The Seder Structure and Experience

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

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.

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.

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.

At the end of the meal the afikoman is “found,” surrendered, and eaten, and grace after meals is recited over the third cup of wine. The Hallel (Psalms 113-18) and other hymns of thanksgiving are recited over the fourth cup of wine.

Before the recital of the Hallel, a cup is filled for the prophet Elijah, the herald of the Messiah, who, legend states, visits every Jewish home on this night. The door of the house is opened to let Elijah in and the children watch eagerly to see if they can notice any diminution in Elijah’s cup, as the prophet quickly sips the wine and speeds on his way to visit all the other homes. From medieval times it was the custom to recite at this stage of the proceedings a number of imprecations against those who oppressed the Jews and laid waste the Temple. Many Jews no longer recite these imprecations, substituting for them a prayer for peace and freedom for all mankind. Some sing in English the famous spiritual, “Let My People Go.”

The seder concludes with the cheerful singing of table songs, ending with “Had Gadya,” the tale of the kid, the cat, and the dog. Some pious Jews recite the Song of Songs after the seder before retiring to bed.

Including Everyone

Practically all Jews with any association with Jewish life have a seder, but not necessarily in the home. It is now the practice in many synagogues and in many Jewish hotels to have a communal seder, but many feel that the full flavor of the seder can only be tasted when it is a home celebration. It is the custom, however, to invite guests to the seder, especially those who would not otherwise have one. Some invite non-Jewish guests and this custom is attested to in the writings of the 18th-century Rabbi Jacob Emden.

The rabbinic authorities advise that the meaning of the rituals of the seder and the Haggadah as a whole should be explained in the vernacular for the benefit of participants unfamiliar with Hebrew. Fuller descriptions of the seder are to be found in the numerous editions of the Passover Haggadah. [The necessity of explaining the seder’s meaning in vernacular is dictated by the commandment of getting everybody spiritually and physically involved in the seder experience.]

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