A 15-Step Ritual: The Order of the Passover Seder, Explained
Though the Passover celebration is one that's easily personalized, the basic format of the Seder—the origin of which dates back to the 300s—is built on tradition. The word "Seder" means "order," and its 15 steps take participants through a ritual commemorating the stories of the book of Exodus, in which the Jews fled enslavement in Egypt. "The Exodus is our archetypal story of God as Deliverer and Redeemer," writes Rabbi Debbie Stiel on ReformJudaism.org. "Here we learn that injustices can be fought and that we can draw strength from God." Led typically by the head of the household who follows a modern or traditional script—called the Haggadah—the Seder also offers the opportunity for guests of all ages to join in. "Many families will just read through the Haggadah in a round-robin fashion, allowing everyone who wants to be involved, so it is more participatory," says Rabbi Leora Kaye of Union for Reform Judaism. "Lots of families have jokes about who ends up reading sections like 'The Wise Child' or 'The Wicked Child.'"
As for a Seder's key details, beyond the service? Food, drink, and décor, of course. The main dishes at a Passover meal can vary among families and from year to year, but two elements remain consistent: The Seder plate and the matzah. The plate includes six foods, each representing a different part of the Exodus story: betizah, a roasted egg, which symbolizes sacrificial traditions and the coming of spring; maror, a bitter herb—commonly horseradish—and chazeret, lettuce, which fulfill a commandment set in the book of Numbers; zeroa, a shank bone, which calls back to the Biblical sacrifice of lambs; charoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, and spices, representing "the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build Egyptian structures;" and karpas, or parsley, which incorporates the ritual's Greek influences.
On a separate plate, three pieces of matzah nod to the unleavened bread that the Israelites took with them when they fled Egypt. The ceremony also includes four cups of wine poured during specific parts of the ritual, which, says Kaye, represent "four moments of redemption as expressed by God in the Passover story in the Torah: Exodus 6:6-7—'I will take you out, I will save you, I will redeem you, I will take you as a nation.'" Ahead, what each step of the Seder involves and means within the context of the whole.
The ritual begins with a Kiddush blessing, which sanctifies the feast day; the lighting of the candles; and the pouring of the first cup of wine.
Before eating the vegetable from the Seder plate, in-person guests perform a ritual hand-washing (more appropriate now than ever before)—done without soap (this year, add soap!); some families go to the sink while others bring a basin to the table.
Participants dip a vegetable representing "the hopefulness of spring"—usually parsley—from the Seder plate into saltwater, representing "the tears of slavery," and eat it.
The matzo in the middle of the trio is snapped in half, and the larger piece, now called the afikomen, is hidden; the children will be tasked with finding it later in the ritual.
As the second cup of wine is poured, the Exodus story is told. During this time, the youngest guest also asks four established questions predicated on this one: "How is this night different from all other nights?" "This is a place where, in our family (and lots of others), people encourage asking other questions that may come to mind," says Kaye. "The frame for this is that we have the youngest child at the Seder ask these questions, communicating that even our youngest can be involved in this Seder ritual, and that we want to teach them that they can always ask questions."
Guests wash their hands a second time before the meal begins; this time, a blessing is included, too.
The group shares a blessing specific to eating leavened or unleavened bread.
Guests recite a prayer blessing the matzah.
Bitter herbs from the Seder plate—often horseradish—which represents "the bitterness of slavery" are tasted.
As commanded in Numbers 9:11, participants eat bitter herbs sandwiched between matzah, and then bitter herbs and charoset between matzah.
This is the main part of the meal, which often includes gefilte fish and matzah ball soup, but can also incorporate a variety of meat or vegetarian entrées and sides.
At the end of the meal, the children search for the afikomen that was hidden earlier, which symbolizes "a move from brokenness toward healing."
The leader recites a series of blessings said after meals, called the Birkat HaMazon, and the third cup of wine is poured. An extra cup of wine is also poured for the prophet Elijah, and a child opens the door of the house to symbolically invite him into the home.
Psalms of praise are sung and recited, as guests drink their fourth cup of wine.
At the end of the ritual, guests say "L'shanah haba'a b'irushalayim!" which means, "Next year in Jerusalem!" Hymns and children's music also conclude the ceremony.