"All of us are asleep," a Jewish saying goes. "By telling stories,we are awakened." This must be why Passover is celebrated at one of the biggest, most animated of holiday gatherings. The seder draws family, friends, and often strangers together to eat, drink, sing, discuss, question, and argue, all while exploring the contradictory feelings that emerge from recounting the flight of the Jewish slaves from Egypt more than three thousand years ago -- the most essential story in Jewish history. The seder plate, the centerpiece of the Passover table, is proof that ancient Jews devised an ingenious way to teach the story of the exodus long before studies demonstrated that the most effective learning calls upon all five senses.
Seder means "order" in Hebrew, and refers to the 15 steps of a ritual dating back thousands of years: On the night when the tenth in a series of plagues killed all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, the houses of the Jews were "passed over" because they had obeyed Moses's injunction to smear lamb's blood on their doorposts. Their children spared, the Jews escaped into the Sinai Desert. Today, when everyone at a seder dips parsley into salt water -- the ritual step called karpas -- they taste the tears shed by the slaves. When they eat bitter herbs -- the maror -- they experience the bitterness of their ancestors' lives. The charoset, made of apples, nuts, spices, and sugar or honey, conjures both the hardships of slavery (its texture evokes the mortar used between the bricks of the pyramids) and the sweetness of liberation.
The seder unfolds according to an elaborate script called the Haggadah, of which there are many modern versions. "I love a traditional seder, because it makes me feel connected to all the Jews who came before," says Paul Radensky, assistant director of the 92nd Street Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, in New York City. "But the diversity is tremendous." Progressive seders might touch on the American civil rights movement, the conflict in the Middle East, even Tibetan independence.
Still, all seders have certain things in common. The curious items on the seder plate provoke questions from children and invoke for all present the degradation of bondage and the exhilaration of freedom. Everything on the table is shared -- the items on the seder plate, the wine or grape juice, the salt water, and the matzo. Matzo, a flat, unleavened bread of flour and water that is prepared and cooked in less than eighteen minutes, reminds the participants how hastily the Jews had to escape.
Three matzos covered and set on a plate alongside or beneath the seder plate are evidence that the Jewish sages, not content to leave the task of awakening the audience to the story alone, built into the seder playful elements to keep even the sleepiest child alert. In the fourth step of the ritual, the "leader," the most patriarchal -- or, often these days, matriarchal -- person present, breaks the center matzo in two, wraps the bigger half in a napkin, and hides it for the children to hunt down later.
After a second cup of wine has been poured, the youngest child asks the first of the ritual questions, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Everyone now knows that the answer lies in the story of the exodus, which the Haggadah directs the celebrants to examine in detail. As the show-and-tell winds down, an age-old contest ensues between those who want to discuss the story and those who can't wait for the delicious, plentiful dinner to be served. A seder plate may be loaded with symbolism, but as an appetizer it does not provide much nourishment. "Where's the food? We want to eat!" is a cry so common that it may have been part of the plan devised by those ancient sages.
After dinner, the children look for the hidden matzo, called afikoman, meaning "dessert," and the winner ransoms it for a prize. The rowdy search party sets the tone for the typical after-dinner conversation: Who could eat the bitterest herbs? A long-dead relative is evoked who downed horseradish so strong it made everyone else weep and yelp. Whose seder lasted the longest? Tales abound of rabbis arguing over the story of the exodus until dawn.
Eventually, everyone joins in songs of praise and thanksgiving to bring the evening to a hopeful close. It is said that the end of a seder liberates those who slaved to prepare it, and that spring can officially begin. The ritual step known as karpas is designed to provoke questions to begin the discussion of the ancient Passover story. Why do we dip parsley (or sometimes celery or a potato) into salt water or vinegar? To remind us of the tears shed by the Jews who were Pharaoh's slaves and of the hardship of their lives.
For the step known as korech ("to bind together"), the seder leader distributes pieces of matzo. Each person dips the maror (the bitter herb) into the charoset (the sweet mixture of fruit and nuts) and places it between two pieces of matzo. This is known as a Hillel sandwich, after the rabbi who originated the practice.