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Passover: Customs and Rituals

Passover is perhaps the most widely observed holiday of the entire year, and many families have long-standing, beloved traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. But the heart of the holiday is telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and both old and new traditions are equally welcome in the celebration! The teaching of this story, which is so central to Jewish life and history, can be customized for all ages and learning levels, and getting everyone involved is always encouraged, so use your imagination, and the many resources available, and create a holiday celebration that’s perfect for your family and friends.

Passover, along with Sukkot and Shavuot, is one of the Shalosh R’galim, or Three Pilgrimage Festivals, major holidays during which people in ancient times gathered in Jerusalem with their agricultural offerings. There are several mitzvot (commandments) unique to Passover, which are evident in the customs and rituals of the holiday to this day: matzah (the eating of unleavened bread); maror (the eating of bitter herbs); chameitz (abstaining from eating leavened bread or other foods containing wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt); biur chameitz (removal of leaven from the home); and Haggadah (participation in the seder meal and telling the story).

The Seder

The seder is the centerpiece of any Passover experience. A seder is a festive meal that takes place on the first night (and in some families also on the second night) of the holiday. Family and friends join together to celebrate. The word seder literally means “order,” and the Passover seder has 15 separate steps in its traditional order.  These steps are laid out in the Haggadah, the book used during the seder. Many congregations hold a community seder during at least one night of Passover. There are also synagogue services held on the first day of the holiday, and Yizkor (remembrance) services held on the last day.

The 15 steps of the seder can be summed up by this Hebrew rhyme:

Kadeish, Ur'chatz,
Karpas, Yachatz,
Magid, Rachtzah,
Motzi, Matzah,
Maror, Korech,
Shulchan Oreich,
Tzafun, Barech,
Hallel, Nirtzah

Listen to the "Order of the Seder," based on the ancient Babylonian chant (sung by Cantor Kathy Barr).

Each of these 15 steps is summarized and explained below:

  1. Kadeish: Sanctification
    A blessing is recited over wine in honor of the holiday. When the seder falls on a Friday night, this version of the Kiddush is recited for Passover and Shabbat. When the seder falls on a Saturday night, we continue with a special version of Havdalah. The wine is then drunk. A second cup is then poured (but not yet drunk).
     
  2. Ur'chatz: Washing
    Participants wash their hands without a blessing in preparation for eating the Karpas.
     
  3. Karpas: Vegetable
    A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.
     
  4. Yachatz: Breaking
    The middle of the three matzot on the table is broken into two pieces. The smaller part is returned to the pile, the larger one is set aside for the afikoman (see below).
     
  5. Magid: The Story
    A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the seder. The Magid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people: the wise ones, who want to know the technical details; the wicked ones, who exclude themselves (and learn the penalty for doing so); the simple ones, who need to know the basics; and the ones who are unable to ask, who don't even know enough to know what they need to know. At the end of the Magid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.
     
  6. Rachtzah: Washing
    Participants wash their hands again, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.
     
  7. Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products
    HaMotzi, the blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.
     
  8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
    A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
     
  9. Maror: Bitter Herbs
    A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This gesture symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The maror is dipped in charoset, often a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery. Note that there are two bitter herbs on the seder plate: one labeled maror and one labeled chazeret. The one labeled maror should be used for maror and the one labeled chazeret should be used in the Koreich, below.
     
  10. Koreich: The Sandwich
    Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich. In his honor, we eat some maror on a piece of matzah, with some charoset. (Because we no longer sacrifice animals, so there is no paschal offering to eat).
     
  11. Shulchan Oreich: Dinner
    A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal (except, of course, that chametz cannot be eaten). Among Ashkenazi Jews, gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are often eaten at the beginning of the meal. Roast chicken or turkey are common as traditional main courses, as is beef brisket. Jews with far-ranging palates can put their own unique, contemporary stamp on this meal.
     
  12. Tzafun: The Afikoman
    The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as “dessert,” the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikoman. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it, with a small prize given to the finder. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, in anticipation of this part of the seder.
     
  13. Barech: Grace after Meals
    The third cup of wine is poured, and Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be recited on any Shabbat, but with the special insertion for Passover. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup of wine and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Messiah, and is supposed to come on Pesach to do so. The door is then opened to invite Elijah into our homes.
     
  14. Hallel: Praises
    The standard group of psalms that make up a full Hallel is recited at this point. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.
     
  15. Nirtzah: Closing
    A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come within the next year). The closing may be followed by various traditional songs, hymns and stories.

The seder has a number of biblical origins for its customs. Exodus 12:3-11 describes the meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs which the Israelites ate just prior to the Exodus. In addition, three separate passages in Exodus (12:26-7, 13:8, and 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) enunciate the duty of parents to tell the story of the Exodus to their children.

Ritual Objects

The seder plate contains various symbolic foods referred to in the seder itself. The contents of a seder plate vary by tradition, but most of them contain a shank bone, lettuce, an egg, greens, a bitter herb, and charoset, a sweet mixture of fruits, nuts, and spices.

These symbolic foods should be placed near the leader of the seder. During the course of the seder, they are pointed out and explained:

On the seder plate (use either a special one for this purpose or a regular dinner plate), include:

  • Shank bone, zeroa, symbolizes the lamb that was sacrificed in ancient days
  • Roasted egg, beitzah, represents the Passover offering of ancient days, as well as the wholeness and continuing cycle of life
  • Bitter herbs, maror (horseradish and/or romaine lettuce), a reminder of the bitter lives of the Hebrew slaves
  • Charoset, the mixture of apples, nuts, sweet wine, cinnamon and sugar in the Ashkenazic fashion or dates, nuts and sweet wine in the Sephardic tradition, reminds us of the bricks and mortar made by the Hebrew slaves
  • Greens, karpas, symbolizes spring, the time of year when Passover takes place

Also place on the table:

  • Three matzot (plural of matzah), on a plate with a cloth or napkin cover
  • Salt water, a reminder of the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves
  • Cup of Elijah, Kos Eliyahu, symbolizes the hope for a redemptive future

Along with these traditional symbols, families may choose to include a Cup of Miriam, Kos Miriam, a special goblet filled with water, on the holiday table. This symbol honors Miriam, the sister of Moses, who played a vital role in the history of our people. Many families and congregations add an orange to the seder plate, too, as a symbol of inclusion of the LGBTQ community and others who feel marginalized in Jewish life (not, as the story has often been told, as a symbol of women in the rabbinate).

The Haggadah (plural is haggadot) contains the text of the seder. There are many different haggadot: some concentrate on involving children in the seder; some concentrate on the sociological or social justice aspects of Passover; there are even historical haggadot and critical editions.

The afikoman is half of the middle matzah that is broken in the fourth step of the seder, yachatz. It is customary to hide the afikoman, and the person who finds it gets a prize! The afikoman is eaten last of all at the seder, during step 12, tzafun.

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