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Holiday smartphone apps offer everything from a simulated candle for ferreting out hametz to a Ten Plagues noisemaker that you never knew you needed

Joshua J. Friedman
April 14, 2011
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; iPhone image from No Chametz
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; iPhone image from No Chametz
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; iPhone image from No Chametz
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; iPhone image from No Chametz

The first Passover apps are a mixed bag of the ugly, the helpful, the entertaining, and the inscrutable. But in small ways they may ease your shopping, enliven your Seder, or occupy your children while you clean. Since you won’t pay more than a few dollars apiece, you can afford to keep your expectations low. (If you’re an Android phone owner, you’ll be wandering in the desert for at least another year: Virtually all the current Passover apps are for iPhones.)

If you’re tired of consulting a thick brochure of kosher-for-Passover brands—this year’s edition of the popular OU guide is 92 pages long—free apps from the OU and the OK let you to browse lists of kosher-for-Passover products by manufacturer or product category. A third app, from the Chicago Rabbinical Council, gives the rule rather than the product name (unflavored, caffeinated coffee beans do not require certification) and helpfully incorporates a guide to kashering methods and a directory of hechshers. The search function is a sticking point: Only the OU app makes it easy to find, say, all kosher brands of cream cheese.

When it’s time to search for hametz, the No Chametz (free) app not only gives you the relevant laws and blessings but makes a checklist of hiding places and simulates a candle with your LED flash.

Can your smartphone help you plan the festival meal? Passover Food Street ($0.99) provides 50 recipes in six categories, but you may prefer dishes more modern than chicken in dill sauce (made from nondairy sour cream) and raspberry relish (canned cranberry sauce mixed with raspberry gelatin dessert). The app’s best feature is that it lets you take a photo of your dish to clip to the recipe. Cooking With the Bible: A Passover Meal ($0.99) is extracted from a larger book about how people cooked in biblical times, but its menu is unlikely to surprise: It includes matzoh-ball soup, spinach salad with “bitter herbs,” and coconut macaroons.

Haggadah apps provide an array of multimedia page-turning effects, along with basic blessings and instructions, but sadly little in the way of commentary. Hadar Porat’s haggadah ($2.99) is unusual in combining Hebrew blessings with English instructions and transliterations. Zebrapps’s haggadah ($0.99) and Inbal Geffen’s haggadah ($0.99) can switch between all-English and all-Hebrew modes, but it takes a few clicks. Geffen’s haggadah comes with a bonus feature: synthesized instrumental recordings of nine Passover songs that will take you back to the glory days of the Casio keyboard. Outsite’s haggadah (free with ads) is entirely in Hebrew, with little more than the basic text, but it’s multicolored and has a few illustrations and a memory game to cheer it up.

The Union Haggadah (at $3.99, the most expensive of the group), revives the Reform movement’s 1923 haggadah in digital form, and though it is short on new-media features, it contains the widest-ranging discussion of the Seder and its significance, albeit in archaic terms: “Among the ceremonials which nurtured the Jewish idealism of generations, a place of peculiar charm is held by the Seder.” As a free alternative, you could download the 1907 first edition from Google Books.

The gold standard in the limited field of kids’ Passover apps is the modest-looking iMahNishtanah ($0.99). Kids can read the Four Questions in Hebrew, touching any word to hear it spoken, or listen to a complete rendition in a child’s voice. Flash cards and a matching game reinforce pronunciation and meaning, and you can even record yourself and play it back. Parents will no doubt tire of the app’s voices and noises, but it gets the job done. Masochists should encourage their children to download Plague Audio (free), which turns an iPhone into a 10-sound noisemaker, alternately terrifying (the sound of rushing blood accompanied by a woman’s scream), harmless (serenely croaking frogs), and bizarre (ominous crescendo of TV-style soundtrack to signify darkness). Younger children might enjoy Passover—The Journey to Freedom StoryChimes ($0.99 or free with ads), an illustrated Passover storybook with an orchestral soundtrack and a voice that can read the story aloud. Unlike the haggadah, this story is all about Moses: his appearance among the bulrushes, his discovery of the burning bush, his negotiations with Pharaoh. If your kids prefer writing in books to reading them, Jewish Coloring ($0.99) offers a Seder-plate tableau, among other images, and a box of virtual crayons.

As for pure games, M.A.S.H. Passover (free), the only Passover app with an age restriction, is a version of the classic “mansion, apartment, shack, house” preteen prognostication game, restyled as “matzo, afikomen, salt, haroset.” Answer a series of questions and get a Mad Libs–influenced solution: “At the Seder, Luke Skywalker will find the Afikomen and get Justin Bieber tickets as the prize.” Satisfying only the shortest attention spans, Passover Trucks Game ($0.99) asks players to sort boxes of food coming off a conveyer belt onto two flatbed trucks, one for Passover, the other not. The maker of this game appears to be a mad entrepreneurial genius of the Jewish iPhone app, having also created Kippa Game, in which you move around a boy’s head so that yarmulkes land on it, Kosher Fishing Game, in which you sit in a wooden boat with a fishing pole and try to catch only the kosher fish, and Judaica Store Game, in which you fetch tallises for Japanimated avatars.

How you decide to use your iPhone on Passover is between you, your rabbi, and your conscience. But once you’ve started, you may not want to stop. To carry the holiday feeling into the weeks to come, download an omer-counting app, which automatically updates it with the latest numbered day. The apps are largely alike apart from the backdrop: Sefirat HaOmer (free) has wood grain. CountingTheOmer ($0.99) has burnt-edged parchment and also includes information about the history and rules of omer-counting borrowed from Wikipedia—the Shulchan Aruch of our time. Ultimate Omer 2 ($0.99) claims to be the only app that shifts to the next day at sunset, according to your location. Omer Count (free) is the most colorful, structured around the kabbalistic sefirot. With the help of these, you’ll be downloading Shavuot apps in no time. And perhaps next year—l’shana haba’ah—we’ll get all the Passover apps we deserve.

Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at The Atlantic and the Boston Review, is a writer in New York City.