For many Jewish families, this Passover night will indeed be different from all others.
As they gather around the dinner table this evening for the Seder, some families will forgo passing around wine-stained copies of the Haggadah, the book used to guide the evening and one of the most ubiquitous volumes in Jewish homes. Instead, they will be tapping on their Kindles, tablets or cellphones, downloading in unison whatever version of the ceremony they plan to follow.
It is a remaking of the Seder for the e-reader age. Despite the fact that traditional Jewish law considers the devices forbidden on Passover – strictly observant Jews refrain from using any sort of electronic device on holidays, as they do on the Sabbath – dozens of versions of the Haggadah are now available in digital formats.
For the many Jews who do not follow such strictures, downloading the familiar Passover service may make their annual ritual more interesting.
“We want to keep the kids paying attention, instead of dryly rushing through something with people all looking at how-many-pages-until-we-eat while the kids are trying to start tossing parsley at each other,” said David Salama, 36, an anesthesiologist in Huntington Woods, Mich., who has downloaded four Passover-related apps on his phone in recent weeks.
In addition to using an e-Haggadah at the Seder he and his father will lead, Salama plans to encourage his 8-year-old son to play a game on his iPod Touch about the 10 plagues.
“This is supposed to be something where everyone is sitting down to enjoy each other and contributing and learning something, so why not allow these devices to help with that?” he said.
As with so many aspects of Judaism, this digitization of Passover is not without controversy.
“There is a place for using apps and all kinds of technology to prepare for the holiday, but I would prefer to do that beforehand so that when you’re actually at the Seder you’re actually speaking to one another,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which ordains rabbis in the Conservative movement.
In the most traditional circles, of course, there will be no e-Haggadot at the table. Even among less religious families, replacing a book that has been used for centuries with a phone or tablet can seem a taboo.
Nevins said that he understood the appeal: His own daughter is in India this year, and the family has joked about setting an iPad at the Passover table so that she can participate in the family Seder via Skype. But such devices will be left aside.
Even among makers of digital Passover content, there is some ambivalence. David Kraemer, the chief librarian and a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, helped create the Haggadah App in 2012, one of the first on the market and still widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive.
Kraemer himself adheres to the strictures against the use of electronics but welcomes his guests to use devices to follow along.
Last year, one non-Jewish guest used his app to learn how to sing the traditional Four Questions in Hebrew and used the transliteration on his iPad to recite it at the Seder table.
“If it enhances the richness of this experience, maybe that’s a good thing,” Kraemer said.