It is Passover night on Kibbutz Ein Harod Ihud in the north of Israel. Families are flooding out of their houses and making their way along the paths toward "Beit Lavi,” the largest building in the kibbutz. 

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For many weeks now, the children of the kibbutz have been rehearsing the correct pronunciation of the Bible verses, practicing dances, their stage entrances and exits, flute and drum performances. The sidewalks have been cleaned around the building where the Seder will be held. 

New sandals have already been measured, and white shirts chosen from stores. The shirts will probably be worn again on all that year’s holidays. Hundreds of tables and thousands of chairs have been arranged. Families know their designated place for the Seder. 

The food will not be particularly hot, and, due to the quantities required, it will probably be quite simple. Despite that, Seder night on kibbutz cannot easily be forgotten. 

"The chalutzim felt that they had left Egypt"

According to Muki Tzur, a historian and author on the kibbutz movement from Kibbutz Ein Gev, the kibbutz Seder got its start from public Passover celebrations in the years before the founding of the State of Israel, when waves of Jewish immigration had already begun.

"In all kinds of centers in the country – Tel Aviv, Rehovot, moshavim, people used to meet for a big public celebration with dancing and singing, after the Seder,” he said. “This was a confirmation of change from the Diaspora, where Jews used to keep their holidays modest, and each family celebrated inside their home, in fear of their neighbors.” 

"Later, many attempts were made to find a new way to celebrate this major holiday. It was a time of year when the young pioneers felt intense homesickness. This very homesickness sometimes led to the repression of Jewish tradition, because reading the traditional Haggadah could make them weep with longing,” Tzur added.

"The Passover Seder was a holiday of history, but they felt that the Haggadah had to relate to the current history around them." Muki Tzur (Oren Nachshon / Flash 90)

Tzur recounted that at first, the Haggadah was a satirical re-telling of the Passover story through the lens of daily life on kibbutz. Despite this, it expressed deep identification with the story of liberation.

"All the heroes of the Haggadah were members of the kibbutz. Pharaoh was the person who organized manual labor shifts on the kibbutz,” he explained. “They all had a very deep feeling that they personally came out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom.”

Members of Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan at the Omer Ceremony, April 2017 (Hadas Porush / Flash 90)

As the years went on, the Haggadot in the kibbutzim diversified and developed, and new Haggadot were reprinted every year. 

"Since the invention of the printing press and up to 1960, there have been 7,000 printed Haggadot,” Tzur said. “Of these, 700 are kibbutz Haggadot.”

“Every year people felt different, so every year there was a new Haggadah,” he continued. “The Passover Seder was a holiday of history, but the kibbutzniks felt that the Haggadah had to relate to the history happening around them. Even the religious kibbutzniks, who would not change the traditional Haggadah, would add an annual insert each year."

There weren’t always matzo balls

Passover traditions have evolved continuously through history, with many of the core elements remaining and many innovations made to meet the needs of the Jewish people in their particular place and time. 

In the days of the First and Second Temples, when Jews lived as a sovereign nation in Israel and Jerusalem was at the center of Jewish life, the Passover Seder looked very different from today. The holiday was celebrated with a mass pilgrimage from all over the country and from the Diaspora. Even before Jews were expelled from Israel in the days of the Roman Empire, there were many Jews who lived outside of the traditional homeland.

Authorities would pave the roads to the pilgrimage site, plant trees to provide shade for the pilgrims, and leave the cisterns open for all the pilgrims to drink from – people and animals alike. Whole convoys came, including extended families with elders and children. With them were the animals they brought to the sacrificial ceremony in Jerusalem. 

At the heart of the holiday was the Passover ceremony – bringing the Passover sacrifices together into the temple, eating bitter foods to remember the bitterness Jews went through in Egypt, and eating matzah. These ceremonies fulfilled a social purpose as well as a religious one, providing an opportunity to renew the social fabric at a large gathering. Stories of the Exodus from Egypt were also traditionally told.

This annual pilgrimage originated from a commandment in Deuteronomy, which states that “three times a year, all your remembrance will see the face of the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 16:16).

Destruction of the Temple (Painting: Francesco Hayez 1867).

But with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, there was suddenly nowhere to gather. It was no longer possible to make a pilgrimage. The sages in Yavneh, the spiritual leaders of the community, decided that there was no choice but to re-establish the Jewish people around a more spiritual center, one that could be packed up and taken anywhere. They converted the pilgrimage and sacrifice into a symposium – a long and comprehensive banquet evening. The four cups of wine that are still traditionally drunk throughout the seder, as well as the tradition of reclining, were added at this point.

Cultural Judaism in a Jewish state

In modern history, different groups of Jews began to take a closer look at the contents of the Passover Haggadah. The kibbutz Haggadah was one of the most extensive initiatives, one that remained relevant for years, and managed to produce a new form of Judaism that recognized this Haggadah, and no other, as the Seder Haggadah. This new way of practicing Judaism expressed itself in culture, holidays and daily life, and was possible only in Israel, where public life was Jewish. 

Passover in the Yagur dining room, 1961. Conductor Shmuel HaCohen. Decoration by Shlomo Kantor. (Anchor photo courtesy of Yagur Archive)

The kibbutz Haggadah returns to the Biblical story associated with Passover, emphasizing how Moses led the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt, and the power of people to change their realities. 

“In the traditional Haggadah, Moses barely appears," Tzur said. Content around springtime and the agricultural aspect of the Omer ceremony, or the first harvest of the oats, were also added, reflecting kibbutzim’s character as agricultural communities.  

Members of Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan at the Omer Ceremony, April 2017 (Hadas Porush / Flash 90)

And, perhaps most notable, the kibbutz Haggadot consistently addressed current events – first the events of the 1930’s, then the Holocaust and Israel’s War of Independence.

"From the moment the Holocaust became known, Seder night in the kibbutzim was Holocaust Remembrance Day. Pharaoh was Hitler and there was great weeping during the Seder. Later, with the institutionalization of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and then the establishment of Independence Day, those aspects were removed from the Haggadah," Tzur said.  

Tzur also explains that due to the Holocaust, many of the kibbutz members became orphans, or were left with small families. Refugees from the same shtetls that kibbutz members came from would join the seders in the kibbutzim, in order to be together in an event that became a kind of memorial day. 

"One or two people would come to a kibbutz where there was someone who came from their old shtetl, and that was their extended family," he said.

A similar phenomenon existed around the establishment of the state – in the first years of the state, Seder night functioned as a kind of independence day. 

The work of Yehuda Sharet

In the Hashomer Hatzair, there was one Haggadah for all the kibbutzim of the movement. The other kibbutz movements had a variety of versions, but the best known of which was the Haggadah created by Yehuda Sharet, first published in 1951.

Yehuda Sharet, brother of Moshe Sharet, the second prime minister of Israel, was a violinist, composer and musician, and member of kibbutz Ein Harod and Yagur. In his book “Yehuda Sharet: A Cultural Hero,” Tzur describes how Sharet dealt with being both an artist, and a kibbutz member and laborer, due to the many contradictions between these two roles. There is no doubt that in creating the kibbutz Haggadah, Sharet managed to unite these two aspects.

Yehuda Sharet conducts the audience in Yagur (Photo: Eri Glass courtesy of the Yagur Archive)

"Among the Jews of Germany there was a communist composer named Paul Dessau, who wrote music and was exiled to Paris due to the rise of Nazism," Tzur explained. "He wrote a cantata there for the Exodus from Egypt. The lyrics were written by Max Brod, and this was the model for what Yehudah Sharet did.” 

“He knew Dessau's work and it gave him the idea of ​​an ongoing musical work with lyrics from the sources that make up the Seder ceremony,”  he continued. “What Sharet did affected all the movements and all the kibbutzim, although mostly Yagur and Ein Harod, who incorporated his work in its entirety."

Haggadah here and now

Tzur adds that many innovations from the kibbutz seder "entered the traditional Pesach seder." He cites melodies and recitations that were accepted in the kibbutz, and were then added orally to traditional Haggadot in many family Seders.

Tzur makes clear that a kibbutz seder is not a family seder. The entire community is required. Decorations, dancing, choirs, readings, marches – all ages and all members participated in the creation of the holiday. All aspects of the holiday, according to Tzur, were immersed in the symbols of the Zionist revolution – art, current affairs and politics, music, a return to history.

Seder Pesach Yagor, 1962. Participants recite the Yagur Haggadah from 1958, written and illustrated by Shlomo Kantor (Photo: Kibbutz Yagur Archive)

As more and more kibbutzim privatized over the past 40 years, these communities faced new challenges of how to mark the holiday, communally or by family, with the old Haggadah or with each family choosing for themselves. 

Tzur notes that today most of the kibbutzim use the same Haggadot that were created in the past. He added that with the establishment of the graduate movements of HaNoar HaOved vHaLomed, Machanot HaOlim, and Hashomer Hatzair, new chalutzic Haggadot are now being written.

"They thought it was over, but it turns out that new blessings and poems have begun to be written again, which is a very, very interesting thing," he said. 

On Seder night, in the traditional Haggadah, Jews ask “ma nishtana” – "what has changed." Passover will continue to be shaped by changes taking place in Jewish history, as the kibbutz seder demonstrates. 

The lasting influence of the kibbutz Haggadah on Israeli Jewish culture can be felt in a renewed focus on self-reflection and taking action. What is freedom today? Where and how are we oppressed? What form of slavery should we fight against, in our day and time?