How do Jews celebrate Passover?
Passover, which lasts for eight days, commemorates this great history through a variety of rites and rituals. For all of the eight days, observant Jews abstain from any leavened bread or baked goods with yeast. The only bread eaten during this holiday is called matzah, a flat, unleavened bread made only of flour and water. The highlight of the holiday is the first night or two (depending on whether Passover is celebrated in Israel or outside of it), when a ceremonious meal called the Seder is held.
What is a Seder?
The crux of the holiday celebrations is the Seder (more on this below), from the Hebrew word meaning “order,” which is an elaborate meal in which the Passover story is told, reenacted, and expounded on through a mixture of read texts, songs, and symbolic foods and rituals. It is a wonderful reflection on the Exodus story’s main themes of slavery and freedom, and its universal appeal is surely a product of its ability to speak to these global themes throughout the ages. If you have never attended a Seder, it is well worth it! It is unlike any other dinner party you will have been to.
What does the Seder entail?
The Seder is the ceremonial meal in which we commemorate the Exodus story by retelling it from various viewpoints, interspersed with songs, rituals, Q & A sessions, and lots of symbolic foods. The Seder may well be considered one of the best introductions to Judaism because it is, in fact, designed as an educational experience. Indeed, at the core of the Seder’s traditions is the injunction for parents to tell the Exodus story to their children, teaching them how we became a nation and inviting them to reflect on slavery, redemption, and freedom. The Seder is packed with content that naturally draws participants in to ask questions, reflect, respond, and generally participate in this one-of-a-kind ritual. As its name suggests, the Seder has a set order of 14 stages, but be forewarned that the actual meal stage is toward the middle, so you may want to have a snack before you attend one! On the flip side, we drink four cups of wine to keep things lively, though of course you are welcome to substitute grape juice or another beverage instead.
What are the stages of the Seder?
1. Kadesh: Special blessings are recited on the first of (at least) four cups of wine. For each of the cups, we incline to the left, usually with a pillow behind us, as a symbol of the luxuriousness of freedom.
2. Urchatz: We ritually wash our hands, without a blessing, in preparation to eat some special hors d'oeuvre.
3. Karpas: We eat vegetables, representative of Spring and new life, dipped in salt water, symbolic of the tears wept by the Israelite slaves over their harsh labor (or vinegar in some Sephardic homes). Depending on one’s family roots, and often what produce they had access to in April, the vegetable can be anything from parsley to potatoes.
4. Yachatz: We remove the middle of the three matzot (plural of matzah) from its special covering and break it in half, hiding one half to be used in a game of hide-and-seek for the young ones later on.
5. Maggid: This is the main attraction, apart from the food, so get settled in. Here we retell the story of the Exodus in great detail, covering a multitude of facets of this fascinating tale and the concepts it entails. Some of the highlights are:
A) Ha-Lachma Anya: An invocation that is traditionally recited in Aramaic but, according to Jewish law, is to be said in whatever language is spoken where the Seder is being held. Here we describe the matzah as the “bread of affliction,” representing as it does the privations of a life of bondage, and we invite “all who are hungry” to come join us at the table to partake of our meal. It is, indeed, customary to have guests, including the needy, at our table.
B) Mah Nishtanah: Also known as the Four Questions, this is where we do our best to engage children especially, but also anyone new to Passover, to ask four questions about the particularities of the meal. The questions, traditionally sung, ask why we eat the foods we do the way we do. This leads us right into the next part of Magid, in which we answer these questions as a segue into the larger picture of the Exodus story and the Passover holiday.
C) The Four Sons: Here we recount the four archetypal children we may find at our Seder table, and the questions they might be expected to ask regarding Passover. They are the Wise, the Wicked, the Simpleton, and He Who Does Not Know How to Ask. Each of the children is then responded to in a way befitting his manner of asking.
D) The 10 Plagues: We name each of the 10 plagues, removing a drop of wine from our cups as we say each one. This is to represent the notion that, although the plagues were inflicted against our oppressors, our joy is nevertheless diminished by the suffering they endured.
Magid concludes with a second cup of wine, along with its blessing.
6. Rachtzah: We wash our hands once again, this time with a blessing, in preparation for our first bite of matzah.
7. Motzi Matzah: We say special blessings on the matzah and have a few bites while leaning to the left.
8. Maror: We say a special blessing and eat bitter herbs, typically romaine lettuce or some other bitter green, to represent the embitterment of the Israelites’ lives by their Egyptian slave masters.
9. Korech: Some say the Earl of Sandwich (now Hawaii) invented the sandwich as finger food so he would not have to interrupt his gambling habit in order to eat. However, the tradition of Korech goes way back to the 4th century, so Jews just might have the claim to fame on this one. Korech is a sandwich of matzah, maror, and charoset, a spreadable paste typically made of apples, nuts, and wine to represent the mortar the Israelite slaves were forced to make to hold the bricks of the pyramids together.
10. Shulchan Orech: The moment you have all been waiting for has finally arrived. Dinner is served! There are no requisite plates to be served for the main meal, but it is customary in Ashkenazi homes to serve matzah ball soup (dumplings made from ground up matzah, herbs, spices, and, traditionally, schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat). Meanwhile, many Sephardi and Mizrahi families serve rice and legumes at their seder meal.
11. Tzafun: The young ones compete in trying to find the afikomen, the hidden piece of the middle matzah from earlier in the Seder, with the winner usually getting a prize. We close the meal by eating one last piece of matzah, just in case you didn’t get enough in the first couple of rounds.
12. Barech: We recite the Jewish Grace after Meals, thanking God for providing us with sustenance. This is followed by the blessing over and drinking of our third cup of wine.
We drink the third cup of wine, saying a blessing, and set out a special cup for Elijah the Prophet, who Jewish tradition says will arrive heralding the Messiah. It is tradition to open the front door as a gesture of welcome, often sending a child to do so, a great way to let their imagination run free.
13. Hallel: We sing joyous songs of praise, including various psalms. We conclude Hallel with the final, fourth cup of wine, along with a blessing.
14. Nirzah: We sing some more songs, mostly of a lighthearted nature, including several cumulative songs (like “There was an Old Lady that Lived in a Shoe,” or “The 12 Days of Christmas”) that are great fun for children. We close the Seder by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem,” reflecting the millenia-old yearning of the Jewish people for their homeland in Israel. Jews celebrating in Israel say, “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem,” referring to the hope for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt.
What items belong on the Seder plate?
The Seder plate is a centerpiece not only at the Seder table, but throughout the year. It is very common for Jewish homes to have a Judaica display somewhere in the common areas of the house, featuring the Seder plate front and center.
The Seder plate contains the following items:
1. Zeroa: The shankbone to represent the sacrificial lamb of the Passover sacrifice of yore. Nowadays, any piece of roast meat with a bone can be used, such as a chicken neck. This is typically not eaten.
2. Beitzah: A hard-boiled egg, to represent an offering that was brought to the temple in the days leading up to Passover. Again, this is typically not eaten.
3. Maror: Bitter herbs to symbolize the bitterness of a life of slavery. Typically, romaine lettuce or some other bitter green is used.
4. Chazeret: Another bitter vegetable, typically fresh horseradish or endives, though some people use green onions or celery leaves. Anything with a bit of a bitter kick will do.
5. Charoset: A spreadable paste that represents the mortar the Israelites had to make to cement their bricks together during their forced labor building the Pharaoh’s pyramids. Recipes vary greatly from community to community, depending on culinary styles and availability of ingredients. Some of the commonly encountered ingredients are apples, dates, raisins, pears, nuts, and wine.
6. Karpas: A vegetable, typically green, to represent Spring. Commonly used are parsley or celery, though some people use boiled potatoes, most likely because that is what their ancestors had access to in April, which can still be quite frigid in many places where Jews have traditionally lived.
7. Matzah: Though the matzah is placed alongside rather than on the Seder plate itself, typically in a special three-sleeve napkin, obviously no Seder table would be complete without it.
8. Additional Items: In recent years, some seder plates have included non-traditional items such as an orange (symbolizing LGBTQ and women’s inclusion), an acorn (for Indigenous land acknowledgement), and most recently sunflower seeds (to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine). You might even take this opportunity to choose a personally meaningful and symbolic item to add to your seder plate—there’s plenty of precedent!