What is a Passover Seder?
Two friends asked various questions about what the Seder is, how it is conducted, what people traditionally eat, and so on.
Glad to respond via ZipDialog’s new feature: “The Explainer,” which seeks to offer clear, succinct answers to reader questions.
The Passover Seder celebrates the Jewish people’s exit from slavery in Egypt, a story told in the book of Exodus. It is family-and-friends dinner celebration, held each spring. The date varies because it is set by the lunar calendar, just as Easter is. The connection to Easter is no accident. Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover Seder. Both use common symbols of springtime rebirth, such as eggs and lambs.
So, what happens at a seder?
The main point is to read the story of the Exodus as a group activity with friends and family, with periodic prayers over wine, food, and such.
The service is normally conducted at home, or perhaps a club or synagogue dining area.
It is not a synagogue service, such as the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The content of Passover services varies a bit–in length, in the amount of Hebrew used, and in whether it is celebrated on only the first night or the first two.
The holiday itself lasts eight days, but the full Seder is normally conducted only at the beginning.
Matzoh, or unleavened bread, is eaten for the entire week. No leavened bread.
For Jewish homes that keep Kosher, there are special rules for keeping Kosher on Passover. The point is to ensure that you do not touch, much less eat, leavened foods. That typically requires separate china and silverware and a rigorous cleansing of the house to get rid of all leavened products. What counts as “leavened” differs among rabbis.
The normal Jewish rule applies: if there are two rabbis, there will be at least three opinions, all deeply held and based on multiple rabbinic sources.
Although family seders differ, they have a lot in common.
All Passover Seders
- Are based on participants reading together from a “Passover Haggadah,” or prayer book.
- There are many variations of these prayer books. Book collectors and rare-book libraries have assembled thousands from medieval Europe, the ancient Middle East, and all countries of the Jewish Diaspora
- Emphasize the Exodus from Egypt in the “present tense,” as if we are reliving the flight to freedom;
- Ask and answer “Four Questions,” focused on the central question: “Why is tonight different from all other nights?“
- Use the prayer service to answer the four questions, reinforced by eating symbolic foods, such as
- Horseradish to emphasize the pain of slavery and
- Parsley dipped in salt water to emphasize the slaves’ sweat and tears and the parting of the Red Sea
- Include a symbolic plate, with items such as the horseradish, parsley, eggs, and a lamb’s shank bone, which are directly related to the four questions and the prayer service
- Highlight a specific food, matzoh, which symbolizes the need to leave Egypt hurriedly, without waiting for the bread to rise.
All Seders stop near the conclusion of the prayer service for a regular dinner (explained below), followed typically the final prayers, some group songs, and a child’s game, hunting for a piece of matzoh (the afikoman) hidden by the adult in charge of the service. The child who finds it receives a small reward, such as sweets or money.
The regular dinner served on Passover
What everybody starts with, in my experience, is matzoh-ball soup and some gefilte fish (a mix of fishes, served as a cold patty).
The main course is usually chicken or lamb–there is no standard.
Wine is passed around freely and there are multiple times when it is drunk during the service itself, a rare feature among Jewish festivals.
In 1940s and 50s America, most homes served a dreadful sweet wine: Manischewitz Concord Grape (pronounced Man-i-shev-its).
Although wine stores are now stocked with fine “Kosher for Passover” wines, all Baby Boomer Seders include a bottle of Manischewitz to remind them how we not only escaped from Egypt, we took at detour through Napa Valley before arriving in the Land of Milk and Honey.
Finally, every Seder ends with the same brief statement of hope: “Next Year in Jerusalem”
The complete phrase is often said as:
This year we are here, next year we will be in the Land of Israel.
This year we are slaves, next year we will be free.
Next year in Jerusalem. –said joyously at the conclusion of Passover Seder
There are many interpretations, naturally. Here is mine.
For Americans, this is not a hope to leave a country we love. We could leave freely if we chose to do so. Most do not, anymore than Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans return to their ancestral homes.
For Jews, though, the statement has three intertwined meanings.
First, it underscores a cultural connection to the land where Jews have lived for thousands of years. (We stated this wish at every Passover for centuries, long before anti-Semites began denying Jews had any historic connection to the land of Israel, a truly vile trope.)
Second, it underscores a connection to Jews across the world, all of whom are saying the same thing in Hebrew and their native languages.
Third, and most important for observant Jews, it means we will all return to Jerusalem–the Biblical ideal–when the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt. That is why even Jews who live in Jerusalem can pray, “This year we are here. Next year in Jerusalem.”
Hat Tip from ZipDialog Explainer to
* Susannah McCafferty Sanders for asking this question, and to
* Scott Stantis for raising some related questions after he had attended a Seder this week.