The name Pesach is derived from the Hebrew word pasach, which means “passed over,” which is also the source of the common English name for the holiday. It recalls the miraculous tenth plague when all the Egyptian firstborn were killed, but the Israelites were spared.

The story of Passover originates in the Bible as the telling of the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah recounts how the Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt by a Pharoah who feared them. After many generations of oppression, God speaks to an Israelite man named Moses and instructs him to go to Pharoah and let God’s people go free. Pharoah refuses, and Moses, acting as God’s messenger brings down a series of 10 plagues on Egypt.

The last plague was the Slaying of the Firstborn; God went through Egypt and killed each firstborn, but passed over the houses of the Israelites leaving their children unharmed. This plague was so terrible that Pharoah relented and let the Israelites leave.

Pharoah then regretted his decision and chased the Children of Israel until they were trapped at the Sea of Reeds. But God instructed Moses to stretch his staff over the Sea of Reeds and the waters parted, allowing the Children of Israel to walk through on dry land. The waters then closed, drowning Pharoah and his soldiers as they pursued the Israelites.

The Torah commands an observance of seven days of Passover. Many Jews in North America and all Jews in Israel follow this injunction. Some Jews outside of Israel celebrate Passover for eight days. The addition of a day dates back to 700-600 B.C.E. At that time, people were notified of a holiday’s beginning by means of an elaborate network of mountaintop bonfires. To guard against the possibility of error, an extra day was added to many of the holidays. Today, a dependable calendar exists, allowing Jews to know when holidays start and end. However, the process remains ingrained in Jewish law and practice for some Jews living outside of Israel today.

Customs and Rituals

Along with Sukkot and ShavuotPassover is one of the Shalosh Regalim, or Three Pilgrimage Festivals, during which people gathered in Jerusalem with their agricultural offerings in ancient times. There are several mitzvot (commandments) unique to Passover, which are evident in the customs and rituals of the holiday to this day: matzah (the eating of unleavened bread); maror (the eating of bitter herbs); chametz(abstention from eating leaven); b’iur chametz (removal of leaven from the home); and haggadah (participation in the seder meal and telling the story).

The Seder

The seder is the centerpiece of any Passover experience. A seder is an elaborate festive meal that takes place on the first night(s) of the holiday of Passover. Family and friends join 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 Haggaddah, the book used during the seder. Many congregations hold a community seder during at least one night of Passover. There are also synagogue services held during the first day(s) of the holiday.

The content of the seder can be summed up by the following Hebrew rhyme:

Kadeish, Ur’chatz,
Karpas, Yachatz,
Magid, Rachtzah,
Motzi, Matzah,
Maror, Korech,
Shulchan Orech,
Tzafun, Barech,
Hallel, Nirtzah

Listen to a recording of the “Order of the Seder,” based on the ancient Babylonian chant (sung by Cantor Kathy Barr).

Each of these 15 steps is summarized and explained below:

  1. Kadeish: Sanctification
    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 havdallah.The wine is then drunk. A second cup is then poured (but not yet drunk).
  2. Ur’chatz: Washing
    Participants wash their hands without a blessing in preparation for eating the Karpas.
  3. Karpas: Vegetable
    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.
  4. Yachatz: Breaking
    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).
  5. 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 one, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked one, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple one, who needs to know the basics; and the one who is unable to ask, who doesn’t even know enough to know what he needs to know. At the end of the Magid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.
  6. Rachtzah: Washing
    Participants wash their hands again, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.
  7. Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products
    Ha-motzi, the blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.
  8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
    A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
  9. Maror: Bitter Herbs
    A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The maror is dipped in charoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, 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 korech, below.
  10. Korech: The Sandwich
    Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich. In his honor, we eat some maror on a piece of matzah, with some charoset (we don’t do animal sacrifice anymore, so there is no paschal offering to eat).
  11. Shulchan Orech: Dinner
    A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal (except, of course, that chametz cannot be eaten). Among Ashkenazi Jews, gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are traditionally eaten at the beginning of the meal. Roast chicken or turkey are common as traditional main courses, as is beef brisket. Jews with far-ranging palates can put their own unique, contemporary stamp on this meal.
  12. 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. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.
  13. Barech: Grace after Meals
    The third cup of wine is poured, and birkat ha-mazon (Grace after Meals) is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any Shabbat, but with the special insertion for Passover. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Messiah, and is supposed to come on Pesach to do this. The door is then opened to invite Elijah into our homes.
  14. Hallel: Praises
    The standard group of psalms that make up a full Hallel are recited at this point. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.
  15. Nirtzah: Closing
    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). This can be followed by various traditional songs, hymns and stories.

The seder has a number of biblical origins for its customs. Exodus 12:3-11 describes the meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs which the Israelites ate just prior to the Exodus. In addition, three separate passages in Exodus (12:26-7, 13:8, 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) enunciate the duty of the parents to tell the story of the Exodus to their children.

Ritual Objects

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 shank bone, lettuce, an egg, greens, a bitter herb, and a mixture of apples, nuts and spices.

The following symbolic foods should be placed near the leader of the seder. During the course of the seder, they are pointed out, lifted up and displayed, and explained.
On the seder plate (use either a special one for this purpose or a regular dinner plate), include:

  • Shank bone, zaro’ah, 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 (horseradish or romaine lettuce), 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 the spring, the time of the year when Passover takes place

Also place on the table:

  • Three matzot (pl. 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, on the holiday table. This symbol honors Miriam, the sister of Moses, who played a vital role in the history of our people. The cup of Miriam is a special goblet filled with water and placed on the seder table. Many families and congregations have begun adding an orange to the seder plate as a symbol of inclusion of the LGBTQ community and others who feel marginalized in Jewish life.

The Haggadah (pl. 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 traditional 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 of the seder, tzafun.

Content Courtesy of ReformJudaism.org