The highlight of Passover is the Seder, and for many, the Seder evokes powerful childhood memories. But what exactly is a Seder?
The Seder is the festive meal of the first night (first 2 nights outside of Israel) of Passover. More than just a meal, the Seder is the ritual recounting of the Exodus from Egypt.
Because Passover is a celebration of freedom from slavery, it is customary to vary our normal habits in order to represent our freedom:
At specified occasions during the Seder, participants recline towards their left to eat and drink as an ancient symbol of freedom. Many people have a pillow on which to lean.
Four cups of red wine or grape juice are drunk at the Seder as a sign of liberation. It is customary that we treat ourselves like royalty and have someone else fill our glasses. Each person, therefore, pours for their neighbor.
- Red wine is generally considered to be a higher quality wine.
- The red color reminds us of the blood the was spilled in Egypt and the blood of circumcision, the identifying mark of the Jewish nation.
- If one strongly prefers white wine or if the white wine is a much better quality, then one may use white wine.
- One should use wine rather than grape juice. If, however, one cannot drink 4 cups of wine for medical reasons or because one has a low tolerance for alcohol, grape juice is permitted. However, some wine should be added to the grape juice if possible.
In order to express our elevation from slaves to free-people, the wine used for the Seder should be red.
The Haggadah is the guide book for the Seder. Haggadah actually means a story that is told, and it is through the Haggadah that Jews fulfill the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus from Egypt.
The word Seder is Hebrew for “order.” Indeed, the importance of the Haggadah is that it guides participants in following the correct order of the Seder. The Haggadah should be read aloud in a language that is understood by the Seder participants. The following is the order of the Seder:
Kadesh – (Kiddush) Blessing over the first cup of wine sanctifying the holy day.
Please note that when Passover begins Saturday night, Havdalah is added to the Festival Kiddush. The necessary addition can be found in the Haggadah.
Ur’chatz – A ritual washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for Karpas.
There are two customs followed for Ur’chatz. In some households, only the Seder leader performs the hand washing, and in some households, all Seder participants wash their hands.
We wash our hands without a blessing:
When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, everyone was required to do a ritual washing of the hands before eating wet foods. Since the next step in the Seder is to dip the vegetable into salt water, we wash our hands in commemoration of the purity laws of the Temple times, but without a blessing.
By washing hands without a blessing and without the matzah which would normally follow, children are inspired to ask why this is done. The Passover Seder is meant to involve the children in all aspects.
Karpas – A piece of vegetable is dipped in salt water and eaten after reciting the appropriate blessing.
The vegetable appetizer: Karpas represents a sign of our freedom. Many of the Seder activities are meant to symbolize freedom and comfort. In slavery, meals are simple and sparse. In freedom, meals can be more elaborate.
- Eating vegetables as an appetizer inspires children to ask questions.
- Eating vegetables highlights the fact that Passover is a Festival of Spring.
Dipping food into in salt water is a dual representation. On the one hand, it is a symbol of freedom, for in ancient times only the wealthy had condiments in which to dip any of their food. On the other hand, the salt water reminds us of the tears of the Jewish slaves.
Yachatz – The middle matzah is broken in half. The larger half, the afikoman, is wrapped in a napkin or placed in special afikoman bag and placed under the leader’s cushion or pillow. At some point later in the meal, it is customary for the children to “steal” and hide the afikoman, only to return it (for a handsome ransom, of course) at the end of the meal during Tzafon.
The middle matzah is broken so that the story of the exodus, which is about to be recited, is told with lechem oni, bread of affliction (i.e. not even a whole matzah), on the table.
The custom of placing the afikoman under the leader’s cushion is derived from the obligation “to guard the matzot” (Exodus 12:17).
Placing the afikoman under the cushion does not mean that the leader should actually sit on the matzah.
Maggid – . Mah Nishtana, the Four Questions, are recited or sung at the beginning of the Maggid section.
Maggid concludes with the drinking of the second cup of wine, after the proper blessing is recited.
Rachtzah – The ritual washing of hands before eating matzah, (same as washing for challah on Shabbat.)
After washing the hands and saying the blessing, one should not speak until one has eaten a piece of matzah after the blessing over matzah.
Motzee – The first blessing over the matzah (same blessing as over bread).
Just as on Shabbat and festivals one is required to make a blessing over two whole challahs, on Passover, one is required to make the motzee over two whole matzot. However, a second opinion is that one should make the motzee over the lechem oni, the bread of affliction, which is the broken matzah. In order to fulfill both opinions, the motzee is made on all three matzot.
One should continue to remain silent until the next blessing and the eating of the matzah.
Matzah – A special blessing over the matzah is recited, and a double portion of matzah is eaten.
For the blessing on eating matzah, the bottom matzah should be put down while the leader continues to hold the top two matzot.
After the blessing is recited, the Seder leader should break the top two matzot and distribute pieces amongst the participants. Everyone should receive a piece of both matzot.
- In order to fulfill the requirement of eating matzah, one must eat the amount of a k’zayit (literally–like an olive). One should check with their local rabbi as to the appropriate amount.
- Since everyone should receive pieces of the both the top and middle matzot, but must also eat a specific amount, other matzot may be used to supplement. (Do not use the bottom matzah.)
- The k’zayit of matzah should be completely eaten in a short period of time. Therefore, one should not leave the k’zayit of matzah to nibble at it through the rest of the meal.
Maror – A blessing is said, and the bitter herbs are dipped in charoset and eaten.
Maror, the bitter herb (usually fresh ground horseradish or romaine lettuce), is symbolic of the bitterness of slavery. We do not, however, eat the maror alone, but temper it with a small amount of charoset. Some people have the custom of dipping the maror in charoset and then shaking the charoset off.
One may look at this mixture of the bitter herb, a reminder of slavery, with the sweet charoset as symbolic of the fact that not all that one considers bitter lacks sweetness, and vice-versa. It was only through the bitterness of slavery that the Jews were able to recognize and accept the freedom inherent in the Torah and to unite into one nation.
Koraich – A sandwich is made with the matzah and the maror.
When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, Jews came from everywhere to participate in the Passover offering as part of their Seder. In remembrance of Hillel’s (one of the great sages) practice of eating a sandwich of matzah, maror and the Passover lamb together, a sandwich is made from the bottom matzah, a k’zayit (a biblical measurement the size of an olive-please ask your local rabbi for the exact amount) of maror, and, according to some opinions, a small amount of charoset.
Including charoset in the sandwich is not a universal custom. Many do not put any charoset into the sandwich and some dip the maror in charoset and then shake it off.
Shulchan Oruch – The festival meal is served.
- Chicken soup with matzah balls! ….You’ve earned this feast of freedom! But remember to leave room for the afikoman!
- It is customary to begin the festive meal with a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water.
- Several reasons have been offered by the rabbis as to why one should eat an egg:
- The Egg represents the Korban Chaggigah, the Festive Offering, which was eaten on Passover.
- The Egyptians did not eat animal foods and eating an egg symbolizes the liberation from Egypt (Ibn Ezra).
- Eggs signify the beginning of life, just as the Exodus represented the beginning of the Nation of Israel (Torat Emet)
- The egg is eaten as a reminder of the Passover offering, since Ashkenazic custom prohibits one from eating roasted meat at the Seder (Vilna Gaon).
Tzafon – The afikoman, which was hidden earlier, is now brought out and eaten as dessert.
At some point during the course of the Seder and the meal, someone steals and hides the afikoman. Traditions vary from family to family as to how this is handled: whether the kids hide and the adults seek or an adult hides and the kids seek. Either way, the search for the afikoman is fun for all who participate and a very good way of keeping the children interested in the Seder. Whoever has the afikoman at Tzafon has the right to negotiate its redemption with the leader of the Seder (This often results in the successful negotiator receiving a much desired gift of his/her choice after Yom Tov!)
Once the afikoman is found, it is broken up and distributed for all the Seder participants as “dessert.” Again, all participants are obligated to eat a k’zayit of matzah, so everyone should receive a small piece of the afikoman and supplement the rest with other matzah.
The afikoman must be eaten by (Jewish) midnight.
Baraich – The Grace After Meals is recited.
The traditional grace after meals is recited, including the addition of Y’aleh V’Yavo, “He will go up and he will come…” for the Passover holidays, and Harachaman for the holiday.
Baraich concludes with the drinking of the third cup of wine, after the proper blessing is recited.
Hallel – The reciting of the festival Psalms.
Hallel concludes with the drinking of the fourth cup of wine, after the proper blessing is recited.
Nirtzah – The close of the Seder, traditional Passover songs, such as Chad Gadyah, are sung.