A Really Brief Guide to Pesach

The Seder – Seminar in a Meal

The Seder is structured around the fulfillment of a number of Biblical and Rabbinic commandments –

  1. The Paschal lamb — During the times of the Temple, the Jewish people were commanded to roast a whole lamb on a spit and eat it on the first evening of Pesach.  The lamb was a symbol of Egyptian idolatry, specifically representing the ram god, Khnum who, according to Egyptian mythology, presided over the annual flooding of the Nile. There could be no greater denial of Khnum and the Egyptian deities than the slaughter, roasting and eating of a lamb by the former slaves. Through this offering, the Jews broke free of their psychological and ideological slavery to the Egyptians and separated themselves completely from idolatry.  Today, in the absence of the Temple, we can no longer fulfill this commandment.  To remind us of this offering however, we place a piece of roasted meat on the Seder plate and eat an extra portion of matzah, the Afikomen, at the end of meal, just as we would have eaten matzah together with the roasted lamb at this point.
  2. The Commandments to Eat Matzah and Marror (Bitter Herbs) – We are commanded to eat matzah on the first night of Pesach. Along with the matzah the Torah requires us to eat bitter herbs at the Seder.
  3. The Commandment of Haggadah – Relating the Story of the Exile and Redemption – The Torah commands us numerous times to tell the story of the Exodus and to convey to future generations the miracles that God performed at the Exodus.  The commandment specifies relating the entire story from the very beginnings of exile to the last detail of the redemption, to each child at his or her level of understanding.  An integral part of this commandment is the obligation to try to create for each participant, the feeling that he or she was personally taken out of Egypt. The Haggadah is therefore an experiential as well as an educational commandment.  The word Haggadah, has also come to refer to the book that contains the service, prayers and instructions for the Seder.
  4. Hallel – Praise – Every miracle that God performed for the Jewish people and each individual act of redemption obligates us to thank God and praise Him. This obligation is fulfilled by reciting selected chapters of Psalms, known as Hallel, praise.  These Psalms and others are recited during the Seder, some before and others after the meal.
  5. Four Cups of Wine – The Sages of the Mishnah decreed that the Haggadah and Hallel, be accompanied by four cups of wine, as a sign of freedom and joy.
  6. Curiosity Creators – The Rabbis also instituted a number of practices at the Seder designed to arouse the curiosity of the children so that they will ask questions and participate.  Ideally, the Haggadah should be conveyed in a way that is relevant, interesting and engaging. Jewish law requires therefore, that the story be told using a question and answer format. The Sages enacted certain unusual practices that are intended to keep the children awake, spark their interest and encourage them to ask questions.  We dip vegetables in salt water before the meal, hand out treats to the children during the meal, hide a piece of matzah (called the Afikoman), for use at the end of the Seder, remove the Seder plate, and cover and uncover the matzot at various times. Certainly, enough is happening to inspire even tired children to wonder what is going on.  Just in case nobody does ask, the Sages scripted certain question into the Haggadah. Today, it is customary for children to sing or recite the famous four questions beginning with Mah Nishtanah, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
  7. Symbols – The table is set with a Seder plate containing bitter herbs, a vegetable for dipping, a piece of roasted meat (symbolizing the Pesach offering), a roasted egg (symbolizing the festival offering in the Temple) and charoset, a finely ground mixture of apples, cinnamon, nuts, red wine, ginger and dates that resembles the mortar that the Jews were forced to use in Egypt (but tastes significantly better).  Three matzot are placed in a special cover or under the Seder plate and are used to fulfill the commandment of eating matzah. The entire table is set beautifully, as if for a royal banquet.

The Order of the Seder

The Seder consists of fifteen basic parts. The Hebrew names for the different parts of the Seder are written as a poem which is printed at the beginning of all Haggadahs:

  1. Kadesh – The person conducting the Seder takes a cup of wine and recites the Kiddush.  Everyone then drinks the first cup.
  2. Urchatz – Everyone washes their hands in preparation for karpas. – No bracha
  3. Karpas — We eat a vegetable dipped in salt water, to arouse the children’s curiosity.
  4. Yachatz – The matzah is broken into two pieces, just as a poor person would do when he does not know where his next meal will come from,
  5. Magid – The four questions are asked, “Mah Nishtanah,” and we respond with Magid, telling the story. We then read, discuss and explain the story of the slavery and the Exodus from Egypt to all present. We conclude the story with the first part of Hallel, songs of praise to God, and drink the second cup of wine.
  6. Rachtzah – Everyone washes their hands in preparation for eating matzah.
  7. Motzi – A blessing is made for eating bread (in this case matzah, but the blessing is the same).
  8. Matzah – A blessing is made on fulfilling the commandment of eating matzah and the matzah is then eaten.
  9. Maror – We eat maror, the bitter herbs, as a reminder of slavery.
  10. Korech – We eat a sandwich of matzah and bitter herbs, as was done in ancient times when the roast lamb was eaten together with matzah and the bitter herbs.
  11. Shulchan Orech – The festival meal begins, accompanied by further discussion about the Exodus, songs and traditional, delicious Passover foods.
  12. Tzafun – The meal ends with the eating of the hidden piece of matzah, the Afikoman, symbolizing the Paschal lamb that the Jews sacrificed in Egypt.
  13. Barech – Grace after meals is recited while holding the third cup of wine, which we then drink.
  14. Hallel – We complete the Hallel and end with a blessing and the drinking of the fourth cup of wine.
  15. Nirtzah – We pray that God accepts our service and conclude the Seder with the declaration and prayer, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” We then sing traditional Pesach songs, and discuss the Haggadah until sleep overtakes us.

Laws of the Seder

  1. The Seder table should be prepared before nightfall, complete with the Seder plate, matzos, cups etc. The table should be set as beautifully as possible.
  2. The Seder plate should contain – an egg (beitzah) lightly roasted, a piece of meat, (zroa), (chicken is also fine), charoses (usually made of grated apple, ground walnuts, cinnamon, red wine, ginger and dates), chazeres (a vegetable), karpas (potato, parsley etc.) and maror (the bitter herb – horseradish or romaine lettuce). A bowl of salt water should be placed on the table but need not be on the plate.   There are different customs regarding the order in which the items are placed on the Seder plate. Several variations are usually depicted at the beginning of the Haggadah; the most common is illustrated below.

EGG                    MEAT
KARPAS              CHAROSES

  1. Three whole (not broken) shmurah matzos should be placed under or in front of the Seder plate. They should be covered and separated from each other by a napkin or cloth. Shmurah means “guarded” – these are matzos that were made with the specific intention to use them for this mitzvah, either by hand (the round ones) or by machine (square). They are made from wheat that was “guarded,” carefully kept away from moisture, from the time of its harvest. Shmurah matzah should be used to fulfill the requirements of the Seder.
  2. Pillows should be placed on each seat so that the participants can lean on their left sides, in the manner of royalty, while eating and reciting the Haggadah  (but not while eating the maror).
  3. Everyone should have a cup that holds at least 3 fl. oz. Red wine is preferable but white wine may also be used. Children and pregnant women or people who for health reasons cannot have alcohol, may fulfill the obligation with grape juice (preferably, with a little wine mixed in). The cups should be filled for each of the four cups of wine.
  4. For detailed instructions on how to conduct the Seder, see The Family Haggadah, Mesorah Publications, NY, 1981. Literally hundreds of editions of the Haggadah exist, with thousands of commentaries written by great scholars throughout history.  Translations of many editions, along with commentaries, laws and instructions are all available. Although at first it may seem overwhelming, with the right text and a little preparation anyone can conduct a beautiful, inspiring Seder.

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