In anticipation of Passover, it is traditional to engage in a thorough spring cleaning. Because the Israelites had no time to let their bread rise as they hurriedly left Egypt, Jewish law forbids eating (or even possessing) any food that contains leavened grains.Therefore, a major part of the preparations for Passover is removing all traces of leavened foods from the home (though many Jews prefer to “sell” some leavened products to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday). This necessitates both a massive cleanup and, for some people, the replacement of one’s ordinary dishes with special Passover ones. It also requires a shopping expedition to stock the kitchen with special kosher-for-Passover foods.
Customs and Rituals
Passover is one of the most widely observed festivals of the entire year, and many families have long-standing, beloved traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. But the essence of the holiday is telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The teaching of this story, which is so central to Jewish life and history, can be customized for all ages and learning levels, and involving everyone is always encouraged, so use your imagination, and the many resources available, and create a holiday celebration that’s perfect for your family and friends.
Introduction to Pesach
Passover, along with Sukkot and Shavuot, is one of the Shalosh Regalim (שלוש רגלים), or Three Pilgrimage Festivals, major holidays during which people in ancient times gathered in Jerusalem with their agricultural offerings. There are several mitzvot unique to Passover, which are evident in the customs and rituals of the holiday to this day: matzah; maror; chametz; biur chametz (removal of leaven from the home); and Haggadah. The name, Passover” comes from the miracle in which God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the tenth plague.
The seder is the main focus of any Passover experience. A seder is a festive meal that takes place on the first night (and in some families also on the second night) of the festival. Family and friends gather together to celebrate. The word seder literally means “order,” and the Passover seder has 15 separate steps in its traditional order. These steps are laid out in the Haggadah. Many congregations hold a community seder during at least one night of Passover. There are also synagogue services held on the first day of the holiday, and Yizkor services held on the last day.
Setting the seder plate
The 15 steps of the seder can be summed up by this Hebrew rhyme:
Each of these 15 steps is summarized and explained below:
A blessing is recited over wine in honor of the holiday. When the seder falls on a Friday night, this version of the Kiddush is recited for Passover and Shabbat. When the seder falls on a Saturday night, we continue with a special version of Havdalah. The wine is then drunk. A second cup is then poured (but not yet drunk).
Participants wash their hands without a blessing in preparation for eating the Karpas.
A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.
The middle of the three matzot on the table is broken into two pieces. The smaller part is returned to the pile, the larger one is set aside for the afikoman (see below).
Magid: The Story
A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the seder. The Magid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people: the wise ones, who want to know the technical details; the wicked ones, who exclude themselves (and learn the penalty for doing so); the simple ones, who need to know the basics; and the ones who are unable to ask, who don’t even know enough to know what they need to know. At the end of the Magid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.
Participants wash their hands again, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.
Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products
HaMotzi, the blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.
Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
Here’s how to make your own matzah!
Maror: Bitter Herbs
A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This gesture symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The maror is dipped in charoset, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery. Note that there are two bitter herbs on the seder plate: one labeled maror and one labeled chazeret. The one labeled maror should be used for maror and the one labeled chazeret should be used in the Koreich, below.
Shulchan Oreich: Dinner
A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal. Traditions among Ashkenazi Jews generally include gefilte fish (poached fish balls), matzo ball soup, roast chicken, potato kugel and tzimmes, a stew of carrots and prunes, sometimes including potatoes. Sephardic Jews stuff vegetables with rice and meat mixtures; top matzos with spicy tomato sauce; fill matzo-meal crusted kibbeh with chopped lamb or beef; infuse chicken broth with turmeric and cilantro; chop sticky dates and apricots for dipping; and spice their fish, meats, stews and desserts with bold flavours.
Tzafun: The Afikoman
The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as “dessert,” the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikoman. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it, with a small prize given to the finder. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, in anticipation of this part of the seder.
Barech: Grace after Meals
The third cup of wine is poured, and Birkat HaMazon is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be recited on any Shabbat, but with the special insertion for Passover. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup of wine and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Messianic Era, and is supposed to come on Pesach to do so. The door is then opened to invite Elijah into our homes.
The standard group of psalms that make up a full Hallel is recited at this point. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.
A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come within the next year). The closing may be followed by various traditional songs, hymns and stories.
Video Song: Echad Mi Yodea (Who Knows One)
The seder plate contains various symbolic foods referred to in the seder itself. The contents of a seder plate vary by tradition, but most of them contain a shankbone, lettuce, an egg, greens, a bitter herb, and charoset.
These symbolic foods should be placed near the leader of the seder. During the course of the seder, they are pointed out and explained:
On the seder plate (use either a special one for this purpose or a regular dinner plate), include:
- Shankbone, zeroa – symbolizes the lamb that was sacrificed in ancient days
- Roasted egg beitzah – represents the Passover offering of ancient days, as well as the wholeness and continuing cycle of life
- Bitter herbs, maror – a reminder of the bitter lives of the Hebrew slaves
- Charoset – the mixture of apples, nuts, sweet wine, cinnamon and sugar in the Ashkenazic fashion or dates, nuts and sweet wine in the Sephardic tradition, reminds us of the bricks and mortar made by the Hebrew slaves
- Greens, karpas – symbolizes spring, the time of year when Passover takes place
Also place on the table:
- Three matzot (plural of matzah), on a plate with a cloth or napkin cover
- Salt water, a reminder of the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves
- Cup of Elijah, Kos Eliyahu, symbolizes the hope for a redemptive future
- Along with these traditional symbols, families may choose to include a Cup of Miriam, Kos Miriam, a special goblet filled with water, on the holiday table. This symbol honors Miriam, the sister of Moses, who played a vital role in the history of our people. Many families and congregations add an orange to the seder plate, too, as a symbol of inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community and others who feel marginalized in Jewish life.
The Haggadah (plural is haggadot) contains the text of the seder. There are many different haggadot: some concentrate on involving children in the seder; some concentrate on the sociological or social justice aspects of Passover; there are even historical haggadot and critical editions.
The afikoman is half of the middle matzah that is broken in the fourth step of the seder, yachatz. It is customary to hide the afikoman, and the person who finds it gets a prize! The afikoman is eaten last of all at the seder, during step 12, tzafun.
Although the focus of Pesach observance is on the home, on the first two and last two days (in the diaspora) traditional Judaism prohibits working. There are special synagogue services, including particular biblical readings, among them Shir ha-Shirim, “The Song of Songs,” and Hallel, psalms of praise and thanksgiving. The last day of Passover is one of the four times a year that the Yizkor service of remembrance is recited.
Seven things you might not know about Passover
Here are six interesting facts you might not have known about the festival of Pesach
1. In Gibraltar, There’s Dust in the Haroset.
The traditional haroset is a sweet Passover paste whose texture is meant as a reminder of the mortar the enslaved Jews used to build in ancient Egypt. The name itself is related to the Hebrew word for clay. In Ashkenazi tradition, it is made from crushed nuts, apples and sweet red wine, while Sephardi Jews use figs or dates. But the tiny Jewish community of this small British territory at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula takes the brick symbolism to another level, using the dust of actual bricks in their recipe.
2. At the Seder, Persian Jews Whip Each Other with Scallions
Many of the Passover seder rituals are intended to recreate the sensory experience of Egyptian slavery, from the eating of bitter herbs and matzah to the dipping of greenery in saltwater, which symbolizes the tears shed by the oppressed Israelites. Some Jews from Iran and Afghanistan have the tradition of whipping each other with green onions before the singing of “Dayenu.”
3. Karaite Jews Skip the Wine
Karaite Jews don’t accept rabbinic Judaism, observing only laws detailed in the Torah. Which is why they don’t drink the traditional four cups of wine at the seder. Wine is fermented, and fermented foods are prohibited on Passover, so they drink fruit juice instead. (Mainstream Jews hold that only fermented grains are prohibited.) The Karaites also eschew other staples of the traditional seder, including the seder plate, the afikomen and charoset. Their maror (bitter herbs) are a mixture of lemon peel, bitter lettuce and an assortment of other herbs.
In Israel Jews only have One Seder
Israeli Jews observe only one Passover seder, unlike everywhere else where traditionally two seders are held, one on each of the first two nights of the holiday. Known as yom tov sheni shel galuyot — literally “the second festival day of the Diaspora” — the practice was begun 2,000 years ago when Jews were informed of the start of a new lunar month only after it had been confirmed by witnesses in Jerusalem. Because Jewish communities outside of Israel were often delayed in learning the news, they consequently couldn’t be sure precisely which day festivals were meant to be observed. As a result, the practice of observing two seder days was instituted just to be sure.
5. “Afikomen” Isn’t Hebrew
For many seder attendees, the highlight of the meal is the afikomen — a broken piece of matzah that the seder leader hides and that the children in attendance search for; the person who finds the afikomen usually gets a small reward. Many scholars believe the word “afikomen” derives from the Greek word for dessert. Others say it refers to a kind of post-meal revelry common among the Greeks. Either theory would explain why the afikomen is traditionally the last thing eaten at the seder.
6. For North African Jews, After Passover Comes Mimouna
Most people are eager for a break from holiday meals when the eight-day Passover holiday concludes. But for the Jews of North Africa, the holiday’s end is the perfect time for another feast, Mimouna, marking the beginning of spring. Celebrated after nightfall on the last day of Passover, Mimouna is marked by a large spread of foods and the opening of homes to guests. The celebration is often laden with symbolism, including fish for fertility and golden rings for wealth.
Passover for Kids
Looking for a short version of the Passover story for kids? See this version from PJ Library
Creative Ideas for a Kid-Friendly Passover Seder
1. Make homemade matzah. Fermentation is presumed to take place within 18 minutes after the exposure of the cut grain to moisture, so turn your matzah making into a “Beat the Clock” game. Try this recipe: https://pjlibrary.org/beyond-books/pjblog/april-2019/how-to-make-your-own-matzah.
2. Create a charoset buffet with items like grape juice-marinated apples, chopped apricots, raisins, chopped nuts, shredded coconut, honey and cinnamon. Give children a cup in which to mix their perfect charoset.
3. Let children create and decorate place cards for guests. Add Passover trivia questions onto the back with the answers inside and take trivia breaks during the seder.
4. Play “who am I?” game by taping the name of a Passover character to a person’s forehead or the back of their shirt, then give them five “yes or no” questions to guess who they are (the Pharaoh, the Prophet, Elijah, a Frog, etc.).
5. Ask questions throughout the seder, such as:
- What would you take with you when packing to leave Egypt?
- Which plague would have been the worst
6. Make your own Passover bingo with pictures of events portrayed in the text (Haggadah)—like salt water, Moses, boils—to keep everyone alert and participating during the Seder. Or you can purchase a packaged Passover bingo set.
Moses and the Passover Story
The Four Questions for Kids! Learn them this Passover
Learn the words!