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Question 8.39:
What are the origins of the Women's Passover Seder?


Women's seders began as a phenomenon in the 60's - along with so much of the emergence of interest in Jewish women's ritual and participation in Jewish life and leadership (the stirrings towards women rabbis and cantors and the growth of Bat Mitzvah celebrations, for example).

In the spring of 1975 in Haifa, three working women decided it was time to re-examine the traditional seder. On this occasion, "the invited men would prepare the meal, serve and clean. The women would contemplate the traditional Haggadah and write new and relevant prayers" (from The Women's Haggadah, E. M. Broner). The first official women's seder took place the next year in New York. It quickly became a regular women's ritual and religious event.

During the first years of women's seders, prayers, rituals and discussions were wide and varied. Community after community created ceremonies based on their own religiosity, needs, expectations and goals. Over time, several rituals caught on and became so popular that they became universal to women's seders. Some have even crossed over and found their way into our family celebrations.

One of these rituals is the inclusion of a Miriam's cup filled with water on the seder table. Images associating women with water occur throughout the bible; in the stories of Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel and Zipporah at their wells, Yocheved at the Nile, Miriam at the Sea of Reeds and water imagery in the Song of Songs. The spirit and intention of these images reflect women's life-affirming and sustaining influence throughout Jewish history. "Miriam's cup honors the prophetess Miriam, highlighting her role in the Exodus story and invoking her healing and creative presence." (from The Women's Passover Companion)

In 1980, Dr. Susannah Heschel, added an orange to her seder plate. She chose the orange because it suggested to her the fruitfulness that occurs when all Jews are contributing and active members of Jewish life. Early in the seder, she asked everyone to take a segment of the fruit, say the blessing over it, and eat it to symbolize solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men as well as with others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. From her perspective, to speak of slavery and long for liberation demands that we acknowledge our own complicity in enslaving others. As this ritual has become minhag (custom), the connection to the gay community has been placed in the background...more often today, the symbolism of this ritual connects women and what they bring to Judaism with what the orange brings to the seder plate....transformation, not transgression.

Two recommended books for information and data are:

  1. The Women's Seder Sourcebook: Rituals and Readings for Use at the Passover Seder. Edited by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld and Tara Mohr Jewish Lights Publishing

  2. The Women's Passover Companion: Women's Reflections on the Festival of Freedom.... Ed. Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld and Tara Mothr. Jewish Lights Publishing.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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