I’ve heard of Passover all my life, knowing that it was a Jewish holiday surrounding The Exodus. Admittingly, that was as far as my knowledge base went on the subject until recently. However, I still probably couldn’t pass a multiple-choice quiz on the holiday and its traditions. It’s time I learned all that I can, as my girlfriend is Jewish, and her mother is a Cantor. This week, I will be participating in the Passover Seder with them. Time to fix my ignorance on this religious holiday!
Passover is the Jewish Spring holiday that predominantly celebrates The Exodus and self-liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and, to a lesser extent, the harvest of barley. On the first night of Passover (and the second night if you live outside of Israel), you celebrate the event with a Seder. The Seder is a structured fifteen-step celebration that combines reflection, gratitude, mourning, and rejoicing. Each aspect of the Seder is designed to be unfamiliar in the usual practice of Judaism to invoke questions and prevent any of the rituals being performed habitually.
Passover and The Seder are unlike any religious event I’ve experienced in my Protestant upbringing. It is steeped in tradition and symbolism. From the Seder plate to the meaning behind each of the fifteen parts, there is much that is sacred about this celebration.
What is The Seder?
The Seder takes place on the first night of Passover, or the first two nights for the Orthodox and Conservatives that live outside of Israel. It gets its name from the Hebrew word for “order.” That’s because the Seder takes place in a specific sequence, and the Exodus story is told from a chosen Haggadah, which is split into 15 distinct parts. Each section mirrors one of the 15 steps in the Temple of Jerusalem, which the Levites stood upon during services. Note: these steps are also the basis for Psalms 120-134, which make up the “Songs of the Ascent” (Shir HaMa’a lot).
The Seder is a family event aimed at invoking participation and raising the curiosity of the youth. It is an opportunity to explore the story of The Exodus unconventionally, prompting questions and discussion. Many Jewish families choose to study how the story applies to modern life during this meal. This celebration can last long into the night but always ends with traditional songs of praise, including Chad Gadya.
The Seder Plate
The Seder plate is part of the table setting during a Seder, filled with the ingredients you will need during the evening. It is set up in a specific manner, which is determined by the ingredients’ significance. First, you take three matzahs and place them, stacked, on a large plate. You cover the matzah with a tray or a cloth. On top of this, you will place the Seder plate, which holds six items. These are:
- Zeroa: A lamb shank, or a chicken bone with all the meat removed. For vegetarians, beetroot is frequently used as a substitute, because it still “bleeds”. This isn’t eaten during the Seder, but it is there to represent the Passover offering that is required.
- Beitzah: A hard-boiled egg. Represents mourning and is a festival offering.
- Maror: The bitter herbs. Typically, this is horseradish (grated) and/or romaine lettuce.
- Charoset: A sweet paste made of apples, pears, nuts, and wine.
- Karpas: A piece of vegetable such as potato, onion, parsley, or celery.
- Chazeret: More bitter herbs which are used to make a matzah-maror sandwich.
To complete the table setting, you will need a wine glass or cup for each person and a lot of wine. Each person will drink four glasses during the Seder. Each glass represents one of the four promises of redemption during the Exodus story. You will also need a dish of saltwater. Have comfortable chairs, as lounging is part of the festivities too. Once all of these preparations have been made, you are ready to begin the Seder.
The Fifteen Elements of the Seder (Haggadah)
At a beautifully set table, complete with the best china and silverware, you gather for the Seder. With your chosen Haggadah, you will work through these fifteen elements of the Seder. Each aspect is not something you do at any other point of the year to assist in making you think about the Exodus story through unfamiliar actions. Some families choose to take part in turns, while others will read and lead each aspect in unison.
- Kadeish: Recital of the traditional Kiddush blessing over the wine. You then drink a glass of the blessed wine. Kiddush means sanctification and relates to chapter one of the book of Genesis. The blessing is a praise to God for creating the universe, including the fruit of the vine. Unlike the Shabbat, where one person recites the Kiddish, each person at the Seder stands and says the Kiddush in unison. Sit and recline toward the left and drink a glass of wine. While doing so, appreciate the freedom of being able to do this.
- Urchatz: Without reciting a blessing, you wash your hands. This is a ritual practice in Jewish tradition that comes from Leviticus 15:11. You need to wash your hands before eating bread, after eating bread, before eating dipped fruit or vegetables, before worship, before the Priestly Blessing, and after sleeping. Additionally, if you touch anything unclean, leave a cemetery, participate in a funeral, or cut someone’s hair or nails, you should follow these actions by washing your hands. Some families will wash their hands at the table, and others will use the restroom. The custom is to rinse the right hand three times and the left three times.
- Karpas: Karpas is the dipping of a vegetable, such as parsley or celery, into saltwater (sometimes other liquids are used). Say the blessing, “Borei Pri Haadamah,” which is the blessing for vegetables, and eat it. The saltwater is to symbolize the tears the Jews shed while they were enslaved in Egypt.
- Yachatz: Breaking of the central matzah (Remember, there are three stacked in the middle of the table). Once broken, the larger piece becomes the dessert (known as the afikoman), which is eaten later in the Seder during the ritual of Tzafun. It is split into five parts (representing the five contractions of light that created the world), wrapped in cloth, and hidden. The smaller half is returned to rest between the two whole matzahs. This piece is considered, “Poor man’s bread” and is used when telling the tale of slavery. Matzah is eaten during Passover to represent the unrisen bread that the Israelites ate while fleeing. There wasn’t time to wait for the dough to rise during The Exodus, so matzah represents this aspect of their journey.
- Maggid: Retelling the Passover story, i.e., The Exodus, in your own words. It begins with the Pharaoh of Egypt becoming concerned that the number of Jews in his land will outnumber that of his citizens. The story ends with the Israelites liberation from slavery. The maggid includes the recital of the four questions, Ma Nishtana. The four questions are: Why is matzah eaten, why is maror eaten, why is meat exclusively roasted, and why is food dipped twice? Some opt to replace the questions about meat with the problem, “Why do we recline on this night?” Your Haggadah will lead you through the story, but it is encouraged to delve deep into your recollections and interpretations of The Exodus and analyze each word in the Haggadah. The idea is to tell it in whichever way will be most memorable to your participants, as it is important to never forget the story. To conclude the telling of the story, the first part of Hallel is sung (Psalms 113-118). During the songs, you drink a second cup of wine.
- Rachtzah: Washing of hands, with a blessing. This is your second hand wash. Remember, traditional practice is to cover your right hand with water three times in succession. Then do the same to the left. While doing so, you say the blessing, “Blessed be You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the World, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.”
- Motzie: A traditional blessing is given before the eating of matzah. The eating of matzah is central to the Seder as its consumption fulfills the central mitzvah of Passover. To provide the blessing correctly, lift all three matzahs (two are the whole loaves eaten at every Jewish Shabbat and festival, the third is for the Exodus retelling), with the broken one in the middle. The blessing is, “Blessed be You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the World, Who brings bread out of the earth.”
- Matzah: A blessing is given before you eat matzah. This second blessing is to thank G-d for reminding you to eat matzah, “Blessed be You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the World, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning eating matzah.” You should eat at least two ounces of the top matzah during this step.
- Maror: Eating of the maror. This is a bitter herb that is to be consumed as ordered by the biblical commandment in Exodus 12:8, “with bitter herbs they shall eat.” Each participant recites a blessing before they dip it into the maror, which is often a horseradish paste. You must consume at least an olive worth of maror and consume it in a specified time. The flavor of the maror cannot be masked and must be unadulterated.
- Koreich: Making and eating of the Hillel sandwich with matzah, maror, and charoset. Dip the olive-sized volume of maror in charoset, shaking off the excess. Take about an ounce from the bottom piece of matzah and create a sandwich of the dipped bitter herb. Say the words, “This is what Hillel did, at the time that the Temple stood. He wrapped up some Pesach lamb, some matzah, and some bitter herbs and ate them together.”
- Shulchan Orech: Sharing the holiday meal. Traditionally, the meal begins with eating a saltwater dipped hard-boiled egg from your Seder plate. This is to remember to mourn the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, and a boiled egg represents mourning. When you eat the meal, you are at a higher state, as freedom has been achieved from Egypt. The purpose of this meal is an indulgence; it should be divine to make you aware of how free you truly are.
- Tzafun: Eating the afikoman, the larger half of the matzah broken during step 4. Some choose to use both pieces of the matzah as dessert as it is undetermined what the afikoman is intended to commemorate. It is either remembering the offering of the Paschal (sacrifice of a lamb that the Torah asks for on the first night of Passover) or the matzah that was eaten alongside it. This is the standard practice for Lubavitch Jews.
- Bareich: A blessing is given at the end of the meal and a third cup of wine is consumed. The grace spoken will be printed in your Haggadah. The theme of the blessing will be confidence – the complete belief that a Higher Force is with you each and every day. Bless the wine and lean to your left as you drink it.
- Hallel: Recital of the rest of the Hallel, which is Psalms 113-118, though you might not sing them all. The fourth and final cup of wine is poured. An additional cup is poured for Elijah, the Prophet, and is placed in the center of the table. Sing the songs of praise in your Haggadah. Once completed, drink the wine, lounging.
- Nirtzah: The conclusion. Typically, this is the singing of traditional songs, or Psalms to conclude the celebration. You have turned yourself to Him. Life isn’t to be perfect, but enjoy the humanity that he has put inside of you.
The Passover Seder is a traditional Jewish celebration, commemorating The Exodus of the enslaved Israelites from Egypt and their subsequent liberation. The Seder’s fifteen elements all have meaning, incorporating scripture with customs designed to make you pause and consider your ancestors’ history. It would be near impossible to not feel connected to The Exodus when partaking in The Seder and following the Haggadah with all of its customs. As an outsider, I find this tradition refreshing and not archaic. Instead, I think it is ideally suited to modern life; to take a pause one night out of the year to look back and be grateful for what you have moving forward.
When is Passover and How Long Does It Last?
Passover falls on 15th day of Nisan, which is calculated using the Assyrian calendar – which typically falls in March or April on the Gregorian calendar. Usually, the start of Passover coincides on a night with a full moon. Passover lasts for seven days in Israel and eight days everywhere else, though Reform and Reconstructionist Jews often also celebrate it for seven days. The duration represents how long the Israelites were pursued by the Egyptians before Moses parted the Red Sea.
What Foods Are Eaten As Part Of the Main Meal During The Seder?
The main meal can be quite varied and will depend mainly on the family and their geographical location. However, a universal theme is that the meal is kosher. Some Jews will only consume food that is marked “Kosher for Passover,” meaning none of the five grains – wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt – are used at all. Common dishes enjoyed are poached fish dumplings (gefilte fish), matzah ball soup, potato kugel (think casserole), brisket, roast chicken, and a stew of carrots and prunes called tzimmes.