What Is the Passover Seder?
What Is a Seder?
The Passover Seder is a religious service held on the first night of Passover. The Seder service is also conducted on the second night of the Pesach holiday for those living outside of Israel.
The Hebrew word “Seder” (pronounced “say-dehr”) translates to “order” in English. The meaning of the word “Seder” reveals a lot about the nature of this Passover ritual. The Seder service is composed of fifteen sections, all followed in a specific order. The order of the Seder is presented in the Haggadah text, along with the liturgy and instructions for the night’s many rituals.
The Meaning of the Seder Meal
The order is just one part of the meaning of the Seder. The Seder is also designed to remind us of the Israelites’ experience of Egyptian slavery, and how God redeemed them from Egypt. The Seder shows us that the Passover holiday is a commemoration of both suffering and joy. Rabbi Fohrman takes this one step further to propose that Passover is also about celebrating becoming God's chosen.
Before the Seder meal can be eaten, all the Seder participants join together to recall the trials and miracles that forged the Jewish nation. The Haggadah text tells us the story of the Israelites' descent into slavery in Egypt, their suffering under Pharaoh’s rule, and God’s miraculous redemption of the Jewish people.
The symbolism of the Seder rituals supports this commemoration. Four cups of wine celebrate our freedom, while bitter herbs remind us of the horrors of Egyptian slavery. And among all of the important rituals, eating the dry, unleavened bread known as matzah (or matzo) is a reminder that we can keep the Seder simple.
The holiday of Pesach is full of symbols and messages that are significant for our Jewish identity, even today. Our Pesach videos and 101 Passover Guide dive deeper into these important aspects to help you understand the holiday in a meaningful way.
Seder Dates & Times
The Seder meal is celebrated on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, which is the first night of Passover. In Israel, the Seder service is only held on the first night of Pesach. Jews in the Diaspora conduct the Seder on the second night of Passover as well. The Seder is always held after nightfall.
This year, the Pesach holiday begins after nightfall on Friday, March 30 and ends after nightfall on Saturday, April 7. Find a full calendar of Passover dates here.
Traditions & Rituals for the Passover Seder
The Four Cups
Four cups of wine or grape juice are drunk during the Seder service. The Seder begins with drinking the first cup. The second cup is drunk during the Maggid portion. The third cup is drunk after the Seder meal is eaten, and the final cup of wine is drunk at the conclusion of the Seder service.
The wine is drunk while leaning to the left, reminding guests at the Seder to act like royalty who always reclined while enjoying their meals.
Ma Nishtana or the Four Questions
This reading begins the Maggid section of the Seder and is traditionally recited by the youngest guest at the table. The four questions all begin, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and continue with reasons why the first night of Passover is unique on the Jewish calendar. We help you prepare with this 101 guide to the Four Questions.
During the Yachatz portion of the Seder, the middle matzah on the Seder plate is broken and the larger piece is set aside. This piece is later eaten as the “afikoman,” or dessert, at the end of the Seder meal. The Seder cannot conclude without eating the afikoman, and it is a traditional Passover game for children at the Seder to “steal” the afikoman and return it later in the evening in exchange for gifts. The afikoman should be eaten before midnight.
Opening the door for Elijah
After the Seder meal, a cup of wine is symbolically poured for the prophet Elijah, who is believed to bring the Messiah on the Pesach holiday. At many Seders, participants open the front door of the house to welcome Elijah as he visits each Jewish family around the world to briefly partake in their Passover celebration.
What Are the Parts of the Seder?
There are 15 parts to the Seder service. All of the Seder service and liturgy can be found in the Passover Haggadah.
- Kadeish: A blessing is recited over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is then drunk and a second cup is poured.
- Urchatz: Participants wash their hands without a blessing in preparation for eating the Karpas.
- Karpas: A vegetable (typically parsley, celery, or potato) is dipped into salt water and eaten. The salt water is symbolic of the tears shed by the Jews during the Egyptian slavery.
- Yachatz: Three matzot have been set up on the Seder table. At Yachatz, the middle matzo is broken in half. The larger piece is set aside as the afikoman, which will be eaten at Tzafun.
- Maggid: Maggid is the bulk of the Haggadah. It includes the retelling of the Passover story, the recital of the four questions, and drinking of the second cup of wine.
- Rachtzah: Participants wash their hands for a second time in preparation for eating the Matzo.
- Motzei: A blessing is recited before eating matzo.
- Matzah: Some matzo is eaten.
- Maror: A bitter vegetable is eaten (typically raw horseradish, endives, or romaine lettuce), symbolizing the bitterness of slavery. The bitter vegetable is dipped into charoset, a traditional food that combines apples, wine, nuts, and cinnamon, symbolizing the mortar for the bricks used by the slaves.
- Korech: A sandwich made of matzo and maror is eaten.
- Shulchan Orech: Dinner, which includes traditional Passover foods, is eaten.
- Tzafun: The matzo that was set aside earlier, the afikoman, is now eaten as dessert.
- Bareich: Participants recite birkat ha-mazon, Grace after Meals, and they drink the third cup of wine. The fourth cup is poured, as well as a cup set aside for Elijah the Prophet, who is supposed to herald in the Messiah on Passover. The door is opened to invite Elijah in
- Hallel: The Hallel prayer, traditionally recited on festivals, is recited (and often sung) at this point. Finally, the fourth cup of wine is drunk.
- Nirtzach: The seder is now completed with the wish that next year the holiday will be celebrated in Jerusalem. This is often followed by various traditional songs, hymns and stories.
The Seder Plate Explained
The Seder plate (in Hebrew, k’arah) is a ceremonial platter that holds five symbolic Passover foods. These traditional Passover foods are all eaten or referenced during the Seder meal, and represent part of the Pesach story.
- Karpas: A root vegetable (usually celery, parsley, or potato) that is dipped in salt water and eaten during the Seder. This reminds us of the tears wept by the Jewish slaves in Egypt.
- Marror and Chazeret: Bitter herbs (usually romaine lettuce, endives, or horseradish) that are eaten to remind us of the bitter days of Egyptian slavery.
- Charoset: A sweet mixture often made with apples, nuts, cinnamon, and red wine (though the recipe can change by tradition) that reminds us of the dark mortar used in building while the Jews were slaves. Marror is dipped in Charoset and eaten before the Seder meal.
- Beitzah: A roasted egg, reminding us of the specific festival sacrifice offered on Passover in the days of the Holy Temple.
- Zeroah: A roasted shankbone, which reminds us of the Korban Pesach, the Paschal Lamb that was traditionally eaten for the Seder meal.
Preparing for a Family Seder Dinner
The family Seder dinner is a time to read the Haggadah, partake in Passover rituals, and pass Jewish tradition on to children. The Passover meal is called “Shulchan Orech,” which means “set table.” Dinner is eaten after the Maggid service is concluded and the marror (bitter herbs) have been served.
Roasted meats and other foods are traditionally served at the Seder supper, to remind participants of the roasted Paschal lamb. Other traditional foods include eggs, wine, and matzah.
A simple Seder meal might serve just meat and matzah, while a traditional Seder dinner might also include soup, fish, salads, and desserts. Whether the Seder meal is traditional or modern, no chametz (leavened food, which is forbidden on Pesach) is served at the Seder meal.
Passover Seder Wine
Wine is an important part of the Seder service. On Passover, wine represents royalty and freedom, as it is drunk in a reclining position like the great men and women of old. Be careful to lean only on your left side while drinking the Passover wine.
Matzah bread is the traditional Passover bread, and the most important food of the holiday. Matzah is a thin, unleavened bread that is baked from just flour and water. Matzah dough must be made and baked in under 18 minutes, or the matzah is considered chametz, and not kosher for Pesach.
Matzah represents the Egyptian slavery that is remembered at the Seder meal. Traditionally, matzah is called “the bread of affliction” because it is similar to the poor, simple bread the Israelites had to eat in Egypt. Matzah is also believed to have been created by the Jewish people as they left Egypt with unrisen dough on their backs. The dough baked flat in the desert sun, and we eat matzo to remember both our affliction and our redemption.
Dress Code for a Seder Meal
It is traditional to dress in formal clothing at the family Seder dinner, to honor the religious significance of the holiday of Passover. Try to dress comfortably as well, as the Seder service can last for several hours, into the early morning. At a traditional Pesach Seder, married Jewish men will often dress in a white robe called a kittel, which symbolizes purity and royalty.
What should I bring to the Seder?
If you are a guest at a family Seder meal, it is appropriate to bring a gift of kosher or Passover wine to the Seder. Any gifts of food should be kosher for Pesach, and not contain any leavened bread. Flowers to beautify the Pesach table are also a welcome Seder gift.
If you have a Haggadah, you may bring it to the Passover meal. However, your hosts will probably provide you with a Haggadah for the Seder if you do not have one.
The Seder Service: Readings & Songs
There are many important seder meal services and readings that are conducted on the Pesach holiday.
A list of common songs and readings for the Passover Seder include:
- Ma Nishtana: The Four Questions
- Avodim Hayinu
- The Four Sons
- Eliyahu haNavi
- L’Shana HaBa b’Yerushalayim
- Echad Mi Yodeah
- Chad Gadya
The Four Questions: Ma Nishtana is a song that begins the Maggid service. The song takes the form of four questions about the unique nature of the Seder meal and first night of Passover. It is traditionally sung by the youngest participant at the Seder.
Avodim Hayinu: In English, this song translates to “We Were Slaves.” This song recounts the Israelite’s experience of slavery in Egypt.
The Four Sons: This reading discusses the four theoretical categories of “sons” (or participants) at the Seder meal, and the unique questions each asks about the Pesach holiday. The four sons are the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who does not know what to ask. Each is given a different way to understand Passover and the redemption from Egypt, symbolizing that we must gear our teaching to the needs of each student.
Dayeinu: “Dayeinu” means “It would have been enough.” This song is sung during the Maggid service, and lists the miracles that God performed to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and form them into the Jewish nation. Each line ends with the exclamation, “Dayeinu,” as we acknowledge that each miracle alone would have been sufficient reason for the Jews to celebrate and praise God. Rabbi Fohrman takes his analysis further to uncover the true meaning behind the lyrics.
Eliyahu haNavi: In English, “Elijah the Prophet.” This song is sung when the cup of Elijah is poured, and the door opened to symbolically welcome the prophet to our Seder meal.
L’Shana HaBa b’Yerushalayim: In English, “Next year in Jerusalem.” This song is sung at the conclusion of Hallel near the very end of the Seder service, as we express the hope that the Redemption will arrive in the upcoming year, and all Jews will be united in Israel for the next Pesach holiday.
Echad Mi Yodeah: In English, “Who Knows One?” This song is sung during Nirtzah, the hymnal section that concludes the Seder. Sung in a question-and-answer style, each verse relates a number from one to thirteen to a Jewish concept. Every line concludes with the phrase “One is our God, who is in the Heavens and the Earth.”
Chad Gadya: This Aramaic song is also sung during Nirtzah, and is the final part of the Haggadah liturgy. “Chad Gadya” – in English, “A Baby Goat,” – recounts a procession of animals, people, and beings who are all conquered in turn. The goat is eaten by a cat, the cat is bitten by a dog, the dog is hit with a stick, the stick is burned, and so on. But ultimately, the song reveals, all creatures – including the Angel of Death – are subservient to the will of God.
Seder Meal Blessings
Blessing on Seder Wine
Baruch Atah Ado-nai Elo-heinu Melech Ha-olam Boreh P’ree Ha-ga-fen
Blessed are You our Lord, our God who is the King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
This is the blessing of thanks for each new holiday, recited only on the first night of Passover.
Baruch Atah Ado-nai, Elo-heinu Melech Ha-olam, She-heche-yanu, V'kiye-manu Vehigi-yanu La-z'man Ha-zeh.
Blessed are You our Lord, our God who is the King of the universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.
Blessing on Karpas
Baruch Atah Adonai Elo-heinu Melech Haolam Boreh Pree Ha’adamah
Blessed are You our Lord, our God who is the King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the earth.
Blessing After Washing the Hands
Baruch Atah Ado-nai Elo-heinu Melech Ha-olam Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu Al Nitilat Yadayim.
Blessed are You our Lord, our God who is the King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His laws and commanded us to wash our hands.
Blessings on Matzah
Baruch Atah Ado-nai Elo-heinu Melech Ha-olam Hamotzi Lechem Min Ha-aretz.
Blessed are You our Lord, our God who is the King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
Baruch Atah Ado-nai, Elo-heinu Melech Ha-olam, Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu Al Achilat matzah.
Blessed are You our Lord, our God who is the King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His laws and commanded us to eat matzah.
Blessing on Marror
Baruch Atah Ado-nai, Elo-heinu Melech Ha-olam, Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu Al Achilat Maror.
Blessed are You our Lord, our God who is the King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His laws and commanded us to eat bitter herbs.
A New Perspective for Your Seder Speech
Many of us spend the days before Pesach pondering over what we might say at the Seder. If you’re looking for a new perspective this Passover, Rabbi Fohrman’s inspiring book takes you on a different kind of journey. “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over” reveals a side of the Exodus story that illuminates not just our past and freedom, but also our future and destiny.
By tackling some of the glaring questions about Passover, this book helps you dig up messages you otherwise might have missed. For example, isn’t it strange that the name “Passover” only relates to one plague? Wouldn’t Freedom Day, or Independence Day, make more sense? Why bother with the Ten Plagues?
Then there’s the uncomfortable questions: Doesn’t it seem counteractive for God to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart? And why was the Exodus so complicated, when God could have simply teleported the Israelites out of Egypt? Uncover the secrets that lay hidden in the ancient and sacred saga of the Exodus: read Chapter 1 free.
Guides to Prepare for the Seder
Reading the Haggadah at the Seder is not a simple task. The text is complicated and long, and the parts don't even seem to fit together. What are all the sections doing at the beginning of the Seder? What do the four questions, the four sons, and the story of Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria tell us about the Exodus? Why doesn't the actual story of the Exodus start until you’re deep into the Haggadah?