to regular attendees, for whom we are truly blessed to have, we were also delighted to see new faces. Admittedly, this was one of the best Passover's I've led (partially because it wasn’t 10-hours long). And if I were to narrow down my favorite part of the entire evening into one serendipitous phrase, it would be prefaced by the following anecdote:

As we flowed through our Seder and headed into the Four Questions (a sacred moment when Religious School parents are either kvelling or left questioning if their Temple dues have been put to good use), I asked with genuine intrigue and a splash animation: "Do any of our ‘younger' guests know the Four Questions?!” To be fair, I didn’t ask if anyone could sing them accurately, or recite them in any particular language. While scanning the room, I overheard someone shouting, “Hey! We have someone over here!” And there stood a little boy, no older than nine-years-old, whose right hand and eyebrows were confidently were raised with excitement. Now, I have never seen this young man in my life, but I was overjoyed nonetheless. And so, being the show host, Bob Barker rabbi that I am, I gestured him to “Come on down!” (sadly there are no jet-skis won for finding pieces of matzah your uncle hid in the basement).

After thanking him for his participation and nodding the microphone in his direction, I said, “Okay let’s do this! Ready? 1...2...3…” He took a deep breath. And as I began with “Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh,” my new friend, however, went in a slightly different direction: “On Passover, we...,” he blurted out and then paused. I stopped singing when I realized we weren’t on the same page. A little perplexed, I decided to take a mental step back. “This boy has wisdom he needs to share and it’s not going to in Aramaic,” I told myself. “Okay, let’s do YOUR Four Questions,” I announced and passed off the microphone completely. He took another breath and bellowed out: “On Passover, we sit sloppy!”

Confused, but 100% thrilled with this unconventional rendition of an ancient chant, I confirmed that “On Passover, we do indeed sit sloppily. This is very, very true." But behind the innocuous laughter of this Steve Harvey/Ellen DeGeneres, “Kids Say the Darndest Things” moment, I was reminded that Passover is indeed a sloppy holiday. And it’s not just the fermented grapes or the slumped, relaxed manner in which we dine.

*Just as a caveat, I don’t mean “sloppy” as in negligent, unconcerned or careless. Rather, sloppy as in fun, casual, playful, and jovial. Why is this night different from all other nights? Tonight is sloppy. Because as serious as our Haggadah is - cover to cover with stories of oppression and perilousness - in addition to progressive interpretations of social justice reforms and xenophobic awareness - Passover is also intentionally silly! It’s not Purim exactly, but we channel that same Toys“R”Us, lighthearted energy into our comical Passover skits and collection of fake frogs. We reenact with real-time, TNT drama, a very serious story - but in a light-hearted way. We sing to our children to the tune of “Louie Louie”:

“Well, all of Pharaoh's army was coming too
So what do you think that I did do?
I raised my rod and cleared my throat
And all of Pharaoh's army did the dead man's float”

Pharaoh, Pharaoh
Oh baby let my people go!
Yeah, yeah, yeah...
Pharaoh, Pharaoh
Oh baby let my people go!” ("Pharaoh Pharaoh" by Tony Sbrana)

The “dead man’s float?!” Really? Let’s not forget the appropriate “Egyptian hand motions” that go along with the song. And the cherry on top? “Louie Louie,” written by Richard Berry and performed by The Kingsmen, is literally on “National Lampoon's Animal House” soundtrack! Yes, the 1978 cult classic about drunken fraternity brothers. Yes, that’s the very song - the Otis Redding version - mumbled incoherently and quite famously by John Belushi himself (the movie was also filmed at the University of Oregon, my alma mater). This is Passover we’re talking about! On this night, these two attitudes of not-quite Purim, but also not-quite-Yom Kippur, converge on a playing field that’s replete with antics and whimsical family traditions.

As Corinne N. Darvish recounts in the article, Dayenu ‘Warfare’ is Persian Seder Tradition: “During Persian Sephardic seders when it is time for Dayenu, fun and chaos ensues as everyone hits one another with green onions during the chorus. We do this in remembrance of the Jews beaten by whips as slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt. As soon as the first “Di” give your primary target a Dayenu. Do this by giving him a good solid whack with your onions. Keep going until the end of the chorus. Show your love by giving your friends and relatives a Dayenu. The more you love someone, the more Dayenus you give them…After the third or fourth chorus, pandemonium and bedlam should fill the room...”

If you actually finish the song, you’ve done something wrong.  You have not taken full advantage of the distraction your allies have created allowing you to give everyone in the room a Dayenu. At the end of Dayenu there should be lots of broken green onion pieces all over the floor and everyone should be laughing and exhausted. With Dayenu, it really isn’t who wins or loses, but how you play the game. Everyone who plays wins Dayenu!
— CORINNE N. DARVISH, Special to the Jewish Light Apr 4, 2012

C’mon folks…This isn’t just sloppy, this is real! This is insane! Passover, while serious and should be studied astutely, is something else entirely. Because while the Seder, literally meaning, “order,” begins with order, it eventually gets pretty sloppy. Chaotic even. Though, I admit, it very much depends on which Seder you attend. Let’s be honest. Not all Seder’s are created equal. Some are purposefully designed to be contemplative and intentional in their steering of thought-provoking, sophisticated dialogue. But for the most part, the most memorable Seder’s I’ve been to are indeed very sloppy. Dare I say fun? Because the Seder table is a place for people to get comfortable with one another and start talking. There’s more food on the table than you know what to do with. It’s utter madness. And I absolutely love it.

One morning when Pharaoh woke up in his bed
There were frogs on his bed and frogs on his head!
Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes!
— “The Frog Song” by Shirley Cohen-Steinberg

But there’s another facet of this tradition that’s important. Passover is literally playful. And it’s mean to be. It’s “Dramatic Play Environment,” at its very best. In many ways, on Passover, we all turn into kids. In fact, the entire seder is designed to be kid-friendly: “And on that day you shall tell your child, for this God has taken me out of the Land of Egypt (Exodus 13:8),” because “In every generation one is obligated to see himself as though he [too] came out from Egypt” (Mishnah Pesahim 10, 5). It’s intended to be “dramatic or make-believe play.” Which, according to psychologist (and Jew) Lev Vygotsky, “Is an important part of early childhood.”

“Vygotsky believed that play promotes cognitive, social, and emotional development in children. Through pretend play, a child can decontextualize meaning, that is, think about something even when the object is not present or evident (Smidt, 2009). In play, thought is separated from object and action starts from ideas and not from things: a piece of wood can be a doll, a stick becomes a horse. Acting according to rules begins to be determined by ideas rather than by objects, and the child’s relation to the immediate, real, and concrete situation becomes revealed through play (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky saw this as the first step for the development of higher mental functions and verbal thinking.”

But let’s be clear: This isn’t a “Children’s free activity time in which they do whatever they want.” Just as our Passover meal is designed with instruction and order, similarly, “In Vygotsky’s play, role-playing and the imaginary situation are planned ahead and there are rules for participating in play. Each imaginary situation has a set of roles and rules. Roles are the characters children play and rules are the behaviours allowed by either role or play scenario.” [1]

On Passover, we should be reminded that, yes, there are rules. Many of them in fact. But they’re meant to provide structure - a playground - to play in! Yes, playtime! So let go and let the hilarity ensue. You can’t stop it. The dog will find its Brisket supplier. The children will no doubt get bored and eat all the chocolate toffee before dessert. Matzah will crumble in the couches and chairs. The kitchen will look like a battleground, and so will your plate. Tables will get pounded on. Wine will get spilled on your Maxwell Haggadah. It’s all inevitable. So, before we get “uptight” about Passover, because God knows all the rules that accompany it are strenuous, take a deep breath. And remind yourself:

On Passover we sit sloppy.

[1] Vol. 42 No. 3 (2017): Journal of Childhood Studies, “Supporting Young Children’s Learning in a Dramatic Play Environment,” by Janine Hostettler Scharer, PhD

Aaron Sataloff