A Passover seder is a service held at home as part of the Passover celebration. It is always observed on the first night of Passover, and in some homes on the second night as well. On both nights, the seder concludes with a dinner. Participants use a book called the Haggadah to lead the service. "Hagaddah" means "the telling," in Hebrew, and it contains instructions for the seder, blessings and the Passover story.
The word "seder" literally means "order" in Hebrew. The name comes from the fact that there are 15 parts of the ritual service, all revolving around the upcoming Passover dinner. Food is an important symbolic element of Passover. If you would like to learn more about the symbolic meaning of the foods on the seder plate, you might like this article: The Meaning of Items on the Seder Plate
Parts of the Passover Seder
Below is a brief description of each of the fifteen parts of the Passover seder. These steps are observed to the letter in some homes, while other homes may choose to observe only some of them and focus instead on the Passover meal.
1. Kadesh (Santification) - During this part of the seder, each participant's cup is filled with wine or grape juice. The Kiddush is recited aloud, then everyone takes a drink from their cup.
2. Urchatz (Handwashing) - Water is poured over the hands to symbolize ritual purification. Traditionally a pitcher is used to pour water over the right hand first, then the left. Usually people say a blessing during the handwashing ritual, but no blessing is said.
3. Karpas (Green Vegetable) - A vegetable such as lettuce, cucumber, radish or parsley is now dipped in salt water and eaten. It is sometimes said that the salt water represents the tears our ancestors shed during their years of enslavement.
4. Yachatz (Breaking the Matzah) - There is always a plate of three matzot (plural of matzah) on the table during a seder. (These matzot are part of the ritual meal - there are other matzot elsewhere to feed the seder guests.) At this point the seder leader takes a piece from the middle of the plate and breaks it in half. The smaller piece is put back between the remaining two matzot. The larger half becomes the "afikomen," which is hidden somewhere for the children to find later on. Alternatively, some homes place the afikomen near the seder leader and the children must try to "steal" it without the leader noticing.
5. Maggid (Telling the Passover Story) - During this part of the seder participants retell the Exodus story. The youngest person (usually a child) at the table begins by asking the Four Questions. Each question is a variation of: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Participants will often answer these questions by taking turns reading from the Haggadah. Next the four types of children are described: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child and the child who doesn't know how to ask a question. Thinking about each kind of person is an opportunity for self reflection and discussion.
This part of the seder concludes when the second cup of wine is poured. As each of the ten plagues that struck Egypt is read aloud, participants dip a finger into their wine and put a drop of liquid onto their plates. At this point the various symbols on the seder plate are discussed, then everyone can drink their wine!
6. Rachtzah (Handwashing) - Participants wash their hands again, this time saying the appropriate blessing (Netilat Yadayim). After saying the blessing, it is customary not to speak until the blessing for the matzah.
7. Motzi (Blessing for the Matzah) - Now the motzi (blessing for bread) is said over the matzah. It goes: "Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynu, melech ha-olam ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz." In English: "Praised are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth." Next the blessing mentioning the mitzvah (commandment) to eat matzah is said.
8. Matzah - Everyone eats their matzah.
9. Maror (Bitter Herbs) - Because the Israelites were slaves in Egypt we eat bitter herbs to remind us of the harshness of servitude. Horseradish (either the root or a prepared paste) is most often used. Put a dollop of maror on a piece of matzah and eat it.
10. Korech (Hillel Sandwich) - Next participants make a "Hillel Sandwich" by putting maror and charoset between two pieces of matzah. They then eat their sandwiches.
11. Shulchan Orech (Dinner) - Now it is time for the meal to begin! Passover seder staples include hard-boiled eggs, matzah ball soup, brisket and even matzah lasagna. Dessert often includes ice cream, cheesecake, or flourless cakes, often made with chocolate.
12. Tzafan (Eating the Afikomen) - After dessert participants eat the afikomen. Remember that the afikomen was either hidden or stolen at the beginning of the seder, so it has to be returned to the seder leader at this point. In some homes the children actually ransom the afikomen back to the adults.
13. Barech (Blessing) - A third cup of wine is poured for everyone, the blessing is recited and then participants drink their glass. Now an additional cup of wine is poured for Elijah and a door is opened so that the prophet can enter the home.
14. Hallel (Songs of Praise) - The door is closed and everyone sings songs of praise to God before drinking the fourth and final cup of wine.
15. Nirtzah (Conclusion) - The seder is now officially over but most homes say one final blessing: "L'shanah haba'a bi Yerushalayim!" This means, "Next year in Jerusalem!" and expresses the hope that next year Passover will be celebrated in Israel.