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What Is a Seder?

What Is a Seder?

A quick, one-page overview of the Passover Meal’s steps


What Is a Seder?

The Seder is a feast that includes reading, drinking wine, telling stories, eating special foods and singing.

As per Biblical command, it is held after nightfall on the first night of Passover (and the second night if you live outside of Israel), the anniversary of our nation’s miraculous exodus from Egyptian slavery more than 3,000 years ago. This year’s Seder(s) will be on March 30 (and 31), 2018.

When is Passover?

What’s on the Menu?

During the course of the evening you will have:

  • four cups of wine.
  • veggies dipped in saltwater.
  • flat, dry cracker-like bread called matzah
  • bitter herbs, often horseradish (without additives) and romaine lettuce, dipped into charoset (a paste of nuts, apples, pears and wine).
  • a festive meal that may contain time-honored favorites, like chicken soup and gefilte fish.

Each item has its place in a 15-step choreographed combination of tastes, sounds, sensations and smells that have been with the Jewish people for millennia.

Passover recipes for all tastes

What Do We Use?

  • ceremonial foods are all arranged on a platter, called a ka’arah or Seder plate. There may be one ka’arah for the entire Seder, or several.
  • The procedure is all laid out in a book called a Haggadah. Although the text is in Hebrew (with a sprinkling of Aramaic), it is perfectly acceptable to read the Haggadah in translation if you don’t understand Hebrew.

Print a Haggadah for your Seder

A Note From the Sages

At the Seder, every person should feel as if he or she were going out of Egypt. We begin with the story of our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and recount the Jewish people’s descent into Egypt, recalling their suffering and persecution. We are with them as G‑d sends the ten plagues to punish Pharaoh and his nation, and follow along as they leave Egypt and cross the Sea of Reeds. We witness the miraculous hand of G‑d as the waters part, allowing the Israelites to pass, then return to inundate the Egyptian legions.

As we eat bitter foods of affliction and poverty, the Exodus becomes a reality—as real as the festive meal and celebratory toasts that follow.

More freedom-related thoughts

Here are the 15 steps of the Seder, with a bit of explanation:

1. Kadesh—the Benediction

The Seder service begins with the recitation of kiddush, proclaiming the holiness of the holiday. This is said while holding a cup of wine, the first of the four cups we will drink (while reclining) throughout the Seder.

The Four Cups of Wine

Why four cups? The Torah uses four expressions of freedom or deliverance in connection with our liberation from Egypt.1 Some link them to the four great merits the children of Israel had in exile: (1) They did not change their Hebrew names; (2) they continued to speak their own language, Hebrew; (3) They remained highly moral; (4) They remained loyal to one another.

Wine is used because it is a symbol of joy and happiness.

More reasons for the four cups

Why We Recline

When drinking the four cups and eating the matzah, we lean on our left side to accentuate the fact that we are free people. In ancient times only free people had the luxury of reclining while eating.

2. Urchatz—Washing

We wash our hands in the usual, ritually prescribed manner, as is done before a meal, but without the customary blessing.

The next step in the Seder, Karpas, requires dipping food into water. Jewish law specifies that certain wet foods be eaten with a utensil or that one’s hands be purified first by washing. On the eve of the Seder, we choose the less common (but more ideal) observance to arouse our children’s curiosity.

Step-by-step washing instructions

3. Karpas—the “Appetizer”

A small piece of vegetable (an onion or boiled potato in Chabad tradition) is dipped into salt water and eaten (after reciting the blessing over vegetables).

Dipping the karpas in salt water (after having washed our hands) is part of a series of acts intended arouses the child’s curiosity.

The Hebrew word karpas (parsley), when read backwards, alludes to the backbreaking labor performed by the 600,000 Jews in Egypt. (The last letter, samech, has the numerical equivalent of 60, representing 60 times 10,000, while the remaining three Hebrew letters spell perech, “hard work.”)

The meaning behind the karpas

4. Yachatz—Breaking the Matzah

The middle matzah on the Seder plate is broken in two. The smaller part of the middle matzah is returned to the Seder plate. This broken middle matzah, the “bread of poverty,” remains visible as we tell the story of Exodus (see step 5) and will be eaten shortly thereafter. The larger piece is put aside for later use as the afikoman (see step 12). This unusual action of breaking the matzah not only attracts the child’s attention once again, but also recalls G‑d’s splitting of the Sea of Reeds to allow the children of Israel to cross on dry land.

A deep lesson from the broken matzah

5. Maggid—the Haggadah

At this point, the poor are invited to join the Seder. The Seder tray is moved aside, a second cup of wine is poured, and the child, who by now is bursting with curiosity, asks the time-honored question:

Mah nishtanah ha-lailah hazeh mikol ha-leilot? Why is this night different from all other nights?” Why only matzah? Why the dipping? Why the bitter herbs? Why are we relaxing and reclining as if we were kings?

The child’s questioning triggers one of the most significant elements of Passover, which is the highlight of the Seder ceremony: reading the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The answer includes a brief review of history, a brief narrative of how how Abraham rejected idolatry and entered a pact with G‑d, a description of the suffering imposed upon the Israelites, a listing of the plagues visited on the Egyptians, and an enumeration of the miracles performed by the Almighty to redeem His people. We conclude by thanking G‑d for the having set us free from Egypt and a prayer for the Final Redemption.

Brush up with the Four Questions trainer

6. Rachtzah—Washing Before the Meal

After concluding the first part of the Haggadah by drinking the second cup of wine (while reclining), the hands are washed again, this time with the customary blessings, as is usually done before eating bread.

Step-by-step washing instructions

7-8. Motzi Matzah—We Eat the Matzah

Taking hold of the three matzahs (with the broken one between the two whole ones), recite the customary blessing before bread. Then, letting the bottom matzah drop back onto the plate, and holding the top whole matzah with the broken middle one, recite the special blessing “al achilat matzah.” Then break a bit of the upper matzah and at least one ounce from the middle matzah (ideally an ounce from each), and eat the two pieces together while reclining.

What Is Matzah?

9. Maror—the Bitter Herbs

Take at least one ounce of the bitter herbs. Dip it in the charoset, then shake the latter off and make the blessing “al achilat maror.” Eat without reclining.

What is maror?

10. Korech—the Hillel Sandwich

In keeping with the practice of Hillel, the great Talmudic sage, a sandwich of matzah and maror is eaten. Break two pieces off the bottom matzah, which should be at least one ounce together. Again, take at least one ounce of bitter herbs and dip them in the charoset, which is shaken off. Place this between the two pieces of matzah, say “kein asah Hillel…,” and eat the sandwich while reclining.

Learn more about the korech

11. Shulchan Orech—the Feast

The holiday meal is now served. We begin the meal by eating the hard-boiled egg dipped into salt water. Traditionally associated with mourning, the egg reminding us that our meal lacks the sacrificial lamb.

Note: The zeroa (the leg of lamb or chicken leg or neck on the Seder plate), is not eaten at the Seder.

Passover stories to share at the meal

12. Tzafun—Out of Hiding

After the meal, the half-matzah that had been “hidden” and set aside for the afikoman (“dessert”) is taken out and eaten. It symbolizes the Paschal lamb, which our ancestors ate at the end of their Passover Seders.

Everyone should eat at least 1½ ounces of matzah, reclining, before midnight. After eating the afikoman, we do not eat or drink anything except for the two remaining cups of wine.

13. Berach—Blessings After the Meal

A third cup of wine is filled and Grace After Meals is recited. After the Grace, we recite the blessing over wine and drink the third cup while reclining.

Now we fill the cup of Elijah and our own cups with wine. We open the door and recite the passage inviting the Prophet Elijah, the harbinger of the coming of Moshiach, our righteous Messiah.

Why we open the door for Elijah

14. Hallel—Songs of Praise

At this point, having recognized the Almighty and His unique guidance of the Jewish people, we go still further and sing His praises as L‑rd of the entire universe.

After reciting the Hallel, we again recite the blessing over wine and drink the fourth cup, reclining.

15. Nirtzah—Acceptance

Having carried out the Seder service properly, we are sure that it has been well received by the Almighty. We then say “Leshanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim—Next year in Jerusalem.”

Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous Los angeles April 9, 2017

such beautiful illustrations.... Reply

Neil Hanson April 8, 2017

Not the "Sea of Reeds". The Red Sea. How could the entire Egyptian army be drowned in 3 foot of water? Watch "Exodus Explained" movie.

This explanation on what and how to eat is excellent. I'm still learning. Reply

David Logan Nice, France April 10, 2017
in response to Neil Hanson:

"Red Sea" / "Sea of Reeds " use the same words. " Reeds" is the appropriate translation, not the Hollywood one. Reply Staff via January 22, 2017

To Betty When the Holy Temple was standing the Paschal sacrifice was indeed the highlight of the Seder, however since we may not offer sacrifices now, lamb is not eaten. Reply

Betty Reeves North MS January 19, 2017

Somewhere I thought the Seder meal main dish was lamb? Reply

Mathan Singapore April 22, 2016

My appreciation Thank you so much for all this information. Though i was alone in celebrating the passover, it was quite fun reading prayers and trying to bake unleavened bread. Reply

Paul Tacoma, WA April 16, 2016

Seder Meal Not being Jewish, my family still wishes to observe the Passover according to Bible tradition, but we are reluctant, not wanting to make any mistake. Can anyone help? Reply

Ruth Liebowitz Sydney April 4, 2016

Thank you
I will look forward to sharing your commentary with my family. Reply

Casper Netherlands April 3, 2015

Very interesting read Thanx, will help me as a guideline. Reply

Malkie Janowski for April 2, 2015

The first tip is to have your child take a nice long nap on Friday afternoon. I know this can be easier said than done, but make it a priority. Secondly, use a hagadda with pictures (two different hagaddas with pictures is even better). Look at them with her, and talk about what the pictures mean. Remember that the Seder is about telling the story of Pesach, even if the one you're telling it to is a two year old.

Make sure you have food as well that you can give your child if she gets hungry. He or she does not need to wait until the hagadda is through. And last, bring along a stroller to wherever you're going to be for the Seder, and your little one can go to sleep when needed. Reply

Jim So. California April 2, 2015

Why not just say the words in the vernacular? In this country the language is English. Since we are
being overrun by Mexico, why not in Spanish?
J. Reply

Yoinoson CT April 4, 2017
in response to Jim:

Jim, go google the term "loshon hakodesh" - literally means holy tongue. Prayers may be in any language so as to be understandable, but really must only be in Hebrew. This is true everywhere, not just here in the US Reply

Esther Featherston April 1, 2015

I am s single mother of a 2year old and this is the first sader away from my family any suggestions on how I can make it more bareable for a wee child to sit through? Reply

Mrs. Chana Benjaminson via March 31, 2015

to Aaron Correct, we make the blessing on matzah as we may not eat challah on Pesach. This Friday night we follow the order included in the Haggadah, that is Kiddush first, washing of the hands and dipping a vegetable in salt water, reading of the Haggadah then washing again for matzah etc. Reply

Shaul Wolf March 30, 2015

Re: While doing Korech only the lettuce is dipped into Charoset and not the Matzah. Those that are especially careful from having the Matzah come into contact with water don't even dip the lettuce, rather they carefully place a small amount of dry Charoset onto the lettuce and then shake it off. Reply

Aaron israel March 30, 2015

Since the Seder is also Friday, do we still do the kiddush over wine and matza instead of bread? Reply

jacki florida March 29, 2015

matzo aren't you wetting the matzo here?
Korech—the Sandwich

In keeping with the custom instituted by Hillel, the great Talmudic sage, a sandwich of matzah and maror is eaten. Break off two pieces of the bottom matzah, which together should be at least one ounce. Again, take at least one ounce of bitter herbs and dip them in the charoset. Place this between the two pieces of matzah, say “kein asah Hillel . . .” and eat the sandwich while reclining. Reply

Anonymous March 29, 2015

We're having a small seder w our 21 yr old college son at NYU.
Will go through the hagadah, but looking for some good discussion ideas for thoughtful provocative conversation.
Any ideas and suggestions?
Many thanks Reply

Mar South Africa March 26, 2015

Answer to Mary HI Mary

What you are referring to is the children looking for the afikoman. When the matah is broken early on in the seder part of it is put away until later to be eaten as the last bit of the meal after which it is forbidden to eat anything else.

There is a tradition that the afikoman is hidden and the children look for it and get a prize when it is found. This is done so as to keep the children interested and awake during the seder. It generally works as it is a highlight of the evening for many kids. As a side note- some work the tradition differently and the children hide the afikoman and the person leading the seder then has to find it. Somehow he never does and he ends up giving the children gifts in exchange for the afikoman. Different families have different customs- but in the end the effect is the same, the kids look forward to the afikoma and end up staying awake and paying attention until the end of the story of our redemption from Egypt has been completed Reply

Mary B March 26, 2015

I attended a Seder many years ago and I faintly remember a children's "game" where at the end of the meal the children looked under the seat of their chairs and some discovered a coin or some sort of prize. Does anyone have any insight? I will be attending a Seder and would like to share this tradition if indeed there is one.. Reply

Keisha chigumira Holy rosary April 25, 2017
in response to Mary B:

How was it Reply

Andrea Ronzoni March 19, 2013

Passover lamb When is the passover lamb cooked and eaten? Reply

Mrs. Chana Benjaminson via March 15, 2013

To Donna Please see What is an Appropriate Gift for my Seder Hosts for suggestions Reply

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