The Seder Structure and Experience

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

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Reclining does not, however, mean actually lying with the feet on a couch. The practice is simply to have a cushion or pillow at the left side of the chair upon which one reclines slightly.

The Seder Structure

The seder begins with the kiddush, the festival benediction over the first cup of wine. The middle matzah is then broken in two, one piece being set aside to be eaten later as the afikoman ("dessert"), the last thing eaten before grace after meals is recited, so that the taste of the matzah of freedom might linger in the mouth. It is customary for the grown-ups to hide the afikoman, rewarding the lucky child who finds it with a present. A cheeky child might bargain for the size of the present before handing over the afikoman. Some frown on this practice because it might encourage mendacity on the part of the children, but most Jews ignore these spoilsports and see it as a harmless bit of fun that succeeds in holding the interest of the children.

The parsley is dipped in salt water and eaten. The youngest child present then asks the Four Questions, a standard formula beginning with the words, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The four differences are remarked upon by the child, one of which is, "On all other nights we eat either leaven or unleaven, whereas on this night we eat only leaven." The other three differences between this night and other nights are the bitter herbs, the reclining, and the dipping.

The head of the house and the other adults present at the seder then proceed to reply to the child's questions by reciting (more usually by chanting) the Haggadah, in which the answers are given in terms of God's deliverances. When they reach the passage in the Haggadah which tells of the ten plagues, a small amount of the wine is poured out from the second cup to denote that it is inappropriate to drink a full cup of joy in the deliverance, since, in the process, the Egyptians lost their lives. The pouring-out of a little of the wine is a symbolic way of saying: Do not gloat over the downfall of your enemies even if they richly deserved their fate. This section of the Haggadah concludes with a benediction in which God is thanked for His mercies, and the second cup of wine is drunk in the reclining position.

The celebrants then proceed to partake of the festive meal. Grace before meals is recited over two of the three matzot, and in addition to the benediction over bread (unleavened bread is still bread), the benediction is recited, "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hath sanctified us with thy commandments and hath commanded us to eat matzah."The bitter herbs (usually horseradish) are then dipped in the haroset and eaten.

Tradition has it that in Temple times the great sage Hillel would eat matzah, bitter herbs, and the meat of the Paschal Lamb together. As a reminder of Hillel's procedure, a sandwich (naturally called by the children a "Hillel") is made of the third matzah and the bitter herbs. In many communities it is the custom to eat, as the first dish, hard-boiled eggs in salt water, symbolic of the tears of the slaves and their hard bondage.

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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.