What is seder and what can I expect at a seder dinner?
If this is your first seder, here is your guide to what is on the seder plate, how to eat it and how many glasses of wine you get.
Seder is a feast held on the first two nights of Passover. The holiday meal is done in a certain order signifying the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery.
The “Haggadah” is the book used at the Passover seder to explain the foods on the seder plate, retell the story of the exodus and includes songs and prayers.
What is on a seder plate?
Typically on a seder plate, you’ll find a roasted egg, shankbone, bitter herbs (usually horseradish), charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts, spices and wine), lettuce and parsley.
The roasted egg symbolizes spring. Lettuce is often included as a bitter herb. The shankbone is symbolic of the lamb offered as a sacrifice during biblical times, but a chicken neck or beets (for vegetarian households) can be substituted.
The mixture of apples and nuts symbolizes the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build structures for the Egyptians. The parsley is dipped in saltwater to represent the tears shed during slavery. The bitter herbs, usually horseradish, represent the bitterness of slavery.
Some families include an orange on the seder plate to acknowledge the role of marginalized people like LGBTQ Jews, according to ReformJudaism.org.
In the 1980s, feminists at Oberline College placed a crust of bread on the seder plate, saying, “There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.”
Susannah Heschel, a professor at the college, adapted the gesture and added an orange to her family’s seder plate. The orange is shared in segments and the seeds, which are said to represent homophobia, are spit out.
There will also be three pieces of matzo on a plate. Two pieces are reminders of the manna that believers say fell from heaven to feed the slaves escaping Egypt. One matzo is used during the seder dinner.
Also on the table, a wine cup is left for the profit Elijah. Some newer customs include placing a cup of water for Miriam next to Elijah’s wine glass.
“With this new custom, we recognize that women have always been – and continue to be – integral to the continued survival of the Jewish community,” according to ReformJudaism.org.
What to expect if you've been invited to a seder dinner.
Seders are “low-key and fun,” according to ReformJudaism.org and questions are welcome.
If you aren’t sure if you should dress up or wear casual clothes, just ask the hosts of the seder.
If you want to bring something to the seder dinner, you should first ask your hosts. They might ask you to bring hard-boiled eggs, the kosher horseradish, a vegetable dish, grape juice or kosher-for-Passover wine.
If the hosts don’t tell you what to bring, kosher-for-Passover chocolate, flowers or kosher-for-Passover wine would be a gracious gesture.
If you are bringing a dish to the seder, it cannot have any flour or grain (wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats) or it must say that it is kosher for Passover on the box.
To impress your hosts, greet them with “Gut yontif” (Good Holy Day), “Happy Passover” or “Chag Sameach” (Happy Festival).
The 15 steps to a seder, which means “order.”
There are 15 steps to a seder dinner. The meal begins with benediction and the first of four glasses of wine. Some guests chose to lean or recline, signifying they are free people.
After a ritual handwashing, karpas (parsley) is dipped in saltwater, which represents the tears of slavery.
The middle matzo on the seder plate is broken in half. The smaller piece, “the bread of poverty,” is put back on the seder plate as a visual reminder while the story of the exodus is told. The larger piece is set aside.
The seder tray is set aside and a second cup of wine is poured for the maggid, the fifth step during which the story of the exodus is told.
Another ritualized handwashing takes place, but this time with customary blessings.
The person leading the seder will then hold the matzo, including the broken piece in the middle, and say the blessing. The bottom matzo falls back onto the plate while the special blessing “al achilat matzah” is said. While reclining, those at the dinner will take a piece of the upper matzo and about an ounce from the middle matzo and eat the pieces together while reclining.
Then break a bit of the upper matzo and at least 1 ounce from the middle matzo (ideally an ounce from each), and eat the two pieces together while reclining.
In the ninth step, maror, the guests take at least one ounce of the bitter herbs, dip them in the charoset, eat them without reclining and recite the blessing “al achilat maror.”
The 10th step of the seder dinner involves a sandwich of matzo and bitter herbs dipped in charoset. Participants say “kein asah Hillel,” and then eat the sandwich.
To begin the festive meal, the egg is dipped in saltwater and eaten as a bitter reminder that there is no sacrificial lamb on the table. Favorite foods are served during the meal, like matzah ball soup, meat and vegetables or gefilte (stuffed) fish.
The “hidden” half-matzo is taken out for afikoman, or dessert, and represents the lamb the Hebrew ancestors ate at the end of their Passover seders.
Before midnight, everyone should have eaten at least 1 1/2 ounces of matzo while reclining. After afikoman, nothing else is taken in except for the remaining two glasses of wine.
The third glass of wine is imbibed during berach, blessings after the meal. Elijah’s cup is filled when the guests fill their cups for the fourth and final time and the door to the house is opened.
“We open the door and recite the passage inviting the Prophet Elijah, the harbinger of the coming of Moshiach, our righteous Messiah,” according to Chabad.org.
The fourth glass of wine is drunk while reciting the Hallel, or songs of praise. The seder meal is concluded with the saying, “Leshanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim” — “Next year in Jerusalem.”