This coming Friday night, Jews around the world will be sitting down to their Passover seder during which they will commemorate the Exodus from Egypt and the countless miracles God performed at the time.
While most people associate the seder with the four glasses of wine, the matzah (unleavened bread, mirroring that which the Hebrews took in their haste to leave Egypt), and telling over the story, there is much more to the evening than meets the eye.
There are 15 steps to the seder, symbolizing the 15 steps that led from the courtyard of the Temple Mount to the doors of the Holy Temple, teaching that just as it took the people 15 steps to walk toward holiness, so too experiencing the Passover seder will bring one to a place of higher spiritual growth.
Prior to the communal blessing sanctifying the evening, everyone pours a glass of wine for their fellow, just as royalty is exempt from pouring their own wine. The leader of the seder then makes a special blessing, thanking God for the joyous festival and delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. When the leader finishes the blessing, all participants sit and drink their wine while reclining to the left, mimicking the way a truly free man eats: leisurely and in a relaxed position.
Urchatz (Washing the Hands for Vegetables)
In ancient times, people would rinse their hands before partaking in a meal. At this point, everyone around the table pours a small amount of water on their fellow’s hand, just like royalty whose servants pour for their master. No blessing is recited.
Seder participants take a small piece of a green vegetable, symbolizing the springtime, the season in which the Israelites were freed. By contrast, they then dip it into salt water which represents the bitter tears cried by the slaves throughout their suffering.
Yachatz (Breaking the Middle Matzah)
At the outset of the seder, three matzahs are set upon the table in a special cloth with dividers. Now, the leader takes the middle matzah and breaks it into two, one piece bigger than the other. Just as a slave, who does not know where his next meal will come from, saves the larger half, so too the leader takes the bigger piece to be saved for later. The smaller piece is put back in its original place.
Magid (Retelling the Passover Story)
Probably the most well-known section of the haggadah, this is the time to engage in the telling of the miraculous story of the Exodus. Some of the more recognized parts of this step are the Four Questions (recited by the youngest at the table), Dayeinu (a song listing all of the miracles God performed), recounting the 10 plagues, and inviting all those who are hungry to join the meal. Everyone is encouraged to share insights, ask questions, and converse. At the end of Magid, the second cup of wine is poured, blessed, and drunk.
Rachtzah (Washing the Hands for the Meal)
Once again everyone washes their hands, except this time a blessing is recited in preparation for the meal. Customarily, every person washes their own hands, however it is certainly allowed to wash your fellow’s to further embody the message of freedom.
Motzi (First Blessing)
The leader of the seder takes the two whole matzahs as well as the smaller piece left from Yachatz and recites a blessing, thanking God for bringing forth food from the ground.
Matzah (Second Blessing)
Now the leader places one of the whole matzahs back in the cloth and says a second blessing over the the commandment to eat matzah. The leader then breaks off small pieces, passing it around for everyone to eat. Upon receiving their designated portion, each person reclines.
Maror (Bitter Herbs)
Similar to the reason behind dipping the vegetables in salt water during Karpas, this step is all about truly embracing what the Bible means when it says “And they made their lives bitter with hard service” (Exodus 1:14). For this step, everyone takes a small amount of horseradish (romaine lettuce is often substituted) and lightly dips it in the charoset, a paste-like mixture of apples, walnuts and cinnamon which represents the mortar used by the Hebrews to build for the Egyptians. The idea is to combine the bitterness of the radish with the sweet taste of the charoset, showing that no matter how bad things may seem, there is always a silver lining. A blessing is made acknowledging the commandment to eat the maror, and then the herb is eaten, without reclining.
Korech (The Hillel Sandwich)
Hillel is a famous Babylonian Jewish leader whose well-known teachings are recorded in the Talmud and have been passed down from generation to generation. According to the Talmud, at the time the Temple stood, Hillel would eat a particular sandwich which consisted of matzah, maror and the Passover sacrifice which was burned on the altar. At Korech, that sandwich is somewhat recreated. Everyone takes a portion of matzah and some maror, recites a verse acknowledging the source of the Hillel sandwich, and then reclines while eating.
Shulchan Orech (The Meal)
Usually the favorite part of the evening is this one – the full meal. It is encouraged to keep an eye on the time so as not to let the seder go too late into the evening, but at the same time people are welcome to really enjoy the meal.
Tzafun (The Afikoman)
It is a family custom that the leader of the seder takes the larger half of matzah that was set aside during Yachatz and hides it for the children to find. If the children find it in time for this step, they are usually rewarded with some sort of prize. The leader then breaks up the matzah and passes it around for everyone to take part in “dessert”. It is eaten while reclining.
Barech (Grace After Meals)
Upon completing their portion of the afikoman, everyone pours the third cup of wine and then says the grace after meals, thanking God for the bountiful food. After finishing grace, a short blessing is said over the wine and is drunk while reclining. Once the wine has been finished, someone from the table goes to the front door to welcome Elijah the Prophet. It is said that during the night of Passover, Elijah visits each person’s home and drinks from a goblet of wine which has been set for him from the beginning of the seder. A special paragraph is recited welcoming the Prophet.
This stage of the evening tends to be recited quietly. It consists of several pages blessing God for His incredible and wondrous miracles, not only at the time of the Exodus but throughout history, acknowledging Him as omnipresent and omniscient. After finishing the paragraphs of praise, the fourth and final cup of wine is drunk, once again reclining.
The final and easily the most fun part of the seder, Nirtzah is comprised of half a dozen songs meant to engage the children and bring a last bit of celebration to the exciting night. Regardless of which tunes are used or which songs are chosen to be sung, the last step promises to help end the evening off on a high note.