Walk Me Through This, Please
Here we go! Passover is the ultimate family holiday, not simply because of the cleaning beforehand, but due to the infinite number of customs throughout the week. Just like God’s promise to Abraham -- that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars -- it appears that Passover has almost just as many styles of celebrating. Even if you don’t see yourself indulging in some of the more unusual sounding customs, it is nonetheless fascinating to learn the origin and significance of these traditions. These can vary from family to family, not just by community, global region, or synagogue.
Passover celebrations can be categorized in many ways, but it’s easiest to classify them according to standard Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. (Ashkenazi traditions originate from European Jewish communities, and Sephardic traditions are from Jewish communities in Spain. The key difference is the use of kitniyot on Passover (beans, seeds, rice, legumes, soy, and tofu). These are avoided by Ashkenazim because of their similar appearance and consistency to chametz, leavened foods. Sephardim will use these foods but sift through them carefully and often more than once, to make sure there are no grains accidentally mixed in. There are many exceptions to the kitniyot rule though as Jewish cultures blend and families take on new traditions.
Where's This Freedom We've Heard About?
Have you ever wondered: for a holiday that celebrates freedom, isn’t it strange to have so many different rules and restrictions? This is a popular question with many different approaches. One answer is that as Jewish people, we don’t believe freedom means doing anything and everything out there. Making your own choices and decisions within a structured environment while still serving G-d often leads to a greater happiness and sense of fulfillment.
The differences with foods eaten during Pesach are vast. Some people will use processed foods sold in stores, while others only eat homemade food (usually making exceptions for wine and matzah). However, with all these differences, most people prepare for the holiday the same way. We clean our homes, get rid of all chametz by selling or burning; conduct a “bedikat chametz” search the night before; spend all of Passover staying away from chametz (leavened foods), and eat a whole lot of matzah!
Let's Prepare For The Seder
Candle lighting begins at sundown on the 15th day of the Hebrew month Nissan. Ashkenazi women light at least two candles; Sephardim light seven (for kabbalistic reasons). After nightfall, everyone gathers at the table to begin the seder. In Israel, there’s only one seder, but outside of Israel, we have a seder on each of the first two nights of Passover. Jews outside of Israel celebrate an extra day with many of the major Jewish holidays, due to the delay in communications to far away countries about the new moon centuries ago.
The Seder is comprised of 14 steps, matzah, four cups of wine, and a festive meal. Matzah is a special unleavened bread made from flour and water prepared and baked in under 18 minutes. One person typically leads, facilitating discussion and encouraging everyone to participate. It’s a good idea to eat something before the seder begins, as the meal portion doesn’t make its appearance until well into the evening.
Remember To Bring Along:
- Haggadah -- this can be read in Hebrew, English, or whatever language you feel most comfortable in. Many seders are conducted in both Hebrew and English.
4 cups of wine per person
Seder plate and accompanying foods
Hard boiled egg
Two kinds of bitter herbs
Vegetable (usually celery, potato, onion, or parsley)
A pillow to lean on
Everyone wears festive clothing. Many men wear a Kittel, a white robe, over their suits, to further symbolize freedom.
A note about gifts -- If you were invited to a seder whose family standards are different than yours, don’t feel obligated to bring a gift. Because of the varying levels of strictness in observing the holiday, it’s probably better not to bring food. If you don’t want to come empty-handed, it’s safest to stick with wine or flowers (brought before holiday starts). Either way, it’s a good idea to check with your host first to make sure it’s something they are comfortable with.
Our Recommended Passover Haggadahs:
Walk Me Through The 14 Steps
The first step is to make kiddush. It is part of every major Jewish holiday and shows sanctity to the meal. We recline when drinking, to symbolize our freedom (it is customary to recline multiple times throughout the seder).
We wash our hands in the same way the Kohanim (Jewish priests) did before starting their service in the Holy Temple. We use a washing cup, but we do not make a blessing.
Some Jews pour water three times over the right hand, and three times over the left, while others do two each, or one each.
We dip a vegetable into salt water and recite a blessing before eating. Why use a vegetable instead of matzah? Partly because it is springtime, but also to spark curiosity and interest from the children -- many of these customs are set in place to arouse the curiosity of the kids; we want to encourage them to ask questions.
Ashkenazi Jews will use either celery, parsley, potatoes, or onions for Karpas. Sephardic Jews use celery or Romaine lettuce and dip either in salt water, vinegar, lemon juice, or lime juice.
The salt water is a reminder of the tears shed by our ancestors in Egypt. We also keep in mind the maror we plan to eat later as we don’t wish to make a blessing over a bitter, distasteful food.
Dip the vegetable in salt water or other liquid and recite:
Baruch atah ado-nai elo-heinu melech ha’olam borei p’ri ha’adamah.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the ground.
Now take a bite.
It’s time to break that middle matzah! Break it in half and return the smaller piece back in your Matzah bag or case. Now wrap the bigger piece -- called the afikoman -- into a separate bag to hide for the children to find later on. You’ll plan to eat the afikoman at the end of the meal.
Why do we break the matzah? It commemorates the way that an impoverished person eats his bread. A poor person may not know when his next meal is, and thinks ahead to save some for later.
Pour the second cup of wine.
This step is placed relatively early in the meal, before the children go to bed. The intention is clear: we want to give ourselves plenty of time for kids to participate in this part of the seder, specifically so they can ask the Mah Nishtanah, the Four Questions.
We start by inviting all who are hungry to come and eat, and then proceed to the Four Questions:
Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mi’kol haleilot?
Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlim chametz u’matzah, halailah hazeh kulo matzah.
Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlim she’ar yirakot, halailah hazeh maror.
Sheb’chol haleilot ain anu matbilim afilu pa’am echad, halailah hazeh sh’tei p’amim.
Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlim bein yoshvim u’vein misubim, halailah hazeh kulanu misubim.
Why is this night so different from all other nights?
On all other nights we eat chametz and matzah, but on this night we only eat matzah.
On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs.
On all other nights we don’t dip our food even once, but on this night we dip twice.
On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, but on this night we all recline.
The rest of the Hagaddah text during Maggid seeks to resolve the complex and apparent paradox of our customs -- why are we commemorating our time as slaves while at the same time acting like free people? We read about the patriarchs and continue with the narrative of the Jewish People suffering under Egyptian rule. We learn about the miraculous journey: Moses and Aaron’s leadership under G-d’s protection, the 10 Plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, wandering through the desert, and the Giving of the Torah.
There is a verse we recite that states, “in every generation a person must consider himself to have been personally redeemed from the land of Egypt” (Mishnah Pesachim 116b). For Ashkenazim, the words are lir’ot et atzmo, to see oneself in this way. For Sephardim, the haggadah’s text reads lihar’ot et atzmo, to show oneself as redeemed, which is interpreted to mean acting out the story of Passover. Many families lightly hit each other with scallions and walk around the table with a sack attached to a stick over one’s shoulder. They also raise the seder plate above their heads and pass it around the table in a circular motion, to show that it was a process from slavery to freedom.
In the middle of the text, we mention the 10 Plagues. We either pour or dip a finger in our cup of wine to count each plague mentioned. Some Sephardim spill the wine outside to avoid the Evil Eye; others won’t even look at the excess wine. (Spoiler alert: many of the Sephardic customs have something to do with the “Evil Eye.”)
Pesach, Matzah, and Maror
This is the most important part of the Seder as it summarizes the Hagaddah into three short paragraphs. We read each passage in Hebrew and English, and point to each item on the Seder plate as we read about it.
The zero’ah symbolizes the Paschal lamb Sacrifice, or Korban Pesach. This is to thank G-d for “passing over” the Jewish homes and sparing the first born sons when the 10th Plague struck all of Egypt. It is represented on the seder plate as a chicken neck, and remains on the seder plate uneaten. The word zero’ah means arm, because we were redeemed by G-d’s outstretched arm.
Now it’s time to drink the second cup of wine. Don’t forget to lean!
We wash our hands again, but this time with a blessing in preparation for eating matzah.
Baruch atah ado-nai elo-heinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to wash our hands.
We don’t talk again until we eat the matzah, to avoid making a separation between washing hands and reciting the blessings.
There are many different types of Matzah for Passover: there’s machine made matzah, handmade shmurah matzah, round shaped, square shaped, and matzah made from spelt, whole wheat, or other kinds of grain flour.
The matzah tends toward a softer consistency in Middle Eastern regions, while Jews from countries in Eastern Europe typically produce crispy/hard matzah.
Baruch atah ado-nai elo-heinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who causes bread to be produced from the ground.
Baruch atah ado-nai elo-heinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al achilat matzah.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to eat matzah.
Now -- crunch, crunch, crunch!
Here is where we eat the bitter herbs, dipped in charoset. The bitter taste reminds us of the hard life endured by the Jews in Egypt. Ashkenazi Jews typically use Romaine lettuce, endives, or horseradish, while Sephardim use escarole or endives.
Charoset varies in consistency and ingredient base, depending largely on the food available historically in different regions. Typically, charoset features apples, nuts, wine, cinnamon, and sugar, and others add in a combination of figs, dates, raisins, apricots, oranges, pomegranates or honey.
Dip the maror in charoset and recite the following blessing before eating:
Baruch atah ado-nai elo-heinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al achilat maror.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to eat maror.
Many believe that John Montagu, otherwise known as the fourth Earl of Sandwich, invented the sandwich in the 1700’s. Yet hereby Korech, we see that R’ Hillel actually came up with the idea millennia before - albeit with a different name! To enjoy the world’s original sandwich meal, simply take two pieces of matzah with maror and charoset in the middle, read the passage in the Hagaddah, and enjoy.
You may not be hungry by now, but it’s finally time to eat the holiday meal! We start with the egg on the seder plate, which symbolizes the korban chagigah (holiday offering) brought up in the Holy Temple. Note that the zero’a (shank bone) remains on the seder plate and is not eaten during the seder.
No one is bound to their own culture nowadays as far as cuisine is concerned. Every family creates their own individualized menu, whether it’s special dishes passed down from great-grandmothers, or new recipes to try out. From a historical perspective, however, typically you’ll find dishes like apple kugel, mama’s brisket, and matzah ball soup at many Ashkenazi Passover tables, and spicy fish, rice, curried meats, and bean-based salads at many Sephardic ones.
Here’s the search for the afikoman, the smaller half of the original Matza that we designated and placed in the Afikomen bag earlier in the evening. Some families have the children hide it and the head of the Seder goes looking for it, while in other homes, it’s flipped. Often the children end up bargaining for a reward, an afikomen present, before returning it to the table.
Now it’s time to eat the afikomen as “dessert” for the Seder. There’s no more food eaten after this point. Many try to eat the afikomen by the mid-night Chatzos, which is usually between 12 to 1 am.
Pour the third cup of wine.
As the first Jew, Abraham taught everyone about G-d’s existence. He welcomed guests into his home and taught them to bless G-d to thank Him for providing everything we need to sustain ourselves. We continue this practice to this day, as it’s important to cultivate an attitude of being grateful for the things we have -- it is easy to complain about that which we don’t have.
Drink the third cup, while leaning.
Pour the fourth cup of wine.
We sing G-d’s praises, thanking Him for all the miracles He performed when taking us out of Egypt. Ashkenazim welcome Elijah the Prophet at the front door with a lit candle. It is said that he visits every seder. Sephardim do not observe this custom but many will create a hamsa imprint by dipping their fingers into charoset, and hang the imprint on the front door to ward off evil spirits. Some have a cup for Miriam as well, Moses’ sister.
When you are finished reading this portion of the haggadah, lean while drinking the fourth cup of wine.
We are still in exile, we remember our grief for the lost Temple. We end the seder on a hopeful note, telling each other that the seder will be spent -
"Next Year in Jerusalem!"
Still not quite ready for the seder? Not to worry, here are more of our favorites from the Passover collection: