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Tonight we gather together to celebrate Passover, the Jewish holiday of freedom. We have come together this evening for many reasons.
We are here because Spring is all around, the Earth is reborn, and it is a good time to celebrate with family and friends. We are here to remember the old story of the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt – a great struggle for freedom and dignity.
We are here as current refugees and as descendants of refugees, to recognize similarity in our peoples’ histories. We are here because the struggle for human freedom never stops. We are here to remember all people – Jews and non-Jews – who are still struggling for their freedom.
We will eat a great meal together, enjoy four glasses of wine, and tell the story of our ancestors’ liberation from slavery. We welcome our friends from other backgrounds to reflect with us on the meaning of freedom in all our lives and histories.
We will consider the blessings in our lives, we will pledge to work harder at freeing those who still suffer, and we will begin to cast off the things in our own lives that oppress us.
Our Passover meal is called a seder, which means “order” in Hebrew, because we go through specific steps as we retell the story of our ancestors’ liberation from slavery. Some people like to begin their seder by reciting or singing the names of the 14 steps—this will help you keep track of how far away the meal is!
Kiddush (the blessing over wine) | kadeish | קדש
Ritual hand-washing in preparation for the seder | urchatz | ורחץ
Dipping a green vegetable in salt water | karpas | כרפס
Breaking the middle matzah | yachatz | יחץ
Telling the story of Passover | magid | מגיד
Ritual hand-washing in preparation for the meal | rachtza | רחצה
The blessing over the meal and matzah | motzi matzah | מוציא מצה
Dipping the bitter herb in sweet charoset | maror | מרור
Eating a sandwich of matzah and bitter herb | koreich | כורך
Eating the meal! | shulchan oreich | שלחן עורך
Finding and eating the afikoman | tzafoon | צפון
Saying grace after the meal and inviting Elijah the Prophet | bareich | ברך
Singing songs that praise God | hallel | הלל
Ending the seder and thinking about the future | nirtzah | נרצה
All Jewish celebrations, from holidays to weddings, include wine as a symbol of our joy. The seder starts with wine and then gives us three more opportunities to refill our cup and drink.
Spring is the season of new growth and new life. As humans, we grow as we achieve new insights, new knowledge, new goals. Let us raise our cups to signify our gratitude for life, and for inner growth, which gives our lives meaning.
Let’s raise our cups and say…
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָּפֶן
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, borei p’ree hagafen.
We praise God, Ruler of Everything, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Drink the first glass of wine!
Passover, like many of our holidays, combines the celebration of an event from our Jewish memory with a recognition of the cycles of nature. As we remember the liberation from Egypt, we also recognize the stirrings of spring and rebirth happening in the world around us. The symbols on our table bring together elements of both kinds of celebration.
We now take a vegetable, representing our joy at the dawning of spring after our long, cold winter. Most families use a green vegetable, such as parsley or celery, but some families from Eastern Europe have a tradition of using a boiled potato since greens were hard to come by at Passover time. Whatever symbol of spring and sustenance we’re using, we now dip it into salt water, a symbol of the tears our ancestors shed as slaves. Before we eat it, we recite a short blessing:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, borei p’ree ha-adama.
We praise God, Ruler of Everything, who creates the fruits of the earth.
We look forward to spring and the reawakening of flowers and greenery. They haven’t been lost, just buried beneath the snow, getting ready for reappearance just when we most needed them.
We all have aspects of ourselves that sometimes get buried under the stresses of our busy lives. What has this winter taught us? What elements of our own lives do we hope to revive this spring?
There are three pieces of matzah stacked on the table. We now break the middle matzah into two pieces. The host should wrap up the larger of the pieces and, at some point between now and the end of dinner, hide it. This piece is called the afikomen, literally “dessert” in Greek. After dinner, the guests will have to hunt for the afikomen in order to wrap up the meal… and win a prize.
We eat matzah in memory of the quick flight of our ancestors from Egypt. As slaves, they had faced many false starts before finally being let go. So when the word of their freedom came, they took whatever dough they had and ran with it before it had the chance to rise, leaving it looking something like matzah.
Uncover and hold up the three pieces of matzah and say:
This is the bread of poverty which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover with us. This year we are here; next year we will be in Israel. This year we are slaves; next year we will be free.
These days, matzah is a special food and we look forward to eating it on Passover. Imagine eating only matzah, or being one of the countless people around the world who don’t have enough to eat.
What does the symbol of matzah say to us about oppression in the world, both people literally enslaved and the many ways in which each of us is held down by forces beyond our control? How does this resonate with events happening now?
The formal telling of the story of Passover is framed as a discussion with lots of questions and answers. The tradition that the youngest person asks the questions reflects the centrality of involving everyone in the seder. The rabbis who created the set format for the seder gave us the Four Questions to help break the ice in case no one had their own questions. Asking questions is a core tradition in Jewish life. If everyone at your seder is around the same age, perhaps the person with the least seder experience can ask them – or everyone can sing them all together.
מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּֽיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילות
Ma nishtana halaila hazeh mikol haleilot?
Why is this night different from all other nights?
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָֽנוּ אוֹכלין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה הַלַּֽיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלּוֹ מצה
Shebichol haleilot anu ochlin chameitz u-matzah. Halaila hazeh kulo matzah.
On all other nights we eat both leavened bread and matzah.
Tonight we only eat matzah.
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָֽנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת הַלַּֽיְלָה הַזֶּה מָרוֹר
Shebichol haleilot anu ochlin shi’ar yirakot haleila hazeh maror.
On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables,
but tonight we eat bitter herbs.
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָֽנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּֽעַם אחָת הַלַּֽיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעמים
Shebichol haleilot ain anu matbilin afilu pa-am echat. Halaila hazeh shtei fi-amim.
On all other nights we aren’t expected to dip our vegetables one time.
Tonight we do it twice.
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָֽנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין. :הַלַּֽיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּֽנוּ מְסֻבין
Shebichol haleilot anu ochlin bein yoshvin uvein m’subin. Halaila hazeh kulanu m’subin.
On all other nights we eat either sitting normally or reclining.
Tonight we recline.
These are important questions. But before we answer them, let us listen to a story of hope.
A long, long time ago, our great great great great great grandmothers and grandfathers lived in a place called Egypt. In Egypt there was a ruler called the Pharoah. When the Jewish people first came to Egypt, the Pharoah was kind and good. But many years later there was a new Pharoah. He was afraid that the Jewish people were too powerful, so he made the Jews his slaves and burdened them with hard work and heavy sorrow.
During this time, a baby Israelite boy was born. The boy’s mother, Jocheved, didn’t want to bring a child into the cruel world they lived in, so she put him in a basket and sent him down the Nile River.
When Pharaoh’s daughter, the princess, came down to the river to bathe, she saw a baby floating in a basket. She decided to take him home to their palace and raise the baby as her own. She named him Moses.
As Moses grew up, he saw the Jewish slaves working hard under Pharaoh and being treated horribly. After trying to defend and protect the Israelites, he was forced to flee to Midian, where he became a shepherd.
One day, as Moses was shepherding his flock of sheep, he suddenly saw a burning bush. When he got closer to the bush, he understood that the burning bush was God. He heard the voice of God instruct him to go back to Pharaoh and demand he let the Israelites go.
Moses returned to Egypt. He went to see Pharaoh and told him, “Let my people go!” But Pharaoh refused to listen to him and even made the Jews suffering worse.
LISTEN, KING PHARAOH
Oh listen, oh listen, oh listen King Pharaoh.
Oh listen, oh listen, please let my people go.
They want to go away.
They work too hard all day.
King Pharaoh, King Pharaoh, What do you say?
No, no, no, I will not let them go.
No, no, no, I will not let them go.
So Moses went back to see God and asked, “Why did you do this to my people?” And God responded to him: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he shall let them go, and with a strong hand he shall drive them out of his land." God promised to take out the Children of Israel from Egypt, deliver them from their enslavement.
To do this, he decided to punish Pharaoh with plagues until he agreed to let the Jewish people go. Some if the plagues included total darkness, swarms of locusts in the air, and even frogs.
FROGS HERE, FROGS THERE
One morning when Pharaoh awoke in his bed
There were frogs on his pillow and frogs on his head
Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes
Frogs here, frogs there.
Frogs are jumping everywhere.
Other plagues were harsher, and included turning all the water into blood, killing all the Egyptians’ cattle, and even the killing of every first born son. Moses told the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and put a big X on their front door with the lamb’s blood. This would signal to the angels of death to “pass over” their houses and spare their first born sons. This is why the holiday is called Passover.
Finally, after the 10 plagues, Pharaoh gave up and told Moses to take the Jews out of Egypt. The Jewish people got ready so quickly that they didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise. They brought the dough with them on their backs and it cooked into something like matzah. This is why we eat matzah on Passover.
The Jewish people followed Moses as he led them towards freedom. As they were almost out of Egypt, Pharaoh changed his mind and brought all of his men to try to stop the Jews from leaving.
The Jews were stuck, with the Red Sea in front of them, and Pharaoh and his men behind them. At the last second, Moses held up his walking stick and the sea parted, giving the Jews just enough pace to walk through to the other side. When Pharaoh and his men tried to follow, the sea closed up, drowning the Egyptians and allowing the Israelites to get safely to the other side. Moses and the Children of Israel were finally free. And in return, God commanded them to retell the story of their exodus each year and to celebrate by eating matzah for seven days.
As we rejoice at our deliverance from slavery, we acknowledge that our freedom was hard-earned. We regret that our freedom came at the cost of the Egyptians’ suffering, for we are all human beings made in the image of God. We pour out a drop of wine for each of the plagues as we recite them.
Dip a finger or a spoon into your wine glass for a drop for each plague.
These are the ten plagues which God brought down on the Egyptians:
Blood | dam | דָּם
Frogs | tzfardeiya | צְפַרְדֵּֽעַ
Lice | kinim | כִּנִּים
Beasts | arov | עָרוֹב
Cattle disease | dever | דֶּֽבֶר
Boils | sh’chin | שְׁחִין
Hail | barad | בָּרָד
Locusts | arbeh | אַרְבֶּה
Darkness | choshech | חֹֽשֶׁךְ
Death of the Firstborn | makat b’chorot | מַכַּת בְּכוֹרוֹת
The Egyptians needed ten plagues because after each one they were able to come up with excuses and explanations rather than change their behavior. Could we be making the same mistakes? Make up your own list. What are the plagues in your life? What are the plagues in our world today? What behaviors do we need to change to fix them?
The second cup of wine is dedicated not only to the struggles of the Jewish people, but to all people seeking a secure life free of fear and persecution. With that in mind, let us drink the second glass of wine.
We have now told the story of Passover…but wait! We’re not quite done. Now it is time to answer those four questions about what makes this night different from all other nights.
Number one. Why do we eat matzah? The matzah reminds us that when our ancestors were finally free to leave Egypt, there was no time to pack or prepare. Our ancestors grabbed whatever dough was made and set out on their journey, letting their dough bake into matzah as they fled. Before we eat the matzah, let’s say two blessings.
Baruch ata adonai elohenu melech haolam hamotzi lechem min haaretz.
Baruch ata adonai elohenu melech haolam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu al achilat matzah.
Thank you, God, for the blessing of bread and for the special matzah, which reminds us of the Jewish people’s hurried flight from Egypt.
Number two. Why do we eat bitter herbs? The bitter herbs remind us of the bitterness of slavery, the life of hard labor our ancestors experienced. In creating a holiday about the joy of freedom, we turn the story of our bitter history into a sweet celebration. We recognize this by dipping our bitter herbs into the sweet charoset.
Baruch ata adonai elohenu melech haolam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu al achilat maror.
Thank you, God, for the bitter herb, which reminds us of the bitterness of slavery.
Number three. Why do we dip our food in salt water twice on this night? The first time, the salty taste reminds us of the tears we cried when we were slaves. The second time, the salt water and the green help us to remember the ocean and green plants and the Earth, from which we get air and water and food that enable us to live. Let us all dip parsley into salt water two times and eat it.
Number four. Why do we eat while reclining? This question goes back to ancient times in Rome, when it was the custom for rich people to eat while lying on a couch leaning on one elbow as slaves and servants fed them. The Jewish people thought of this relaxed type of eating as a sign of freedom and prosperity. Today, we lean to remember that once we were slaves, and now we are free.
We have answered the four traditional questions, but there are still more questions to be answered. There are other special foods on our Seder plate: a sweet condiment (kharoset), a roast lamb's bone (z'ro-ah),and a roasted egg (baytsa). Why are they here?
Apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine are combined to make charoset. It is the color of clay or mortar. It reminds us of the bricks and mortar that the Israelites are said to have made when they built the Pharaohs' palaces and cities. At the same time, the taste of kharoset is sweet, and it reminds us of the sweetness of freedom. Let us now all eat kharoset on a piece of matsah.
Z'roa means shankbone or thigh bone. This lamb's bone takes us back, once again, to ancient times to the shepherd's festival of Pesakh. It was celebrated at the time of the full moon in the month the lambs and goats were born. At that time, each family would slaughter a young lamb or goat for a Spring feast.
Baytsah is the egg of life. Each of us begins as an egg andgrows to adulthood. The egg reminds us of our evolutionary past and the gifts of human inheritance. But the egg is fragile. It represents potential that can be destroyed. Left alone, its life would perish. Growing life needs warmth and love and security, guidance, hope, and vision. To achieve their full potential, human beings need the support and encouragement of family and community. Baytsah symbolizes the fragility and interdependence of life.
There is an extra cup of wine at the table. This is the cup of Elijah. There is a story that Elijah, a great teacher who lived many years ago, visits every seder to wish everyone a year of peace and freedom. We open the door and invite Elijah to come in. As we open the door for Elijah, we remember there are people all over the world who can not eat with family and friends tonight. We think of them and pray for their freedom. Let us sing a song thanking God for bring us out of slavery.
The plagues and our subsequent redemption from Egypt are but one example of the care God has shown for us in our history. Had God but done any one of these kindnesses, it would have been enough – dayeinu.
אִלּוּ הוֹצִיאָֽנוּ מִמִּצְרַֽיִם, דַּיֵּנוּ
Ilu hotzi- hotzianu, Hotzianu mi-mitzrayim Hotzianu mi-mitzrayim, Dayeinu
If God had only taken us out of Egypt, that would have been enough!
אִלּוּ נָתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת־הַתּוֹרָה, דַּיֵּנוּ
Ilu natan natan lanu, natan lanu et ha-Torah, Natan lanu et ha-Torah , Dayeinu
If God had only given us the Torah, that would have been enough.
The complete lyrics to Dayeinu tell the entire story of the Exodus from Egypt as a series of miracles God performed for us. (See the Additional Readings if you want to read or sing them all.)
Dayeinu also reminds us that each of our lives is the cumulative result of many blessings, small and large.
The blessing over the meal and matzah | motzi matzah | מוֹצִיא מַצָּה
The familiar hamotzi blessing marks the formal start of the meal. Because we are using matzah instead of bread, we add a blessing celebrating this mitzvah.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמּוֹצִיא לֶֽחֶם מִן הָאָֽרֶץ
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz.
We praise God, Ruler of Everything, who brings bread from the land.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתַָיו וְצִוָּֽנוּ עַל אֲכִילַת מַצָּה
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al achilat matzah.
We praise God, Ruler of Everything, who made us holy through obligations, commanding us to eat matzah.
Distribute and eat the top and middle matzah for everyone to eat.
Dipping the bitter herb in sweet charoset | maror |מָרוֹר
In creating a holiday about the joy of freedom, we turn the story of our bitter history into a sweet celebration. We recognize this by dipping our bitter herbs into the sweet charoset. We don’t totally eradicate the taste of the bitter with the taste of the sweet… but doesn’t the sweet mean more when it’s layered over the bitterness?
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּֽנוּ עַל אֲכִילַת מרוֹר
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al achilat maror.
We praise God, Ruler of Everything, who made us holy through obligations, commanding us to eat bitter herbs.
Eating a sandwich of matzah and bitter herb | koreich | כּוֹרֵךְ
When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the biggest ritual of them all was eating the lamb offered as the pesach or Passover sacrifice. The great sage Hillel would put the meat in a sandwich made of matzah, along with some of the bitter herbs. While we do not make sacrifices any more – and, in fact, some Jews have a custom of purposely avoiding lamb during the seder so that it is not mistaken as a sacrifice – we honor this custom by eating a sandwich of the remaining matzah and bitter herbs. Some people will also include charoset in the sandwich to remind us that God’s kindness helped relieve the bitterness of slavery.
Eating the meal! | shulchan oreich | שֻׁלְחָן עוֹרֵךְ
Enjoy! But don’t forget when you’re done we’ve got a little more seder to go, including the final two cups of wine!