Last year some friends invited me to what was billed as a "casual Seder." This turned out to mean over four hours of religious readings and questions, and many different courses. It took so long that my wife and I left before dessert. This year we have not been invited back and my wife claims it was because we left early, and also because I opted to pass on the gefilte fish. My position is (a) gefilte fish is widely accepted to be a divisive food and it's therefore OK to refuse it, and (b) the hosts should have been more up front with us about how long the event was going to be. I'm grateful they invited us, and we had a great time, but after four hours we'd had enough. Were we rude?
—Everyone Likes Matzo Ball Soup
Dear Matzo Ball Soup,
At a regular dinner party, you can leave after four hours, provided you have a token excuse. But at a Seder, it's rude to leave before the end. If you do, your host will be offended, says Joan Nathan, author of Jewish Cooking in America. She herself has only once left a Seder early—but that was because it went on until 2 a.m. Last year, two guests left her Seder before dessert, and they won't be invited back. (Nathan had slaved to make a "huge dessert buffet.") More importantly, says David Levy, managing editor of JewishBoston.com, those who skip out early may miss important elements of the celebration, such as singing Passover songs and opening the door to invite in the prophet Elijah, symbolizing the hope for peace.
So how long should you schedule for a Seder? There's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question because, as Nathan puts it, "there are so many ways of being Jewish," which means there are many ways of celebrating Passover. Some families may abbreviate the liturgy, while others, says Levy, "will add ... things that speak more to contemporary experience, like talk about the Holocaust or Israel," or devote a lot of time to "asking and answering questions," a traditional part of a Seder. So how are you supposed to know if you're looking at a five-hour marathon or a quick retelling of the Passover story? Just ask, says Nathan. But no one asks how long an event will last unless they expect it to last too long. So my advice is to add a reason why you're asking, like "Our babysitter wants to know what time we'll be back."
While on the subject of Passover etiquette, I should talk about suitable host gifts. As some Chowhounds point out in this thread, it's best not to bring food. You may think you understand the rules—no grains, no legumes—but there's so much variation in different families' dietary restrictions that you risk messing up. For instance, you may think your flourless peanut butter cookies will be a hit, but not everyone eats peanuts on Passover, as the peanut is technically a legume. If your hosts are very religious, they will have removed every speck of grain and every legume from their home—an exhaustive process that includes completely emptying the kitchen cupboards and vacuuming the cutlery drawers, says Susie Fishbein, author of Kosher by Design. It's best if you don't undermine their efforts by unwittingly bringing in a forbidden food. The ideal gift, says Fishbein, is a bottle of wine labeled "Kosher for Passover": "Part of the ritual is drinking four glasses of wine."
As for refusing gefilte fish, your wife is right that this was a faux pas. A Seder is like a regular dinner party in this respect, says Levy: You eat what you're given, whether you like it or not. At the very least, you must take a few bites. This is true whether the food in question is one of the symbolic Passover foods, like parsley or hard-boiled eggs, or simply a traditional Passover food, like gefilte fish. You can always wash it down with copious gulps of Passover wine.