What's in a Seder?

April 10, 2011

Passover Seder Plate

Passover (April 18th-25th) is the annual Jewish holiday celebrating the escape from Egypt, described in the Book of Exodus. The holiday technically lasts for 7 nights, but the major celebration occurs on the first (and sometimes second) nights: the Seder. So what goes on the rest of the week? Beginning the week before the festival starts, you are directed to cleanse your home of chametz (wheat, spelt, barley, rye or oats that came in contact with water for more than 18 minutes-- i.e. any baked or processed food containing any of these ingredients) for the duration of the festival. Not sure what processed foods are safe to eat this week? Check the label for the "Kosher for Passover" or Parve symbol:

Kosher for Passover/Parve symbol

Now, for those of you who were paying attention, you'll notice that the Five Forbidden Grains are also those which cannot be tolerated by individuals with Celiac disease or who are gluten-intolerant. If you live in an area with a large Jewish community and are gluten-intolerant, now is the time to check out local grocery stores for all kinds of gluten-free products: cake mixes, macaroons, cookies, chocolates, etc. - just be wary of Matzah Meal which is Kosher for Passover but definitely not gluten free!

The seder itself is a ritual meal commemorating the process by which the Jews were freed from bondage in Egypt - including the 10 plagues which afflicted the Egyptians because the Pharaoh had "hardened his heart" and would not free the Israelites under Moses. The seder itself is a 14-step procession - beginning with blessing the wine and ending with the Nirtzah, the official declaration that the seder is finished.

On the Seder plate are six elements which act as physical anchors to elements of the story of the Exodus:
Maror, the bitter herb symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of life under oppression in Egypt.
Charoset, symbolizing the mortar used by the Israelites in building the storehouses for Pharaoh - made with apples, wine, cinnamon and raisins, and sometimes including honey and dates.
Z'roah, most often a lamb shank (or other charred piece of bone-in meat), commemorates the sacrifice made to the Temple in Jerusalem on Passover before and during Roman times.
Beitzah, a hardboiled or roasted egg, recalls the first meal eaten by mourners and reminds us of the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The main body of the seder begins with the karpas, where you dip a vegetable (usually parsley) in salt water and eat it. After the karpas is the Yachatz, the ritual breaking of one of the three pieces of matzah on the table; part is set aside (to be used later) and the rest returned to the pile of matzah. Next, the Maggid, the ritual retelling of the story of the Exodus and the Rachatz, ritual handwashing before eating matzah.

The matzah is then blessed with the Motzi blessing and is eaten, plain. Next, the blessing and eating of the Maror - a bitter herb, usually horseradish and then the Korekh, the combination of the bitter herb and sweet charoset with matzah. After these rituals have been completed, the main meal (the Shulchan Orekh) is eaten, traditionally featuring matzoh ball soup and roasted chicken or brisket.

The remaining 4 elements of the seder are the concluding blessings, recitation of psalms and a sort of scavenger hunt for the missing piece of matzah (affikomen), and the child who locates it is often awarded a small prize. Finally, the Nirtzah is the official declaration that the seder has ended and an open-ended proclamation: Next Year In Jerusalem!

Photo by Dara Skolnick