* In summer 2017, I decided to start a podcast that dealt with issues related to psychology and Judaism. Shortly after I published the first episode, I was asked unexpectedly to take an interim position at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, so I put the project on hold. Now, thank G-d, I am privileged to be staying at RYNJ, so unfortunately I won't be able to do any more off the podcast for the foreseeable future.
If it's the first Shabbos after Pesach, you know everyone's looking forward to their challah. If you use social media your feeds are no doubt filled with pictures of challahs in the shape of oversized keys (or, more often challahs that you can sort of tell were supposed to look that way). Schlissel challah, (literally: key challah), are the special challahs that many Jews make for the Shabbos after Pesach, which by tradition (i.e., minhag) are either baked with a key inside or formed into the shape of a key. (Judging by the internet it seems like the Insta-friendly key shape has become the popular choice, though me may just be biased from seeing all those pics.) While this practice is well known, it's far from universal and denigrated by many. That raises the question: what do you do when you think another Jew's inspiring minhag is foolish?
The Pesach seder has helped to sustain our faith and reinforce our identity throughout the ages. Much of that has to do with the deliberate way that Chazal, our sages, set the seder up, with a variety of things for us to say and do that make the experience more powerful and inspiring. This article will look at three of those features and use psychology research to understand why they work and how we can use those same techniques to increase our happiness and wellbeing on all other nights, too.
The three seder features we will look at all serve the same basic purpose: to enhance the sipur, the telling of the story of yetziat Mitzrayim, the exodus. We can understand what that storytelling entails by contrasting it with the everyday mitzvah to simply remember the exodus (zechira). All a person has to do to fulfill that mitzvah of zechira is think for a moment about yetziat Mitzrayim. However, the storytelling (sipur) we are commanded to do at the seder is an entirely different matter. Chazal built a few things into the seder to make it a story fitting of the night of Pesach. At the seder, we relive the exodus. We imagine ourselves leaving Egypt and tell our families about it. We make it vivid with props like matzah and marror, and we express our thanks to Hashem for all that he's done for us.
If you've been to a Seder before, you know that each one of those features helps make the seder uplifting. With the help of research from the field of positive psychology, we can understand why they work. Positive psychology is a field that focuses on how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled. Researchers in the field have identified a number of things that happier people do that contribute to their being happy. They found that if other people do more of those things, they will also experience a boost in positive emotions and wellbeing. As it turns out, our three uplifting features of the seder each utilize one of those happiness-boosting techniques.