The Passover (Pesach) Seder
The seder takes place following the Passover evening synagogue service on the first two nights of Passover (or just the first night in Israel and among liberal Jews worldwide). The seder is supposed to take place with everyone in a reclining position. This is because slaves ate hurriedly; the affluent and free were able to recline on cushions. On erev Pesach (Passover eve), rich and poor are indistinguishable and all are free and thus privileged to recline. Many families have the tradition of placing pillows on each chair or at least having the seder leader follow this practice of reclining. It is also customary for the chief celebrant to wear a white robe called a kittel.
There are a number of symbols that occur throughout the seder, but perhaps the focal point of the whole event is the seder plate. It contains a roasted shankbone, symbolizing the Pesach sacrifice in the Temple, a roasted egg symbolizing either the spring season or mourning (for the destruction of Jerusalem), maror (bitter herbs) to represent the bitter experience of the Hebrew slaves, haroset (a mixture of apples, nuts, raisins, spices, wine) symbolizing the mortar the Hebrew slaves used to build for the Egyptians, and karpas (parsley, celery, or another green vegetable) symbolizing the green of spring. The table must also have three pieces of matzah, each piece used for a different purpose, usually held in a special pouch made to be used during the seder.
The seder service has a clear order, with each of 14 steps representing a different phase of the seder. Together, they serve to teach the lesson of the Exodus, God's saving the Jewish people from slavery. Much of the seder discussion focuses on God's might and the Divine role in redemption.
There are many instances of the number four throughout the seder: four cups of wine, four sons, four matriarchs, four names for Pesach, four Aggadot, four blessings, four types of food on the seder plate. The most well-known example is the Arba Kushiyot, or four questions. These questions, usually recited by the youngest person at the table, are meant to highlight the main differences between this meal and all other meals of the year. They are also a brilliant way of keeping young people interested and involved in the events of the seder. They include queries about why we recline, why we dip food, and why we eat certain types of food.
Another special part of the seder is the extra cup of wine left on the table for Elijah. The suspense and excitement engendered by sending a child to open the door for the prophet who will be a harbinger of messianic times is almost electric. The chanting of the song Dayenu ("it would have been enough"), a joyous recognition of God's numerous gifts to us in the course of the Exodus, is another highlight. Every Jew will have his or her own special memories of a past family seder, but it is unquestionably among the greatest of our yearly rituals.
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