Will an e-Haggadah Become Commonplace at the Seder

Will an e-Haggadah Become Commonplace at the Seder
Rabbi Jason Miller

The Passover seder is the most widely practiced home-based Jewish ritual. There is no shortage of haggadahs to help seder leaders navigate the time honored seder rituals. Plenty of haggadahs have been published over the years for the uninitiated rookie to the seasoned veteran, from Reform to Orthodox, and for children, vegetarians and comic book fans.

The latest trend seems to be haggadahs of the digital variety. If you used a haggadah made of paper last week at your seder, you’re still in the majority. However, there are a number of seder goers who have made the transition to an e-haggadah this Passover. Several seder leaders reported that there were a few participants around their table using a haggadah app, but that it wasn’t a majority of the guests.

Before telling your seder guests to bring their own iPad or Kindle next year, there are some Jewish legal concerns to consider. The use of electricity, and thus electronic gadgets like eReaders and tablets, is considered a creative act and therefore forbidden on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays like Passover. Some more liberal Jews don’t see electricity as a violation of the laws of the Sabbath and will be amenable to the use of such reading devices on Passover. Jewish legal concerns aside, there will still be a number of individuals who find the use of an electronic gadget at the seder table undignified. Further, there is no way to know if some of the guests are using their tablet or eReaders for activities other than following along with the seder, like checking their email or portfolio or playing a game like Angry Birds.

Uri Friedman writes in The Atlantic, “E-readers are problematic not only because they are electronic but also because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device – which causes words to dissolve and then resurface – an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath [and Jewish holidays].”

Friedman quotes rabbis from all over the denominational spectrum on the use of e-books on Shabbat. Rabbi Jeffrey Fox of Yeshivat Maharat, says, “There’s real value in embracing technology. It’s just about knowing when to turn it off.”

The leader of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, explained that “since the Reform movement doesn’t consider Jewish law binding, ‘The key for us [on the Sabbath] is abstaining from work that we do to earn a living and using the time to reflect and enjoy and sanctify, which is ultimately what the day is about. To the extent to which technology can contribute to that, then by all means make use of it.'”

For those who do not have a problem using an electronic version of the haggadah at the seder table, there are four new apps became available in the days leading up to last week’s holiday. Even for those who are averse to using these apps at an actual seder, they can be wonderful resources to prepare for Passover. For those who stuck with the conventional haggadah, but are eager to transition to an interactive experience next year, these apps will amaze.

Melcher Media’s “The Haggadah” app came out just in time for the holiday and is much more than a digital format of the haggadah. It is intended to promote sharing of recipes, photos, stories and questions. Prof. David Kraemer, the head librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) where he also teaches Talmud, was responsible for the modern translation of the English text and commentary for the app.

The Reform Movement recently released an iPad version of its “Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family.” It serves as a helpful guide for people who have never been a seder and also is a good tool for seder leaders to make the ritual more interesting from year to year. Navigating through parts of the seder is much easier in an app and “Sharing the Journey” even has functions for quick downloads of iTunes songs for the holiday.

“A Cantor’s Seder,” by eXQuisite Software, is less a haggadah for use at a seder and more of a virtual seder instructor for those who want to learn the tunes for Passover. The app features the traditional Hebrew text that can be translated quickly into English at the touch of a button. It also helps the seder leader customize the length of the Seder for  young children or antsy guests. A nice feature is the ability to record the the Four Questions sung by the youngest child present as a memento. The app has recordings from the acclaimed Cantor Emanuel Perlman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore.

“The Union Haggadah,” which was first published in 1923 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) is now available in digital format in the Amazon Kindle Store. This is the least impressive of the haggadah apps available for download. It is nothing more than the 90-year-old version of the haggadah fit for a table or eReader.

Like with all technology, there will be those quickly willing to transition to a digital format of the haggadah and those who will be uncomfortable either for the religious implications or for decorum reasons. It will likely be several years until haggadah apps become commonplace at many Passover seders, but that won’t keep the app developers from creating more interactive and multifunctional versions of a digital haggadah.

No matter what one ultimately decides about eReader or tablet use at the Passover seder, one thing is certainly clear: the technology has arrived to make a digital seder possible. While some say we have become slaves to technology, others find it to be liberating. It is entirely possible that your seder last week was the last one in which you will use a paper version of the thousand-year-old haggadah. Time will tell.

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