The Seder of the Seder

By: Eli Birnbaum  & Robin Treistman

Of all the holidays of the Jewish calendar Passover has the most universal appeal. The theme is such that each of us can celebrate it in a slightly different light: The festival of Freedom, the birth of the Jewish nation, the ideal of man overcoming major obstacles in his fight for individual freedom of worship and expression.

NOTE - this is only intended to be a short guide to a basic traditional seder. If you are interested in learning more about Seder night see the bibliography at the end.

Two thousand years ago when the Talmudic sages were asked "Why did Moses have to insist on our leaving Egypt in order to worship God; why couldn't we find some small corner and do it quietly?" they answered that no one can truly worship God if s/he is a slave to other people. So this night we celebrate the ideal that is freedom.

When was the appearance of the first Haggadot?

The haggadah as we know it was compiled during the 7th and 8th centuries. The oldest version appears in the prayer book of Saadia Gaon in the 10th century. Contrary to popular thought, the Haggadah has been translated into many languages, as the importance of the reading is not in the actual text but in the understanding.

Illuminated haggadot became popular during the 13th and 14th centuries with each community designing them in their own style ie. Italian, Sephardic, Italian, Persian etc. Today there are hundreds of different versions, many with commentaries each according to one's own beliefs and philosophies.
What is the basic purpose of the Seder (which literally means "order")?

The precept of the seder night is the only one in the whole Jewish lexicon where you are not given a fixed text to chant. The Haggadah is only there to give you the general direction. The actually Mitzvah is to talk, to discuss, and to argue. And the more you talk the greater the mitzvah. Today unfortunately many people use the Haggadah as a text reading it through as if it were a litany. Nothing could be further from the spirit of this night.

Where do we start?

Actually we start the night before with the search for leavened bread. We search our house to make sure that we have not overlooked anything during our cleaning. There is a custom for children to hide pieces of bread around the house. A word of advice: Make sure someone knows where they put each piece - I'm still looking for those placed two years ago!

Why the preoccupation with leavened bread?

This can be seen on two levels:

  1. To remind us that when we left Egypt we had no time to bake bread and so we left in a hurry with only Matza.
  2. The other reason is mentioned in the Talmud: Leavened bread is similar to evil - both grow by force and not by reason. In Hebrew, the difference between the words CHaMeTZ (leavening) and MaTZA is a tiny fraction of a line changing the letter "hey" to "chet"; so too can be the difference between good and evil: On this night we search within ourselves before our journey to freedom to see what we can do to improve ourselves before we undertake to improve the world.

For the search we use a candle and a feather. We do not use a strong light because this way, we are compelled to search closely, gently scooping up the individual pieces. So too when we check ourselves we do so without a spotlight: We check our inner light (soul) and when we find something which needs repair we do it gently and never by force.

The word "search" also implies inquiry, the classic tool of Jewish education. We will see this concept highlighted all throughout the seder. In Judaism, there is no such thing as a "stupid question" when it comes from someone who is sincere. One of the main lessons of Passover teaches us that the essence of Judaism lies in the questioning and searching.

The next morning we take the remaining bread etc., and we burn it while symbolically declaring that all Chametz left in our house is now like the dust of the earth. Because this week a Jew is not permitted to own Chametz, many "sell" their leftover leavened products which include cereals, alcohol, pasta etc. to a non-Jew. The selling, while really only on paper, actually gives the buyer the right to take any of these goods he wants from your house. The goods are then "sold" back to you after Passover.

The Seder Night

On this night it is customary to use the most beautiful of our dishes and tableware. In the middle of the table is the Seder plate. It can be any shape and of any material. Many people design their own. The plate can be a three-tiered parking-lot structure that holds three matzos with a place for 6 small dishes on the top (roof). However, many people have the seder plate separate from the matza bag that holds the three matzas.

What do I put in each dish and what is the meaning behind it?

1. A Bone i.e. roasted chicken wing or shank bone to remind us of the original Passover offering. Some people substitute seeds since the hebrew Zeroah (bone) and Zeraim (seeds) has a similar letter structure.
2. Egg (hardboiled) - the egg is the symbol of the circle of life. It is traditionally the first meal after one has buried a close relative. I also heard someone say that the egg is a symbol for Jews in general - the more we are persecuted the harder we get. It also symbolizes the festive offering that was brought by the Israelites in honor of the holiday.
3. Bitter herbs ("Maror") - most people use horseradish or Romaine lettuce or any other bitter vegetable to remind us of the bitterness of bondage.
4. Charoset - a mixture of ground apples, nuts, ginger, cinnamon, and sweet wine to symbolize the mortar which we were forced to use when we were slaves. It is also the symbol of the spirit of the women who held the families together during these terrible times. The sweetness of the fruits, the apple (refer to Song of Songs of Solomon), the nuts (symbol of tenacity), the wine (symbol of joy and love) all join together.
5. Karpas - parsley or other vegetable which is later dipped into a bowl of salt water. This is the wild card, and most commentators say the only reason is to get children to ask questions - it just isn't something we do every day.
6. Some people place a dish in the middle of the plate for the salt water to remind ourselves of the tears we shed. Others place the salt water on the side of the plate and have in its place the "chazeret," a leafy-vegetable form of maror. And yet others only have the first five items on their seder plate with the Maror in the middle.

The Matzah

There are two basic shapes: The machine-made square one and the round hand made. Either is perfectly usable although the hand- made may be a bit tough on your dentures.

We take three Matzot and place them either in an embroidered napkin/matza cover or in a special compartment under the Seder plate. There are many reasons for the number three: The three sections of Jewry - Cohen, Levi, and Israel / Abraham Isaac and Jacob / Mo, Larry, and Curly, etc...

The Four Cups of Wine

Jewish culture is known for its encouragement of sobriety which is why Purim is such an unusual holiday. Yet on Passover we are Commanded to drink 4 cups of wine.

There are many reasons given e.g. the four types of people in the guise of the "four sons," the four seasons (not the group), the four stages of redemption, the four Matriarchs. One of the most unusual reasons is a reward for the four good acts which the people of Israel did while in Egypt: Not changing their names to Egyptian names, continuing to speak Hebrew, remaining moral in an immoral society and not talebearing against each other.

If someone wishes they may use red grape juice instead of red wine, though wine is preferable. Either way, the custom is to use red which symbolizes the blood and hardship that accompanied the slavery.


During the drinking of the wine and eating of the matza, we are required to lean on our left side, reminiscent of the days in which rich people would lounge on pillows and special couches, thus demonstrating our freedom. Remember that when you lean while drinking the wine, don't go too far over or else you'll spill on your neighbor if you didn't already. You may also notice that with each subsequent cup of wine, the leaning gets lower until by the fourth, everyone has to be scraped up from the floor. Well, maybe it's not that bad...

Naturally we do not lean when we eat the bitter herbs, as they represent slavery. On this night a pauper is especially commanded to recline. Why? Someone who is comfortable has little problem relaxing and thanking God for not being a slave. Someone who has nothing to eat may well wonder if being a slave and getting "three squares a day" might not be worth it. The Talmud is trying to say that no matter your present straits, if you are free you always have the gift of hope.

The order of the Seder

The seder itself is divided into different sections. What is important is the underlying goal of the seder: To educate ourselves and our children, sensitizing all of us to the meaning of freedom. The sections serve as a framework which make it easier to conduct the seder itself leaving plenty of room for free expression. The symbolic names of each section below are there to help us bring some order to the night. They were composed over 850 years ago probably by Rashi - Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac (1040-1105).

The sanctification of the holiday in which the first cup of wine is drunk .

When you read the translation of the "kiddush" blessing, it may strike you as odd that we are praising ourselves for being chosen to serve God. This concept of being the "Chosen People" is one of the most misunderstood by many of us. Maimonidies describes is as not a privilege but a burden. There is no superiority in the fact that one is born a Jew. Being Jewish is totally unlike other religions in which necessary for salvation. Neither does it guarantee a safe spot in "Heaven." In fact, the opposite is true: Jews have an obligation which other nations don't have, and that is to serve God through His commandments in order to be a "light unto the other nations."

As such, Judaism doesn't encourage converts, for if someone is righteous then it doesn't matter what religion s/he is part of. If one is born Jewish, s/he is traditionally expected to follow a certain code of laws. The Kiddush is recited to remind ourselves of that obligation we took on so many years ago as a nation. We also recite the Shehechiyanu blessing thanking God for bringing us to this day.

wash hands ritually without a blessing

Commentators on the Haggadah write that we simply do strange things at the seder in order to perk up the curiosity of the young and the not-so-young. The activity of Urechatz falls under this category.
A conversation regarding this ritual can sound something like this: "Why are we washing our hands without a blessing?" or "Why are we ritually washing our hands when we aren't yet eating the meal?" The answer: "To get you to ask questions." Repeat: "So now I'm asking questions - why do we do it?" "So that you will ask questions..."

Taking you out of this cycle, you can also answer that the custom did NOT appear out of the blue. This custom reminds us of one from the period of the Temple: Ritual purity required that people wash their hands before dipping any food into a liquid and eating it (such as will be done in the next step of the seder). Another explanation of urchatz is that it shows a symbolic separation between our previous state and that of the journey on which we are about to embark.

make the "borei-peri-ha'adama" blessing and eat the parsley (or other vegetable) dipped in salt water

Here we wish to show the difference between civilized man and the animal world. We are already hungry, and there is food in front of us. However, instead of stuffing our faces we take a small amount of parsley or other vegetables and continue the seder. Many people use parsley though any vegetable is permitted. Some commentaries show a preference to green vegetables which symbolize spring and regrowth; dipping into salt water reminds us of the tears we shed during our long bondage. However, like the urechatz, this part of the seder is also meant to prompt the "why"'s.

the middle matza is broken in two, with the larger portion put aside for the Afikoman.

Here we are expressing the essence of Matza, the poor-man's bread: A poor person never knows from where and when his next meal is coming - he always puts a bit away for emergencies.
One of the well-known customs is for the leader of the seder to put the Afikoman in a small bag. The children of the house to try to "steal" the Afikoman, and later they are promised a present for its return. Somehow, when I negotiated for a car it didn't work...

In Yemenite homes, the children dress up as pilgrims with walking sticks in their hands carrying the afikoman on their backs in a satchel. The father asks them where they are going to which they reply "to Eretz Yisrael."

to tell. This in reality is the main part of the seder: The discussion of the departure from Egypt and the meaning of freedom

Though there is a formalized text, you should feel free (no pun intended) to ramble off on anything from the meaning of freedom to the definition of Judaism, etc...

See our article on Spicing Up the Inedible Part of the Seder for many more explanations of Magid.

ritual washing of hands with a blessing before eating the Matzah

This time, the washing of the hands is not meant to generate questions, as it is the normal practice upon breaking bread (oh no - not the "b" word on Pesach!!!) at any meal. Originally, washing of hands was required before eating a sacrifice or similar gifts. Because a table on which a meal that includes bread is served is likened to an altar, this washing was later extended to the eating of all breads (that word again). This is also to remind us that it is through God not just our own work that we have something to eat.

Motzi Matza
Making a blessing on and eating the matza

The Seder leader raises the matza, making the blessing. The upper matza is then broken up and distributed. To fulfill the commandment of eating matza on the seder night, each participant should eat approximately the size of two olives. Keep in mind that olives back then were bigger than the dinky ones we eat now, so that means we have to eat a LOT of matza (you can do this by adding more to the original pieces that are distributed from the Hamotzi). The bottom line? If a seder was filmed on Candid Camera, the world would get a pretty good laugh, especially since it is customary to eat it while reclining to the left.

making a blessing on and eating the bitter herbs

An olive's volume of maror is dipped into the Charoset (see seder table) and given to each participant. (Try doing THAT with horseradish!) When eating the Maror which reminds us of the bitter slavery, we do not recline.

the sandwich - the bottom Matza is eaten in combination with marror and Charoset

We take the "poison" on one hand (the slavery) and the cure on the other hand (see charoset - the womens' role) and we combine them with matza, the symbol of freedom. Again, an olive's volume of matza and maror need to be eaten here, reclining to the left.

Of course, by now we are thoroughly ill as we get to...

Shulchan Orech
The festive MEAL!!!

Yeah get down get down. We must remember to leave a bit of an appetite for the afikoman which is eaten at the end of the meal. Some families customarily eat a hardboiled egg swimming in salt- water as a first appetizer of this meal (see egg explanation above). It is also customary NOT to eat dry-roasted meat as a main course with this meal so as not to imply that we are bringing and eating a "replacement" passover offering in these days that the Temple is not standing.

eating of the Afikoman

The word, "Tzafun" literally refers to the "hidden" matza. At this point is time to eat the matza which was "put away" for "dessert." Often this is the time for for negotiation, when the children and/or "children" bargain for the return of the afikoman. On the face of things it seems like an anomaly: Until now we were at this spiritual high, and suddenly we jump from the hallowed halls directly to the Lower East Side. What happened?

First of all there are many commentators who are against the idea of bargaining. Others say we must remember that the idea of "stealing" the Afikoman is a ploy to get kids to stay up later by maintaining their interest in what is going on. Either way, we should remember that the experience should be positive; we are not negotiating the Mastreich treaty.

The Afikoman itself reminds us of the Pesach Lamb which was eaten at the end of the meal. It must be eaten before midnight (not literally 12:00AM - rather 6 relative hours after nightfall) so as to be completed by the time we went out of Egypt. Here's the catch: Remember I said that by the meal we are all thoroughly ill from all that we ate until then? By this time, we are REALLY stuffed, and guess what? We need to get down ANOTHER olive's volume of matza. Again, the Pesach Lamb was eaten on a FULL stomach, so too we eat the afikoman. (By the way, is Maalox kosher for Passover?)

the grace after meals

As after a usual meal, the Grace After Meals is recited, thanking God for all we have received. Of course, one must remember to add the special paragraph pertaining to Passover.

recitation of the Hallel service

The Psalms of David that make up the Hallel service read on all of the Jewish festivals are read in order to finish the evening with praises.

Accepted be our seder - Singing and the conclusion of the Seder

At this point, a fifth cup of wine is placed in the center of the table. This is known as the Cup of Elijah or the Cup of Hope.

Some people recite a short prayer for the freedom of Syrian Jews, or other Jews living in regimes where they can't openly practice their Judaism. It symbolizes the hope of the final redemption. After the wine is poured, the door is opened. Some people say it is to express our faith in God that on this night nothing will happen to us; others say that it is to allow the prophet Elijah into the house.

As a child I remember watching the cup closely to see if Elijah drank any of it. Why can't Elijah just come through the wall? It teaches us that one cannot wait for redemption - we must call it and bring it through our own acts. Only once we have earned the right to redemption will God help us.

There is another not-so-joyous reason for opening the door.

During the Middle Ages (1144-Norwich England, 1171-Blois France) Passover was also the time for ritual-murder-accusations, when Jews were accused of stealing Christian children in order to use their blood in baking of the Matza. As absurd as it may sound, there were incidents as late as the 19th century resulting in riots and the murder of Jews.

From this source originated the custom to expose our table to all who wish to see; according to others, it's in order to see who is spying on us, making sure that no one put a body near our house while we were celebrating. While opening the door, we call upon God to protect us and "Pour out Your rage on the nations that do not recognize you..."

After this, we wish all around the table that next Pesach we will all be in Jerusalem. What do Jerusalemites say? They wish to be in Miami Beach at a fancy hotel. Just kidding! Jerusalemites say "Wishing to be next year in a REBUILT Jerusalem," meaning in a the peaceful era of the final Redemption.

literally, "To be accepted" - the conclusion of the Seder accompanied by lively singing

The Seder is drawing to a close. We have talked, argued, drank and eaten. Yet, as tired as we are there is a reluctance to let go. We remember our liberation and the greatness of our past, not in melancholy but in hope. This very last section consists of a variety of songs which summarize the faith which has helped us survive until now.

Of all the songs, the last, "Had Gadya" is the most famous. It is far more than a simple folk song. It can be looked upon as a slide show of Jewish history with the Kid symbolizing the Jews and each of the symbols representing another phase in our history. Others relate the kid to the soul of man with each of the stages in life portrayed culminating with a return of our soul to God. Whichever or any symbolism you can conjure, the last phrase is the final sigh of hope that the day will come when there will be no more war and no more death. Peace. Eternal peace.

Happy Passover!

English Haggadah Resources

  • The Lehman Haggadah
  • The Haggadah Treasury by Sherman
  • The Passover Haggadah by Riskin
  • The Kasher Haggadah
  • The Artscroll Haggadah






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13 Apr 2008 / 8 Nisan 5768 0