The Passover Seder (Hebrew: סֵדֶר [ˈsedeʁ], "order, arrangement"; Yiddish: Sayder) is a Jewish ritual feast that marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover. It is conducted on the evenings of the 14th day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, and on the 15th by traditionally observant Jews living outside Israel. This corresponds to late March or April in the Gregorian calendar.
The Seder is a ritual performed by a community or by multiple generations of a family, involving a retelling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. This story is in Shemot in the Torah. The Seder itself is based on the Biblical verse commanding Jews to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt:
And you shall tell it to your son on that day, saying,
Because of this God did for us when He took me out of Egypt. (Exodus 13:8)
Traditionally, families and friends gather in the evening to read the text of the Haggadah, an ancient work derived from the Mishnah (Pesachim 10). The Haggadah contains the narrative of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, special blessings and rituals, commentaries from the Talmud, and special Passover songs.
Seder customs include drinking four cups of wine, eating matza and partaking of symbolic foods placed on the Passover Seder Plate. The Seder is performed in much the same way by Jews all over the world.
While many Jewish holidays revolve around the synagogue, the Seder is conducted in the family home, although communal Seders are also organized by synagogues, schools and community centers, some open to the general public. It is customary to invite guests, especially strangers and the needy. The Seder is integral to Jewish faith and identity: as explained in the Haggadah, if not for divine intervention and the Exodus, the Jewish people would still be slaves in Egypt. Therefore, the Seder is an occasion for praise and thanksgiving and for rededication to the idea of liberation. Furthermore, the words and rituals of the Seder are a primary vehicle for the transmission of the Jewish faith from grandparent to child, and from one generation to the next. Attending a Seder and eating matza on Passover is a widespread custom in the Jewish community, even among those who are not religiously observant.
The Seder table is traditionally set with the finest place settings and silverware, and family members come to the table dressed in their holiday clothes. There is a tradition for the person leading the Seder to wear a white robe called a Kittel/קיטל (Mishnah Berurah, 472:13). For the first half of the Seder, each participant will only need a plate and a wine glass. At the head of the table is a Seder Plate containing various symbolic foods that will be eaten or pointed out during the course of the Seder. Placed nearby is a plate with three matzot and dishes of salt water for dipping.
Each participant receives a copy of the Haggadah, which is often a traditional version: an ancient text that contains the complete Seder service. Men and women are equally obligated and eligible to participate in the Seder. (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 21) In many homes, each participant at the Seder table will recite at least critical parts of the Haggadah in the original Hebrew and Aramaic. Halachah requires that certain parts be said in language the participants can understand, and critical parts are often said in both Hebrew and the native language. The leader will often interrupt the reading to discuss different points with his or her children, or to offer a Torah insight into the meaning or interpretation of the words.
In some homes, participants take turns reciting the text of the Haggadah, in the original Hebrew or in translation. It is traditional for the head of the household and other participants to have pillows placed behind them for added comfort. At several points during the Seder, participants lean to the left - when drinking the four cups of wine, eating the Afikoman, and eating the korech sandwich.
Jews generally observe one or two seders: in Israel, one seder is observed on the first night of Passover; in the Diaspora communities Jews hold a seder also on the second night.
The rituals and symbolic foods associated with the Seder evoke the twin themes of the evening: slavery and freedom. The rendering of time for the Hebrews was that a day began at sunset and ended at sunset. Historically, at the beginning of the 15th of Nisan the beggining of the in Ancient Egypt, the Jewish people were enslaved to Pharaoh. After the tenth plague (Makat Bechorot) struck Egypt at midnight, killing all the first-born of Pharaoh to the first born of captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first born of livestock (Exodus 12:29), in the land. Pharaoh let the Hebrew nation go, effectively making them freedmen for the second half of the night.
Thus, Seder participants recall the slavery that reigned during the first half of the night by eating Matzo (the "poor man's bread"), Maror (bitter herbs which symbolize the bitterness of slavery), and Charoset (a sweet paste representing the mortar which the Jewish slaves used to cement bricks). Recalling the freedom of the second half of the night, they eat the matzo (the "bread of freedom" and also the "bread of affliction") and 'Afikoman', and drink the four cups of wine, in a reclining position, and dip vegetables into salt water (the dipping being a sign of royalty and freedom, while the salt water recalls the tears the Jews shed during their servitude).
There is an obligation to drink four cups of wine during the Seder. The Mishnah says (Pesachim 10:1) that even the poor are obliged to drink the four cups. Each cup is imbibed at a specific point in the Seder. The first is for Kiddush, the second is for Maggid, the third is for Birkat Hamazon and the fourth is for Hallel.
The Four Cups represent the four expressions of deliverance promised by God Exodus 6:6-7:
I will bring out,
I will deliver,
I will redeem, and
I will take.
The Vilna Gaon relates the Four Cups to four worlds: this world, the Messianic age, the world at the revival of the dead, and the world to come. The Maharal connects them to the four Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel, and Leah. (The three matzot, in turn, are connected to the three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.) The Abarbanel relates the cups to the four historical redemptions of the Jewish people: the choosing of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, the survival of the Jewish people throughout the exile, and the fourth which will happen at the end of days. Therefore it is very important.
The Passover Seder Plate Hebrew: ke'ara (קערה) is a special plate containing symbolic foods eaten or displayed at the Passover Seder.
Each of the six items arranged on the plate has special significance to the retelling of the story of the exodus from Egypt, which is the focus of this ritual meal. The seventh symbolic item used during the meal — a stack of three matzos — is placed on its own plate on the Seder table.
The six traditional items on the Seder Plate are:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Many decorative and artistic Seder Plates sold in Judaica stores have pre-formed spaces for inserting the various symbolic foods.
The seventh symbolic item on the Seder table is a plate of three whole matzot, which are stacked and separated from each other by cloths or napkins. The middle Matzah will be broken and half of it put aside for the Afikoman. The top and other half of the middle matzot will be used for the hamotzi (blessing over bread), and the bottom matzah will be used for the Korech.
A bowl of salt water, which is used for the first "dipping" of the Seder, is not traditionally part of the Seder Plate, but is placed on the table beside it. However, it sometimes is used as one of the six items, omitting chazeret. It is sometimes placed in the center of the plate.
Since the retelling of the Exodus to one's child is the object of the Seder experience, much effort is made to arouse the interest and curiosity of the children and keep them awake during the meal. To that end, questions and answers are a central device in the Seder ritual. By encouraging children to ask questions, they will be more open to hearing the answers.
The most famous question which the youngest child asks at the Seder is the Mah Nishtanah -
Why is this night different from all other nights? After the asking of these questions, the main portion of the Seder, Magid, gives over the answers in the form of a historical review. Also, at different points in the Seder, the leader of the Seder will cover the matzot and lift his cup of wine; then put down the cup of wine and uncover the matzot—all to elicit questions from the children.
In Sephardic tradition, the questions are asked by the assembled company in chorus rather than by a child, and are put to the leader of the seder, who either answers the question or may direct the attention of the assembled company to someone who is acting out that particular part of the Exodus. Physical re-enactment of the Exodus during the Passover seder is common in many families and communities, especially amongst Sephardim.
Families will follow the Haggadah's lead by asking their own questions at various points in the Haggadah and offering prizes such as nuts and candies for correct answers. The afikoman, which is hidden away for the "dessert" after the meal, is another device used to encourage children's participation. In some families, the leader of the Seder hides the afikoman and the children must find it, whereupon they receive a prize or reward. In other homes, the children hide the afikoman and the parent must look for it; when he gives up, the children demand a prize (often money) for revealing its location.
Jewish Sages say that Passover occurs on the 15th of Nissan just as the moon grows for 15 days. The conclusion is that our growth must be in 15 gradual steps just like the Passover puzzle is constituted by 15 pieces that, when assembled, will give us freedom.
Kadeish is Hebrew Imperative for Kiddush. This Kiddush is a special one for Passover, it refers to matzot and the Exodus from Egypt. Acting in a way that shows freedom and majesty, many Jews have the custom of filling each other's cups at the Seder table. The Kiddush is normally said by the father of the house. The Chassidic custom is that all the attendants to recite the Kiddush together.
In traditional Jewish homes, it is common to ritually wash the hands before a meal. According to most traditions, no blessing is recited at this point in the Seder, unlike the blessing recited over the washing of the hands before eating bread at any other time. However, followers of Rambam or the Gaon of Vilna do recite a blessing.
Each participant dips a vegetable into either salt water (Ashkenazi custom; said to serve as a reminder of the tears shed by their enslaved ancestors), vinegar (Sephardi custom) or charoset (older Sephardi custom; still common among Yemenite Jews). Another custom mentioned in some Ashkenazi sources and probably originating with Meir of Rothenburg, was to dip the karpas in wine.
Three matzot are stacked on the seder table; at this stage, the middle matzah of the three is broken in half. The larger piece is hidden, to be used later as the afikoman, the "dessert" after the meal. The smaller piece is returned to its place between the other two matzot.
The story of Passover, and the change from slavery to freedom is told. At this point in the Seder, Moroccan Jews have a custom of raising the Seder plate over the heads of all those present while chanting
Bivhilu yatzanu mimitzrayim, halahma anya b'nei horin (In haste we went out of Egypt [with our] bread of affliction, [now we are] free people).
ma nishtanahin Hebrew, meaning
What has changed?, it is taken from the first line of the song. In English, it is referred to as "The Four Questions". Traditionally, the Four Questions are asked by the youngest child at the table who is able. The questions are included in the haggadah as part of the Maggid (מגיד) section.
why do we recline on this night?Ultimately, the question of reclining was maintained, in part to create a parallelism between the number of questions and the other occurrences of the number four in the hagaddah.
What are the statutes, the testimonies, and the laws that God has commanded you to do?One explanation for why this very detailed-oriented question is categorized as wise, is that the wise son is trying to learn how to carry out the seder, rather than asking for someone else's understanding of its meaning. He is answered fully: You should reply to him with [all] the laws of pesach: one may not eat any dessert after the paschal sacrifice. The wicked son, who asks,
What is this service to you?, is characterized by the Haggadah as isolating himself from the Jewish people, standing by objectively and watching their behavior rather than participating. Therefore, he is rebuked by the explanation that
It is because God acted for my sake when I left Egypt.(This implies that the Seder is not for the wicked son because the wicked son would not have deserved to be freed from Egyptian slavery.) Where the four sons are illustrated in the Haggadah, this son has frequently been depicted as carrying weapons or wearing stylish contemporary fashions.
What is this?is answered with
With a strong hand the Almighty led us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage.
It is because of what the Almighty did for me when I left Egypt.
5. And thou shalt speak and say before the Lord thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. 7. And we cried unto the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.)
The festive meal is eaten. Traditionally it begins with the hard-boiled egg on the Seder plate.
The afikoman, which was hidden earlier in the Seder, is traditionally the last morsel of food eaten by participants in the Seder.
Each participant receives an olive-sized portion of matzo to be eaten as afikoman. After the consumption of the afikoman, traditionally, no other food may be eaten for the rest of the night. Additionally, no intoxicating beverages may be consumed, with the exception of the remaining two cups of wine.
In some families, the children steal the afikoman and ask for a reward for its return.
The recital of Birkat Hamazon.
The entire order of Hallel which is usually recited in the synagogue on Jewish holidays is also recited at the Seder table, albeit sitting down. The first two Psalms, 113-114, are recited before the meal. The remaining Psalms of the Hallel proper, Psalms 113-118, are recited after the Grace after Meals, followed by Psalm 136.
Following Psalm 136, the Nishmat, a portion of the morning service for Shabbat and festivals, is traditionally recited. There is a divergence concerning the paragraph Yehalleluha which normally follows Hallel. Ashkenazim recite it immediately following the Hallel proper, i.e. at the end of Psalm 118. Sephardim recite it at the end of Nishmat.
Afterwards the Fourth Cup of Wine is drunk and a brief Grace for the "fruit of the vine" is said.
The Seder concludes with a prayer that the night's service be accepted. A hope for the Messiah is expressed: "L'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim! - Next year in Jerusalem!" Jews in Israel, and especially those in Jerusalem, recite instead "L'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim hab'nuyah! - Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem!"
Although the 15 orders of the Seder have been complete, the Haggadah concludes with additional songs which further recount the miracles that occurred on this night in Ancient Egypt as well as throughout history. Some songs express a prayer that the Beit Hamikdash will soon be rebuilt. The last song to be sung is Chad Gadya ("One Kid Goat"). This seemingly childish song about different animals and people who attempted to punish others for their crimes and were in turn punished themselves, was interpreted by the Vilna Gaon as an allegory to the retribution God will levy over the enemies of the Jewish people at the end of days.
Following the Seder, those who are still awake may recite the Song of Songs, engage in Torah learning, or continue talking about the events of the Exodus until sleep overtakes them.
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