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Passover Seder

Passover Seder

The Passover Seder explained with details of the first Seder in Egypt, the Seder Plate, guide for the 17 steps in the Haggadah, Matzah, Ten Plagues chart, and Pesach 2015 guide. ____________________________

The Passover Seder (Pesach Seder) is the meal which begins the seven-day Jewish Passover holiday. This year, the Seder will start at sundown on the evening of Friday, April 3, 2015, on the night between the 14th and the 15th days of the Biblical month of Nissan.

The first Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) was the defining event that changed a tribal family into the nation of God. So important is this holiday that many Jewish families will spend an entire month in preparation before the Seder Plate is placed on the Passover table.

This Jewish holiday has been celebrated continuously since the days of Moses, thousands of years ago. It is steeped in traditions and customs from Egypt (where the holiday originated), from Israel, and from wherever Jews have lived all over the world.

In this article you will find everything you need to know to understand the Seder, to attend a Seder as a guest, or to host your own Seder meal.


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The Passover Seder


The Haggadah

Seder Plate

Guests at the Pesach Seder

Passover Calendar for 2014

Passover Seder Checklist


Pesach Seder Essentials

The Passover Seder

The Passover Seder began as a commandment given by God to the descendants of a man named Jacob. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and he fathered twelve sons who became the ancestors of twelve tribes of people.

Jacob's name was changed to Israel by a messenger of God – Genesis (Bereshit) 32:28, 29. Israel's descendants became known as the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Children of Israel. They were also called Hebrews, because the Hebrew language was their mother tongue.

During a time of famine, the small family of 70 people left their home in present-day Israel and moved to Egypt. There, they found favor from the ruling Pharaoh and were given an allotment of land in the rich Nile Delta in a region called Goshen.

Jacob's son Joseph became a great leader in Egypt and was second in command under the Pharaoh. The Israelites flourished and grew into a great multitude of people. After 350 years, a new dynasty arose in Egypt and a time of oppression began for the descendants of Israel.

Slavery of the Hebrews in Israel

Slavery of the Hebrews in Israel

"And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them."

Exodus (Shemot) 2:24, 25

After 80 years of forced servitude that progressed to actual slavery and fierce brutality, the situation of the Hebrews reached a crisis point. It became clear that their very lives were in danger.

The children of Israel were released from their bondage and allowed to leave Egypt as a result of a single event: the Passover Seder. The Seder celebrated today is a unique family dinner that began with this historic event.

The first Passover Seder came after a series of confrontations which pitted the Pharaoh of Egypt against the God of Israel. God's emissary, Moses, and the leaders of the Tribes of Israel brought God's message to Pharaoh:

Let My People Go

Let My People Go

After nine horrific plagues were inflicted upon the Egyptian kingdom by God, Pharaoh would not release the Hebrews. One last plague was planned: the death of the firstborn in Egyptian households.

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God instructed the Children of Israel to choose a yearling from among their herds of goats or sheep on the tenth of the month of Nissan. At the end of the 14th of Nissan, at sundown, each family was to slaughter its chosen animal. The kid or the lamb was to have no marks on its body and was not to be butchered, but roasted whole over fire.

When the meat was prepared, they were commanded to take a cluster of hyssop and dip it into the animal's blood which was drained before roasting. Then, they were to strike the lintel and the two side posts of their doorways with the blood.

God Will Pass Over the Door

God Will Pass Over the Door


"Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; but on the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whosoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel."

Exodus (Shemot) 12:15


God commanded the families of Israel to eat the meal with matzah (the Hebrew word for unleavened bread) and with bitter herbs.

Matzah (matzo, matzah or matzoh) is the bread of affliction. It is dry, tasteless and without the delicious aroma of freshly baked bread. It is a bread of sustenance, not of pleasure. It is the bread of humility.

Matzah is so central to what is the Passover holiday, that Passover is called the Feast of Matzah (or the Festival of Matzah) more than ten times in the Bible.

Matzah is eaten every day for the seven days of the Passover festival week. It is a commandment that no leavening shall be kept in one's house and no leavened food may be eaten for seven days.

The bitter herbs set the tone of the Passover Seder. They are a reminder of the bitter cruelty of slavery and of the bitter judgment upon the firstborn of Egypt on the night God would pass over the houses of the Israelites and protect them.

The Passover Meal with Matzah and Bitter Herbs

The Passover Meal with Matzah and Bitter Herbs

"It is the Pesach [Passover] of God...And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and you shall keep it a feast to God; throughout your generations you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever....And you shall observe the Feast of Matzah for on this exact day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations by an ordinance for ever."

Exodus (Shemot) 12:11, 14, 17

At midnight, on the night of the first Passover Seder, God's judgment entered the homes of the Egyptians and slew the firstborn, but it passed over the homes of the Hebrews. When a great cry was heard from the houses of the Egyptians, Pharaoh sent for Moses and he finally let the people go.

As the sun rose on the morning of the 15th day of Nissan, the children of Israel left their home of 430 years – the Exodus – and began the long journey back to their homeland.

God commanded that this fateful night be remembered forever and be observed with a Passover meal. This is why, every year, Jewish families all over the world have a Passover Seder which begins just as the sun sets at the end of the day on the 14th of Nissan.


The Haggadah

The word Seder is a Hebrew word which literally means order and it refers to an accepted order of events at the Passover meal. The word comes from the Hebrew verb infinitive l’sader, meaning to arrange.

"You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt.’"

Exodus (Shemot) 13:8

The Szyk Haggadah, illustrated with 48 works by artist Arthur Szyk, was originally produced in a numbered edition of 250 copies which sold for $500 each.

The Passover Seder is a long ceremony around a family's dinner table and the program for the ritual is a book called the Haggadah. Haggadah is a Hebrew word which means telling and the book is named in honor of the commandment given that each generation must tell the children about the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah tells that story.

The Haggadah contains the set order for the Seder and most editions usually contain explanations for each part of the ceremony.

At the Seder table, there is a copy of the Haggadah at every place setting. They can be paperback books, computer printouts or treasured heirlooms.

One thing is certain and that is that every family needs many copies and a Haggadah is always a welcomed gift to bring to the hosting family if you are invited to a Seder.

After the hostess lights candles and says a blessing, everyone opens the Haggadah and the Seder begins.

 Passover Seder from Szyk Haggadah

Passover Seder from Szyk Haggadah

Seder Table with Copies of the Haggadah

Seder Table with Copies of the Haggadah

Four Cups of Wine

Four Cups of Wine

The order of the Seder from the Haggadah begins with a blessing.

1. Blessing over Wine

The Seder begins with a blessing over wine (or grape juice). At a traditional Seder, there will be four cups of wine served throughout the evening. The four cups represent the promises God made to the Tribes of Israel just before the first Passover:

"I will bring you out…I will deliver you…I will redeem you…I will take you to be My people."

Exodus (Shemot) 6:6, 7

The wine represents rejoicing in God's fulfillment of these four promises. The first cup of wine is finished here and the cup is refilled.

2. Ritual Handwashing

3. Green Vegetable (Karpas) Dipped in Salt Water

The vegetable represents springtime and the month of Nissan – which is the first month of the year on the Jewish calendar because it was the month of the Exodus from Egypt.

A sweet vegetable is dipped in salt water which represents the tears of slavery and the tears of the Egyptians who endured God's judgments. Together, they are the sweet and the sour of the first Passover Seder.

4. Break the Afikomen

The Afikomen is a piece of matzah which will be hidden in a game for the children to find. It is placed in a special Afikomen bag. Later, after the children find its hiding place, the Afikomen will be used for dessert after the meal. The word Afikomen literally means dessert.

The Four Questions

The Four Questions

5. Telling of the Story

The story of the first Passover is told with the participation of all of the guests at the Seder table. It begins with the youngest children asking questions. It is considered a commandment for the children to ask questions because of this verse about the Seder meal:

"...You shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children say to you, 'What does this service mean to you?'..."

Exodus (Shemot) 12:26, 27

So the children ask The Four Questions. (Translations at this link include Hebrew, English, Yiddish, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Korean).

The Four Questions are usually sung in a song called Mah Nishtanah? (Why is This Night Different?)

This leads to singing of several other songs related to Passover. One of the favorite songs for English speakers is the Negro Spiritual, Go Down Moses.

Then, the Ten Plagues are recounted. These are the plagues God inflicted upon the kingdom of Egypt to force Pharaoh to let the people go. Because the plagues caused death and destruction to the Egyptians, it is the custom to remove ten drops of wine with the fingertip, symbolizing the suffering of the Egyptian people. Thus, removing the wine is removing some of the rejoicing of the Seder's festive night.

The Ten Plagues

The Ten Plagues

Bitter Herbs of Romaine Lettuce and Horseradish

Bitter Herbs of Romaine Lettuce and Horseradish

6. Second Cup of Wine

7. Second Ritual Handwashing

8. Blessing over the Matzah

After blessing the matzah, everyone eats some matzah.

9. Blessing over Bitter Herbs (Maror)

Bitter herbs are eaten. Most people use horseradish or romaine lettuce. In some traditions, a type of small sandwich is made with matzah and bitter herbs or matzah and charoset. Charoset is a mixture of nuts, fruit and wine and it is said to resemble the mortar of the bricks the Hebrews were forced to make when they were slaves in Egypt.

10. Dinner

Dinner is served and eaten.

11. Afikomen Dessert

The children who find the hidden Afikomen matzah are rewarded with prizes, usually small toys or candy. Families with many small children will hide the Afikomen several times so that all the children can find it and win a prize.

12. Grace after the Meal

The prayer of thanksgiving is recited from the Haggadah.

13. Third Cup of Wine

14. Fourth Cup of Wine

The fourth cup of wine is poured.

15. Elijah's Cup

With the pouring of the fourth cup of wine, a cup is poured for the prophet Elijah (Eliyahu). Every Seder table has a special cup for Elijah and it is only used once a year on the Seder night.

This is done to remember the promise God made about a future exodus of the Children of Israel from all the lands of the Diaspora. Before they all return to their homeland in Israel, a future series of plagues and judgments will begin. Just before this happens, God promised to send Elijah (Malachi 4:1-5). So, a cup of wine is poured for him.

The door is then opened, in expectation that Elijah might soon make his appearance. And, after the fourth cup of wine, it's easy to imagine that he appears at the door!

Opening the Door for Elijah the Prophet

Opening the Door for Elijah the Prophet

The painting below is by the famous artist, Marc Chagall. Look to the right of the picture, and you will see the prophet Elijah at the opened door.

Passover Painting 'The Party'

Passover Painting 'The Party'

16. Songs

Songs and Psalms are sung and each family has its list of favorites. During this festive part of the Passover Seder, everyone enjoys the fourth cup of wine.

17. Final Prayer

The final prayer is said. Jews living outside of Israel conclude the Seder with these words:

"Shana Haba B'Yerushalayim"
(Next year in Jerusalem)


Seder Plate

Central to the Passover Seder meal is the Seder plate (Ke'ara). For generations, artists have created Seder plates to beautify the holiday table, to honor the holiness of the festival, and to be treasured as family heirlooms.

From the very first Passover thousands of years ago, this festival is celebrated "according to their fathers' households." – Exodus (Shemot) 12:3

Because families unite for this holiday, each family has memories of Passover Seders from previous years. These memories are passed from generation to generation and so are the precious family Seder plates. Always a favored gift, a Seder plate is a welcomed present anytime of the year.

Like the Haggadah, the Seder plate tells a story. Its story is told visually with foods symbolizing the Exodus from Egypt.

The Seder plate is the centerpiece of the Seder table and it is positioned in front of the person who leads the reading of the Haggadah.

This short video explains what is put on the Seder plate:

Foods on the Seder Plate




Geen vegetable

Parsley, scallions, celery or boiled potatoes



Clay or mortar

Paste made with fruit, nuts and wine



Bitter herbs

Horseradish, romaine lettuce or endives




Roasted egg




Roasted shank bone




Grated fresh horseradish


Guests at the Pesach Seder

The Haggadah begins with these words:

"Let all who are hungry, come and eat.
Let all who are needy
come and celebrate Passover."

It is considered a great honor to have guests for the Seder meal. Just as the door is opened for Elijah, the door is also opened for guests. Visitors from other cities, soldiers, and those without local families are always invited to share the Seder with a hosting family or synagogue. Non-Jewish friends and neighbors are often invited to participate in a family's Seder, as well.

If you are invited to a Seder, please accept the invitation and "come and celebrate Passover."

If you are an invited guest and want to bring your hostess a gift, you'll find lots of items to choose from on this page. Whatever you decide, don't ever bring food to a Jewish home during the Passover week. (God gave many commandments for observing this festival and some are about what to eat and what not to eat for the week. A gift of food, no matter how well-intentioned, might not be accepted and often cannot even be brought into the home. )

In modern times, many non-Jews have decided to celebrate Passover by conducting their own Seders.

Guests at the Passover Seder

Guests at the Passover Seder

Guess Who's Coming to Seder

Did you recognize four people? If you didn't recognize anyone in the picture, maybe you will recognize the family from this photo of their Pesach Seder from last year:

Pesach Seder at the White House on March 25, 2013

Pesach Seder at the White House on March 25, 2013