Passover Seders take a long time. That is a scientifically proven fact. But there is no sense in making them drag on longer than they need to be. And even though they do take a lot of time, they don't have to feel like an eternity.
Although it is encouraged to keep talking and studying about the exodus late into the night, the official part of the seder and the eating of the afikoman should to be completed by "proportional" midnight. ("Proportional" midnight is the exact midpoint between sunset and sunrise. During Daylight Saving Time it is typically well after 1 AM, depending on your location.)
So here are some tips to help keep your seder moving along.
1. Don't come to the seder starving.
It is a common custom not to eat after the time of minchah (afternoon) prayers on the day leading up to the seder, so that you appreciate the taste of the matzah when it comes. However, it is at least a good idea to eat a late lunch or a mid-afternoon snack beforehand. No one should come to a seder overly hungry if they can avoid it.* Shulchan Orech (when the meal is served) is the eleventh of fifteen steps in the seder. It is usually pretty late by the time the meal comes. If everyone's bellies are grumbling for the first ten steps of the seder, the night will seem like it takes forever. A sprig of salty karpas won't stave off the hunger pangs; it can actually make matters worse.
It is quite common to give children snacks or or treats during the seder or an early meal beforehand.
(* Even people who observe the Fast of the Firstborn commonly break the fast beforehand by making sure to attend an "obligatory" meal of celebration, for example, at a party in honor of completing a volume of Talmud study.)
2. Give your children long afternoon naps.
The seder is first and foremost for them. From age five or six on up, they should try to present and coherent for as much of the seder as possible. Tired kids are crabby kids, and crabby kids make for a long, tiring seder. For pre-schoolers and younger, just put them to bed when they get too tired. It will be a better experience for everyone.
3. Overestimate the time involved.
Tell your guests before they come that the seder will take a really long time, and it will be very late by the time you start the meal. If, God willing, it comes sooner, everyone will be pleasantly surprised.
4. Start the seder on time.
According to traditional Jewish law, the seder should not begin until nightfall (tzeit hakochavim), which varies depending on location. Determine the time that you are going to start your seder, and make sure that you stick to that start time in order to avoid pushing it later into the night than people had expected.
5. Sing the Haggadah when possible.
Songs will help make the seder more fun and interesting, which makes it less of a drag. Sing the songs up-tempo, and don't repeat them ad nauseum. Once or twice will do.
Use dramatic and enthusiastic tone inflection during readings, paraphrasing the text in a way that the youngest person will understand.
6. Be strategic about the meal.
Finally, your seder arrives at Shulchan Orech, that wonderful eleventh step. Everyone takes a collective sigh. Everyone's hoping that by the time they get back from the restroom, you'll already be passing out the gefilte fish.
Passover is a festive, special, and holy time, so it is appropriate to spend a little extra on food and make it fancy. But don't make it complicated.
I was at a seder once that went very wrong at this point. Due to communication problems and preparation issues out of our control, after we got to Shulchan Orech, it took an hour before anything was ready to eat. That was no fun, and it made the rest of the seder a real drag.
So what can you do to prevent this?
- Choose dishes that you can prepare ahead of time. The more you can get out of the way before the seder even starts, the better. Bake, chill, and slice the gefilte fish, then arrange it on a platter and wrap it in plastic wrap earlier in the day. (If you are wondering right now, "Wait a second...doesn't gefilte fish come pre-cooked in jars of slime?" then you have never had good gefilte fish and you are severely under-privileged.)
- Avoid anything that requires last-minute steps. Certain types of salads, for example, need to be prepared just before serving. Instead, opt for something like a marinated carrot or cabbage salad that needs only to be dished out at the right time.
- Cook foods that can sit and wait for a while without drying out or getting overdone. Don't serve anything that depends on perfect timing. Broiled fish is probably not a good idea. Slow-cookers are a great help.
- Serve foods that still taste good even if they have cooled down. "Piping hot" may not be an option, especially if you have a lot of guests. Mashed potatoes are probably a better idea than crispy ones.
- Serve the meal in courses. Not only will that be more elegant, but it will also get people eating right away. Don't rush--this is supposed to resemble a "royal" affair--but make sure not to delay needlessly between courses. You don't need to wait for everyone to finish their soup before you bring out the baked chicken. Keep it moving.
7. Familiarize Yourself with the Haggadah.
It's been at least a year since you've been to a seder. It would be a good idea to look through the Haggadah and get familiar with it again. That way, you won't be spending precious time wondering what to do next, fumbling through the steps, or fetching something that you forgot all about.
Forgive the shamelessness of this plug, but in case you haven't had a chance, make sure to check out the two Haggadot that First Fruits of Zion has made available.
- The Vine of David Haggadah is a new translation of the traditional Haggadah, containing the complete traditional seder in both English and Hebrew. This Haggadah sets a new standard for Messianic Haggadot, both in terms of production quality, content, and presentation.
- New in 2017, The Master’s Table: A Passover Encounter for Christians, is a new English Haggadah that delivers the whole traditional seder meal with all the steps, but the readings and recitations are truncated to a manageable size, optimized for use in community seders and outreach functions. Easy-to-understand connections to Passover and the Last Supper are made explicit.
8. Hand Washing
The traditional Haggadah includes two places where people perform a ritual hand washing. Not all Messianic folks wash; it depends on how one interprets the events recorded in Mark 7 and elsewhere. Decide in advance whether or not you will wash at your seder, and give individuals the latitude to follow their own convictions on the matter as well.
These two washings can take up a lot of time if you don't plan and prepare. There are two ways that the washing can be performed. Some pass around a bowl and pitcher, others use a washing cup in the sink. Either way, there are steps you can take to optimize the process.
- Parallel washing. If you're using the bowl-and-pitcher method, use two or more bowls and pitchers on opposite ends of the table so more people can be washing at the same time. Make sure the pitchers are filled in advance. If you're using the sink method, don't just use one sink.
- Multiple drying towels. If you use re-usable cloth hand towels, have a lot of them available so people don't have to wait for the person ahead of them to finish drying.
- Washing Assistants. In households that are used to washing every day, they may already have gotten the system down to an art. But when there are people new to the custom, it is a good idea to have someone there at the sink to guide people through the steps, refill the cups as soon as they're done, and hand them a drying towel. With the bowl method, it is probably faster to have a team of two people carry the pitcher, bowl, and towels around than to pass them awkwardly from person to person.
9. Have everything withing reach.
Don't just have one bowl of salt water and a pile of parsley. Portion them out in advance between every two or three people. Do the same with matzah, charoset, horseradish, and everything else. Then you won't have to take turns or pass things all the way down the table.
10. Rein in the off-topic conversation
Talking and discussion at a seder is good. But if conversation gets off on a non-related tangent, politely cut it short and move on.
Remember: there's no rush.
The point of all of these tips is not to get your seder over and done with as fast as possible. It is to give you more time for the parts that you enjoy. Don't make everyone feel in a rush. If you take the steps outlined above, you won't need to. A seder that feels rushed is less interesting and fun.
At the seders I attended last year, everything was done efficiently and skillfully, thanks to the very competent and knowledgeable hosts where we were staying. As a result, we were able to recite the entire Haggadah in Hebrew and English, including the songs in the back. We even had guests who were very new to the experience, and they had a wonderful time. We had time to elaborate and share our thoughts and questions, and though it was late when we were done, it was nowhere near as late as it could have been, and the night breezed by. With God's help, may all your seders be just as wonderful!