The Seder Structure and Experience

An overview of preparing for the seder and the elements of a traditional seder.

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Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, (Oxford University Press.)

Seder,"order," is the festive meal and service held in the home on the first night of Passover (and on the second night as well in the Diaspora) at which various rituals commemorating the Exodus are carried out and the Haggadah is recited, all in obedience to the injunction to parents to tell their children of God's mighty deeds in delivering the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 13:8).

The seder is a re-enactment of the lives of the slaves and their joy when given their freedom. The keynote is sounded in the statement in the Haggadah that everyone is obliged to imagine that he or she has personally been delivered from Egypt. The essential features of the order (seder) of procedure on this night are described in the Mishnah (final chapter of tractate Pesachim),but many additions have been made through the ages. The following is a brief description of what happens at the seder in Jewish homes today.

Preparing for the Seder

The table is covered with a white tablecloth upon which the festival candles are placed. A decorative plate (exquisite seder plates have been produced by Jewish craftsmen) is placed on the seder table, upon [or near] which rest the symbolic foods required for the rituals. These are: three matzot (plural of -matzah, unleavened bread, which usually does not sit on the seder plate itself); maror, "bitter herbs," serving as a reminder of the embitterment of the lives of the Hebrew slaves by their Egyptian taskmasters (Exodus 1:14); haroset, a paste made of almonds, apples, and wine, symbolic both of the mortar used by the slaves in building and of the sweetness of redemption; a bowl of salt water, symbolizing the tears of the oppressed; parsley [or another vegetable, such as celery or potato] for a symbolic dipping in the salt water; a roasted bone as a reminder of the Paschal lamb; and a roasted egg as a reminder of the festival offering brought in Temple times in addition to the Paschal lamb. These last two are not eaten during the meal but left on the plate.

Seder

Children and adults sit around a large
seder table, with wine, Haggadot,
matzah, and the seder plate.
Photo: Gideon Ariel

During the seder all the participants drink four cups of wine, representing the four different expressions for redemption found in the Exodus narrative. Since in ancient times the aristocratic custom was to eat and drink while reclining, the food and drink are partaken of in this way as a symbol of the mode of eating and drinking of free men. The view of some medieval authorities that the custom of reclining at the seder has no meaning if people do not normally eat in this fashion is ignored. Custom is all in such matters, and reclining at the seder is still the norm.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.