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The Passover Seder (Hebrew: סֵדֶר [ˈsedeʁ], "order, arrangement"; Yiddish: Seyder) 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, and on the 15th by traditionally observant Jews living outside Israel. This corresponds to late March or April in the Gregorian calendar.
The Seder is a ritual performed by a community or by multiple generations of a family, involving a retelling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. 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 drinking four cups of wine, 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.
While many Jewish holidays revolve around the synagogue, the Seder is conducted in the family home, although communal Seders are also organized by synagogues, schools and community centers, some open to the general public. It is customary to invite guests, especially strangers and the needy. The Seder is integral to Jewish faith and identity: as explained in the Haggadah, if not for divine intervention and the Exodus, the Jewish people would still be slaves in Egypt. Therefore, the Seder is an occasion for praise and thanksgiving and for re-dedication to the idea of liberation. Furthermore, the words and rituals of the Seder are a primary vehicle for the transmission of the Jewish faith from grandparent to child, and from one generation to the next. Attending a Seder and eating matza on Passover is a widespread custom in the Jewish community, even among those who are not religiously observant.
The Seder table is traditionally set with the finest place settings and silverware, and family members come to the table dressed in their holiday clothes. There is a tradition for the person leading the Seder to wear a white robe called a kittel. For the first half of the Seder, each participant will only need a plate and a wine glass. At the head of the table is a Seder Plate containing various symbolic foods that will be eaten or pointed out during the course of the Seder. Placed nearby is a plate with three matzot and dishes of salt water for dipping.
Each participant receives a copy of the Haggadah, which is often a traditional version: an ancient text that contains the complete Seder service. Men and women are equally obliged and eligible to participate in the Seder. In many homes, each participant at the Seder table will recite at least critical parts of the Haggadah in the original Hebrew and Aramaic. Halakhah requires that certain parts be said in language the participants can understand, and critical parts are often said in both Hebrew and the native language. The leader will often interrupt the reading to discuss different points with his or her children, or to offer a Torah insight into the meaning or interpretation of the words.
In some homes, participants take turns reciting the text of the Haggadah, in the original Hebrew or in translation. It is traditional for the head of the household and other participants to have pillows placed behind them for added comfort. At several points during the Seder, participants lean to the left - when drinking the four cups of wine, eating the Afikoman, and eating the korech sandwich.
Jews generally observe one or two seders: in Israel, one seder is observed on the first night of Passover; the Diaspora communities other than Reform and Reconstructionist Jews hold a seder also on the second night.
The rituals and symbolic foods evoke the twin themes of the evening: slavery and freedom. The rendering of time for the Hebrews was that a day began at sunset and ended at sunset. Historically, at the beginning of the 15th of Nisan in Ancient Egypt, the Jewish people were enslaved to Pharaoh. After the tenth plague struck Egypt at midnight, killing all the first-born of Pharaoh to the first born of captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first born of livestock (Exodus 12:29), in the land. Pharaoh let the Hebrew nation go, effectively making them free people for the second half of the night.
Thus, Seder participants recall the slavery that reigned during the first half of the night by eating matzo (the "poor person's bread"), maror (bitter herbs which symbolize the bitterness of slavery), and charoset (a sweet paste representing the mortar which the Jewish slaves used to cement bricks). Recalling the freedom of the second half of the night, they eat the matzo (the "bread of freedom" and also the "bread of affliction") and 'afikoman', and drink the four cups of wine, in a reclining position, and dip vegetables into salt water (the dipping being a sign of royalty and freedom, while the salt water recalls the tears the Jews shed during their servitude).
There is an obligation to drink four cups of wine during the Seder. The Mishnah says (Pes. 10:1) that even the poor are obliged to drink the four cups. Each cup is imbibed at a specific point in the Seder. The first is for Kiddush (קידוש), the second is for 'Maggid' (מגיד), the third is for Birkat Hamazon (ברכת המזון) and the fourth is for Hallel (הלל).
The Vilna Gaon relates the Four Cups to four worlds: this world, the Messianic age, the world at the revival of the dead, and the world to come. The MaHaRaL connects them to the four Matriarchs: Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel, and Leah. (The three matzot, in turn, are connected to the three Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.) Abarbanel relates the cups to the four historical redemptions of the Jewish people: the choosing of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, the survival of the Jewish people throughout the exile, and the fourth which will happen at the end of days.
The four cups might also reflect the Roman custom of drinking as many cups as there are letters in the name of the chief guest at a meal, which in the case of the Seder is God Himself whose Hebrew name has four letters.
The Passover Seder Plate (ke'ara) is a special plate containing six symbolic foods used during the Passover Seder. Each of the six items arranged on the plate have special significance to the retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The seventh symbolic item used during the meal—a stack of three matzot—is placed on its own plate on the Seder table.
The six items on the Seder Plate are:
Since the retelling of the Exodus to one's child is the object of the Seder experience, much effort is made to arouse the interest and curiosity of the children and keep them awake during the meal. To that end, questions and answers are a central device in the Seder ritual. By encouraging children to ask questions, they will be more open to hearing the answers.
The most famous question which the youngest child asks at the Seder is the Mah Nishtanah - "Why is this night different from all other nights?" After the asking of these questions, the main portion of the Seder, Magid, gives over the answers in the form of a historical review. Also, at different points in the Seder, the leader of the Seder will cover the matzot and lift their cup of wine; then put down the cup of wine and uncover the matzot—all to elicit questions from the children.
In Sephardic tradition, the questions are asked by the assembled company in chorus rather than by a child, and are put to the leader of the seder, who either answers the question or may direct the attention of the assembled company to someone who is acting out that particular part of the Exodus. Physical re-enactment of the Exodus during the Passover seder is common in many families and communities, especially amongst Sephardim.
Families will follow the Haggadah's lead by asking their own questions at various points in the Haggadah and offering prizes such as nuts and candies for correct answers. The afikoman, which is hidden away for the "dessert" after the meal, is another device used to encourage children's participation. In some families, the leader of the Seder hides the afikoman and the children must find it, whereupon they receive a prize or reward. In other homes, the children hide the afikoman and a parent must look for it; when the parents give up, the children demand a prize (often money) for revealing its location.
The Jewish Sages say that Passover occurs on the 15th of Nissan just as the moon grows for 15 days. The conclusion is that our growth must be in 15 gradual steps, just as the Passover puzzle is constituted by 15 pieces that, when assembled, will give us freedom.
Kadeish is Hebrew Imperative for Kiddush. This Kiddush is similar to that which is recited on all of the pilgrimage festivals, but also refers to matzot and the exodus from Egypt. Acting in a way that shows freedom and majesty, many Jews have the custom of filling each other's cups at the Seder table. The Kiddush is traditionally said by the father of the house, but all Seder participants participate by reciting the Kiddush and drinking at least a majority of a cup of wine.
Technically, according to Jewish law, whenever one partakes of fruits or vegetables dipped in liquid while remaining wet, one must wash one's hands, if the fruit or vegetable remains wet. However, other times of the year either one has already washed their hands before eating bread, or dry the fruit or vegetable, in which case, one need not wash their hands before eating the fruit or vegetable.
According to most traditions, no blessing is recited at this point in the Seder, unlike the blessing recited over the washing of the hands before eating bread. However, followers of Rambam or the Gaon of Vilna do recite a blessing.
Each participant dips a vegetable into either salt water (Ashkenazi custom; said to serve as a reminder of the tears shed by their enslaved ancestors), vinegar (Sephardi custom) or charoset (older Sephardi custom; still common among Yemenite Jews). Another custom mentioned in some Ashkenazi sources and probably originating with Meir of Rothenburg, was to dip the karpas in wine.
Three matzot are stacked on the seder table; at this stage, the middle matzah of the three is broken in half. The larger piece is hidden, to be used later as the afikoman, the "dessert" after the meal. The smaller piece is returned to its place between the other two matzot.
The story of Passover, and the change from slavery to freedom is told. At this point in the Seder, Moroccan Jews have a custom of raising the Seder plate over the heads of all those present while chanting "Bivhilu yatzanu mimitzrayim, halahma anya b'nei horin" (In haste we went out of Egypt [with our] bread of affliction, [now we are] free people).
The matzot are uncovered, and referred to as the "bread of affliction". Participants declare (in Aramaic) an invitation to all who are hungry or needy to join in the Seder. Halakha requires that this invitation be repeated in the native language of the country.
The Mishna details questions one is obligated to ask on the night of the seder. It is customary for the youngest child present to recite the four questions. Some customs hold that the other participants recite them quietly to themselves as well. In some families, this means that the requirement remains on an adult "child" until a grandchild of the family receives sufficient Jewish education to take on the responsibility. If a person has no children capable of asking, the responsibility falls to their spouse, or another participant. The need to ask is so great that even if a person is alone at the seder they are obligated to ask themselves and to answer their own questions.
Ma nishtana ha lyla ha zeh mikkol hallaylot?
Why is this night different from all other nights?
A fifth question which is present in the mishnah has been removed by later authorities due to its inapplicability after the destruction of the temple:
5. Shebb'khol hallelot anu okh’lin basar tsali shaluk umvushal, vehallayla hazze kullo tsali.
Why is it that on all other nights we eat meat either roasted, marinated, or cooked, but on this night it is entirely roasted?
The four questions have been translated into over 300 languages.
The traditional Haggadah speaks of "four sons"—one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know to ask. This is based upon the rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud finding four references in the Torah to responding to your son who asks a question. Each of these sons phrases his question about the seder in a different way. The Haggadah recommends answering each son according to his question, using one of the three verses in the Torah that refer to this exchange.
The wise son asks "What are the statutes, the testimonies, and the laws that God has commanded you to do?" One explanation for why this very detailed-oriented question is categorized as wise, is that the wise son is trying to learn how to carry out the seder, rather than asking for someone else's understanding of its meaning. He is answered fully: You should reply to him with [all] the laws of pesach: one may not eat any dessert after the paschal sacrifice.
The wicked son, who asks, "What is this service to you?", is characterized by the Haggadah as isolating himself from the Jewish people, standing by objectively and watching their behavior rather than participating. Therefore, he is rebuked by the explanation that "It is because God acted for my sake when I left Egypt." (This implies that the Seder is not for the wicked son because the wicked son would not have deserved to be freed from Egyptian slavery.) Where the four sons are illustrated in the Haggadah, this son has frequently been depicted as carrying weapons or wearing stylish contemporary fashions.
The simple son, who asks, "What is this?" is answered with "With a strong hand the Almighty led us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage."
And the one who does not know to ask is told, "It is because of what the Almighty did for me when I left Egypt."
Some modern Haggadahs mention "children" instead of "sons", and some have added a fifth child. The fifth child can represent the children of the Shoah who did not survive to ask a question or represent Jews who have drifted so far from Jewish life that they do not participate in a Seder.
For the former, tradition is to say that for that child we ask "Why?" and, like the simple child, we have no answer.
Four verses in Deuteronomy (26:5-8) are then expounded, with an elaborate, traditional commentary. ("5. And thou shalt speak and say before the Lord thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my parent, and they went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. 7. And we cried unto the Lord, the God of our parents, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.")
The Haggadah explores the meaning of those verses, and embellishes the story. This telling describes the slavery of the Jewish people and their miraculous salvation by God. This culminates in an enumeration of the Ten Plagues:
With the recital of the Ten Plagues, each participant removes a drop of wine from his or her cup using a fingertip. Although this night is one of salvation, the sages explain that one cannot be completely joyous when some of God's creatures had to suffer. A mnemonic acronym for the plagues is also introduced: "D'tzach Adash B'achav", while similarly spilling a drop of wine for each word.
At this part in the Seder, songs of praise are sung, including the song Dayenu, which proclaims that had God performed any single one of the many deeds performed for the Jewish people, it would have been enough to obligate us to give thanks. After this is a declaration (mandated by Rabban Gamliel) of the reasons of the commandments of the Paschal lamb, Matzah, and Maror, with scriptural sources. Then follows a short prayer, and the recital of the first two psalms of Hallel (which will be concluded after the meal). A long blessing is recited, and the second cup of wine is drunk.
The ritual hand-washing is repeated, this time with all customs including a blessing.
Two blessings are recited. First one recites the standard blessing before eating bread, which includes the words "who brings forth" (motzi in Hebrew). Then one recites the blessing regarding the commandment to eat Matzah. An olive-size piece (some say two) is then eaten while reclining.
The maror (bitter herb) is placed between two small pieces of matzo, similarly to how the contents of a sandwich are placed between two slices of bread, and eaten. This follows the tradition of Hillel, who did the same at his Seder table 2000 years ago (except that in Hillel's day the Paschal sacrifice, matzo, and maror were eaten together.)
The festive meal is eaten. Traditionally it begins with the charred egg on the Seder plate. In Yiddish, there is a cute saying: מיר צוגרייטן די טיש און עסן די פיש Which translated means "We set the table and eat the fish".
The afikoman, which was hidden earlier in the Seder, is traditionally the last morsel of food eaten by participants in the Seder.
Each participant receives an olive-sized portion of matzo to be eaten as afikoman. After the consumption of the afikoman, traditionally, no other food may be eaten for the rest of the night. Additionally, no intoxicating beverages may be consumed, with the exception of the remaining two cups of wine.
The recital of Birkat Hamazon.
The drinking of the Third Cup of Wine.
Most Ashkenazim have the custom to fill a fifth cup at this point. This relates to a Talmudic discussion that concerns the number of cups that are supposed to be drunk. Given that the four cups are in reference to the four expressions of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7, some rabbis felt that it was important to include a fifth cup for the fifth expression of redemption in Exodus 6:8. All agreed that five cups should be poured but the question as to whether or not the fifth should be drunk, given that the fifth expression of redemption concerned being brought into the Land of Israel, which - by this stage - was no longer possessed of an autonomous Jewish community, remained insoluble. The rabbis determined that the matter should be left until Elijah (in reference to the notion that Elijah's arrival would precipitate the coming of the Messiah, at which time all halakhic questions will be resolved) and the fifth cup came to be known as the Kos shel Eliyahu ("Cup of Elijah"). Over time, people came to relate this cup to the notion that Elijah will visit each home on Seder night as a foreshadowing of his future arrival at the end of the days, when he will come to announce the coming of the Jewish Messiah. In the late 1980s, Jewish feminists introduced the idea of placing a Cup of Miriam filled with water (to represent the well that existed as long as Miriam, Moses' sister, was alive in the desert) beside the Cup of Elijah. Many liberal Jews now include this ritual at their seders as a symbol of inclusion.
The entire order of Hallel which is usually recited in the synagogue on Jewish holidays is also recited at the Seder table, albeit sitting down. The first two psalms, 113 and 114, were recited before the meal. The remaining psalms 115-118, are recited at this point. Psalm 136 (the Great Hallel) is then recited, followed by Nishmat, a portion of the morning service for Shabbat and festivals.
There are a number of opinions concerning the paragraph Yehalelukha which normally follows Hallel, and Yishtabakh, which normally follows Nishmat. Most Ashkenazim recite Yehalelukha immediately following the Hallel proper, i.e. at the end of Psalm 118, except for the concluding words. After Nishmat, they recite Yishtabakh in its entirety. Sephardim recite '"Yehalelukha alone after Nishmat.
Afterwards the Fourth Cup of Wine is drunk and a brief Grace for the "fruit of the vine" is said.
The Seder concludes with a prayer that the night's service be accepted. A hope for the Messiah is expressed: "L'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim! - Next year in Jerusalem!" Jews in Israel, and especially those in Jerusalem, recite instead "L'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim hab'nuyah! - Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem!"
Although the 15 orders of the Seder have been complete, the Haggadah concludes with additional songs which further recount the miracles that occurred on this night in Ancient Egypt as well as throughout history. Some songs express a prayer that the Beit Hamikdash will soon be rebuilt. The last song to be sung is Chad Gadya ("One Kid Goat"). This seemingly childish song about different animals and people who attempted to punish others for their crimes and were in turn punished themselves, was interpreted by the Vilna Gaon as an allegory to the retribution God will levy over the enemies of the Jewish people at the end of days.
Following the Seder, those who are still awake may recite the Song of Songs, engage in Torah learning, or continue talking about the events of the Exodus until sleep overtakes them.
To include women and women's rights as part of the Seder, the practice of including an orange slice on the Seder plate has gained traction in non-Orthodox, Western Seders. Furthermore, many haggadah (even the most widely used, the famous Maxwell House Haggadah) now use gender-neutral language.
The group of people who hold a Passover Seder together is referred to in the Talmud (tractate Pesachim) as a chavurah (group). In the Far East, for example, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries regularly conduct Seders for hundreds of visiting students, businesspeople and Jewish travelers. The Chabad Seder in Katmandu regularly attracts more than 1,200 participants. In 2006, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS and Baltic Countries organized over 500 public Seders throughout the Former Soviet Union, led by local rabbis and Chabad rabbinical students, drawing more than 150,000 attendees in total.
In Israel, where permanent residents observe only one Seder, overseas students learning in yeshivas and women's seminaries are often invited in groups up to 100 for "second-day Seders" hosted by outreach organizations and private individuals.
Many Messianic Jews celebrate Passover, observing all or most of the traditional observances, but adding additional readings or sacraments found in Christianity and Messianic Judaism. Additional readings may be from the New Testament, messianic prophecies such as those found in Isaiah, or prayers containing Messianic elements. Additionally, the Tzafun and the third cup of wine are sometimes done in conjunction with communion, citing that Jesus instituted communion right after dinner, which is where the eating of the afikoman and drinking of the third cup takes place in a traditional Seder. There are various Messianic Haggadahs used to perform a Seder in the traditional family setting, at a Messianic Congregation, at a church for explaining Passover to gentiles, or in a public setting for all to attend.
Some Christians, especially but not only Evangelical Protestants, have recently taken great interest in performing seders according to the ancient rubric. Many churches host Seders, usually adding a Christian (Messianic Passover) message, and many times inviting Messianic Jews to lead and teach on it. Many Christians cite the meal as a way to connect with the heritage of their own religion and to see how the practices of the ancient world are still relevant to Christianity today.
A number of congregations hold interfaith Seders where Jews and non-Jews alike share in the story and discuss common themes of peace, freedom, and religious tolerance. During the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, interfaith Seders energized and inspired leaders from various communities who came together to march for equal protection for all. The first of these, the Freedom Seder, was written by Arthur Waskow, published in Ramparts magazine and in a small booklet by the Micah Press and in a later edition (1970) by Holt-Rinehart-Winston, and was actually performed on April 4, 1969, the first anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.and the third night of Passover, at Lincoln Memorial Temple in Washington, DC. It celebrated the liberation struggle of Black America alongside that of ancient Israel from Pharaoh, and was the first Haggadah to go beyond the original Biblical story. It sparked a large number of Haggadahs celebrating various other forms of liberation—feminism, vegetarianism, the liberation movements in Latin America in the 1970s, ecological healing, etc.. Today, many Unitarian Universalist congregations (a liberal religion that encompasses many faith traditions) hold annual interfaith community Seders. A number of Interfaith Passover Seder Haggadahs have been written especially for this purpose.
LGBT-inclusive seders, also known as "Pride Seders" have been held in various municipalities during LGBT Pride observances. It is not related to other non-traditional seders because of the lack of fixture of Pride seders to Passover. Such sederim, which are usually public and interfaith, observe the struggles of the LGBT civil rights movement. Having first originated in the 1990s and complete with their own LGBT-inclusive haggadim, Pride seders have become a means of cultural expression for Jews who have either been isolated by ostracism from anti-gay family and congregation members or want to prevent such ostracism.
The staff of the Office of the President of the United States have held seders since at least the late 1990s during the administration of Bill Clinton. On April 9, 2009, President Barack Obama included a second-night seder in his official schedule. This was the first time that a sitting president is known to have hosted and observed a seder at the White House. Obama participated in his first Seder while on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, and has hosted one each year since moving into the White House.
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