Along with Sukkot and Shavuot, Passover is one of the Shalosh Regalim, or Three Pilgrimage Festivals, during which people gathered in Jerusalem with their agricultural offerings in ancient times. 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); chametz (abstention from eating leaven); b’iur chametz (removal of leaven from the home); and haggadah (participation in the seder meal and telling the story).
The seder is the centerpiece of any Passover experience. A seder is an elaborate festive meal that takes place on the first night(s) of the holiday of Passover. 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 Haggaddah, 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 during the first day(s) of the holiday.
The content of the seder can be summed up by the following Hebrew rhyme:
Each of these fifteen steps are summarized and explained below:
- Kaddesh: Sanctification
A blessing is recited over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is then drunk. A second cup is then poured (but not yet drunk).
- Urechatz: Washing
Participants wash their hands without a blessing in preparation for eating the Karpas.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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 one, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked one, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple one, who needs to know the basics; and the one who is unable to ask, who doesn't even know enough to know what he needs to know. At the end of the Magid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.
- Rachtzah: Washing
Participants wash their hands again, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.
- Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products
The ha-motzi blessing, the blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.
- Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
- Maror: Bitter Herbs
A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The maror is dipped in charoset, 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 Korech, below.
- Korech: 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 (we don't do animal sacrifice anymore, so there is no paschal offering to eat).
- Shulchan Orech: 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 traditionally 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.
- Tzafun: The Afikoman
The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as "desert," 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. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.
- Barech: Grace after Meals
The third cup of wine is poured, and birkat ha-mazon (Grace after Meals) is recited. This is similar to the Grace that would be said on any Shabbat, but with the special insertion for Pesach. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup 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 this. The door is then opened to invite Elijah into our homes.
- Hallel: Praises
The standard group of psalms that make up a full Hallel are recited at this point. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.
- 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). This can 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, 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) enunciate the duty of the parents to tell the story of the Exodus to their children.
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 a mixture of apples, nuts and spices.
The following symbolic foods should be placed near the leader of the Seder. During the course of the Seder, they are pointed out, lifted up and displayed, and explained.
On the Seder plate (use either a special one for this purpose or a regular dinner plate), include:
- Shank bone—zaro’ah, 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 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 the springtime of the year when Passover takes place
Also place on the table:
- Three matzot (pl. 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
Along with these traditional symbols, families may choose to include a Cup of Miriam—Kos Miriam—on the holiday table. This symbol honors Miriam, the sister of Moses, who played a vital role in the history of our people. The cup of Miriam is a special goblet filled with water and placed on the Seder table.
The Haggadah (plural: 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 4th step of the seder, Yachatz. It is traditional 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 of the seder, Tzafun.
Following an ancient practice of Babylonian Jews that is now observed throughout the world, the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are divided into fifty-four sections called parashat hashevua, the weekly portion. A different section is read each Shabbat. Special sections of the Torah are designated to be read at each Jewish holiday. Often, these sections are thematically related to the holiday.
The Torah reading for the first day of Passover is taken from Exodus 12:37-42 and 13:3-10, which describes the Exodus from Egypt, the basis for the Passover story. The Haftarah reading, an additional selection from the Prophetic books, is Isaiah 43:1-15.