Traditional Seder Meal Tells the Tale of a Welcoming People
Story of a Supper
If there’s one invitation you should finagle this season, land yourself a seat at a Seder. Equal parts educational and epicurean, the meal representing the Jewish Passover holiday is one you will never forget.
Sometimes carried out in the community, but more often performed in the home, the ritual engages each guest in the retelling of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt, as written in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus.
It is customary to perform the Seder meal at sundown on the first night of Passover, April 18 this year, but some families will host or attend more than one Seder throughout the duration of the Pesach holiday. Many temples, synagogues and even Christian churches hold public Seder dinners for fellowship and religious education.
Exodus may be the subject of the story, but departure is far from the theme of the meal. Jews all over the world are compelled and even encouraged to share the Passover, or Pesach, story with anyone who will listen.
If you attend a Seder — come a stranger, leave a friend.
The Seder plays a key role even in the least observant Jewish families, likely due to its easy symbolism and joyous tone. It is through this mealtime story that many Jews pass down faith and tradition to their children.
The first thing you may notice when you come to the table is a book on your plate. Called the Haggadah, its pages are filled with the story of the Jews’ freedom from slavery, anecdotes and songs celebrating the resilience of the Jewish people.
Everyone is expected to read from the text, so prepare to lend your voice to the occasion. Bring your appetite, too, because not only is the food scrumptious — it’s symbolic.
Consider the Seder plate. The dish, by design, is something of a lesson plan. Arranged upon it are six symbolic items, with a seventh placed nearby on the table. Each item, outlined below, signifies one aspect of the Jews’ journey out of Egypt and away from persecution:
MAROR: Bitter herbs, such as freshly grated horseradish, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery the Jews endured.
CHAROSET: A sweet paste of fruits and nuts, representing the mortar used by the Jewish slaves in building for the oppressive Pharaoh.
KARPAS: A leafy vegetable, usually fresh parsley, which is dipped into salt water in a cleansing ritual, a reminder of the tears shed by ancestors.
ZEROA: A roasted lamb bone, a reminder of the Pesach sacrifice, an offering of a lamb in the Temple in Jerusalem to show gratitude for God’s intervention in the Jews’ plight.
BEITZAH: A roasted egg, symbolizing the festival sacrifice offered in the Temple in Jerusalem then eaten as part of the Seder meal.
MATZOH: A thin, unleavened cracker representing the haste with which the Jews fled Egypt, with not even enough time to allow their bread to rise.
Every word, every bite, every custom has a purpose during the Passover Seder. If you are a first-time guest, you can either sit back (reclining is part of the service) or explore your curiosity. There are plenty of opportunities for questions, the most important of all being the Four Questions, traditionally recited by the youngest person in attendance.
After the blessing of the wine, the washing of the hands, the dipping of the parsley and the breaking of the (unleavened) bread, the telling of the Pesach story begins in earnest with an invitation to the hungry, needy — or just plain inquisitive — to join the Seder.
The Four Questions, or Mah Nishtanah, address a broader question you may be asking yourself as you sit, book in hand, still no brisket in sight: Why is this night different from all other nights?
An attempt is made to explain the importance of Passover by answering the following:
Why is it that on all other nights we eat either bread or matzoh, but on this night we eat only matzoh?
Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?
Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?
Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip our foods even once, but on this night we dip them twice?
As you may have realized by now, each question can be answered by consulting the Seder plate.
We eat matzoh to remind us of the Jews’ quick escape, fleeing with raw dough that baked into thin crackers in the desert sun. We eat bitter herbs to remind us of the cruel way the Jews were treated while enslaved in Egypt. We lean on a pillow to remind us that we can relax now that we are free. We dip parsley into salt water to remind us not only of our ancestors’ tears, but also of the promise of a new and better life.
It is this “new and better life” the Jews celebrate each Passover through the retelling of the story of how we got here. Because of the oppression the Jewish people suffered, our faith teaches us always to be mindful of others who still are not free, to celebrate life with family, friends — and even strangers — ever aware of our neighbors in need.
At this point in the service, when all you have been served is a book, a sprig of salty parsley and a few drops of wine, you may be wondering if you’ll be expected to subsist on paper and crackers alone. While much of what you consume during a Seder holds symbolic meaning rather than gastronomic flair, the main course will satisfy. A typical Seder supper begins with an appetizer of gefilte fish or matzoh ball soup before the main course of beef brisket or roast chicken, sides like fresh vegetables or noodle kugel, and unleavened desserts such as cheesecake, angel food cake or macaroons.