Culture/Celebration – Passover Seder 101

Passover is a celebration of spring, of birth and rebirth, of a journey from slavery to freedom, and of taking responsibility for yourself, the community, and the world. 20140405_133059

For those of you who are curious, this is a thumbnail review about the significant holiday known as Passover. If you want a more indepth look at the importance of this spiritual, most celebrated Jewish holiday, there’s a link below.

You can think of Passover as celebrating the Jewish people’s “birth certificate” and “Declaration of Independence.” Or you can think of it as memorializing something that God did for the Jews 3,300 years ago.

 In simple terms, it means to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare.  It refers to the fact that God “passed over” the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt. Pesach, (PAY-sahch) known in English as Passover, is one of the most commonly observed Jewish holidays, even by otherwise non-observant Jews. According to the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), 67% of Jews routinely hold or attend a Pesach seder, while only 46% belong to a synagogue.  Basically….

Table set for Seder
Table set for Seder

The Passover Seder  “order,  arrangement” 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 throughout the world, and on the 15th by Jews living outside Israel. This corresponds to late March or April in the Gregorian calendar. Passover lasts for 7 days in Israel and 8 days outside of Israel.

The Seder is a ritual performed by a community or by multiple generations of a family, involving re-telling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. Every year, Jews are commanded to retell the Passover story which takes place during the Passover Seder (which is a service held at home as part of the celebration). This story is in the Book of Exodus (Shemot) in the Hebrew Bible. The Seder itself is based on the Biblical verse commanding Jews to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt: “You shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came 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 (Pesahim 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 telling the story, discussing the story, drinking four cups of wine (Yes!), eating matza, partaking of symbolic foods placed on the Passover Seder Plate, and reclining in celebration of freedom. The Seder is performed in much the same way by Jews all over the world.

*Haggadah means “the telling” – the telling of the story of Passover. The story is told in response to four questions asked by the children: why is this night different from all other nights? The father proceeds to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, reading from a book called “The Haggadah” and using symbols and object lessons in order to keep the attention of the little ones (and in many cases, not so-little ones too).


**The Talmud is a huge collection of doctrines and laws compiled and written before the 8th Century, A.D., by ancient Jewish teachers. The Talmud, which often cites the Old Testament, is the basic book of Jewish law.

Why do we eat Matzah? To remind ourselves that even before the dough of our ancestors could become leavened bread, the Holy One revealed Himself and redeemed them, as it is written: “and they baked the dough when they had brought from Egypt into matzah, because it did not rise since they were driven out of Egypt and they could not delay, nor had they prepared provisions for themselves.”

What is Hametz? Hametz is a mixture of flour and water that is allowed to rise, thus becoming what we normally call ‘bread.’ The laws of hametz are very strict, and prohibit not only eating it but even owning it during Passover. Thus, during the weeks before Pesah, we dispose of our hametz. In theory: Philo, a Greek-Jewish philosopher, described hametz as pride because leavened bread is puffed up. To remove hametz, then is to struggle with our sense of self-importance.


For More info:

Tomorrow: A few basic Seder recipes (but they’re good anytime)


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