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The Haggadah and the Steps of a Seder

The Passover seder (a Jewish ritual dinner) is based on the haggadah, a book of instructions, prayers, blessings, and stories that lays out the proper order for the ritual. Haggadah means “the telling,” referring to one of the most important aspects of the seder: the recitation of the Exodus story.

The basic text of the traditional haggadah is almost identical to that used in the eleventh century. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, many different versions began to appear, and now there are literally hundreds of haggadot (the plural of haggadah) available, each laying out the same basic ritual but with a different spin.

Each seder needs a leader, someone who will orchestrate the proceedings and read key parts of the haggadah. In traditional homes, the leader may wear a white kittel (robe), which is worn only during the seder, Yom Kippur, one's wedding, and one's burial, which helps create the sense that this is a sacred time. The seder then proceeds through its 15 steps:

  1. Kadesh (sanctification of the day)

    Fill your cup with the first glass of wine or grape juice, lift the cup, say the Kiddush (sanctification over the fruit of the vine and over the special energies of the holiday), and drink, leaning to the left. Tradition says to fill the cup to the brim, but also says that you shouldn’t get drunk, so you only have to drink half the glass (which may be small).

  2. Urchatz (handwashing with no blessing)

    The second step is a ritual ablution — a spiritual cleansing by pouring water over the hands. The water should be warm enough to make the washing pleasant. Traditionally, a pitcher of water is used to pour water over the right and then over the left hand. You can then dry your hands on a towel. In some homes, and in a large congregation, the leader often acts as proxy, performing the urchatz for everyone in attendance. Ordinarily a blessing is said over the ritual washing of the hands, but not this time.

  3. Karpas (eating the green vegetable)

    The first bite of food people get is the karpas, the green vegetable, symbol of spring and renewal, which they dip in salt water (purifying tears) before eating. Apart from its ritual symbolism, karpas serves as an hors d’oeuvres before the meal. Wise arrangers make sure there is plenty available, so eat plenty.

  4. Yachatz (breaking the matzah)

    Now the seder leader picks up the middle of the three matzah from the matzoh plate and breaks it in half. The leader puts the smaller half of matzah back in between the other two pieces of matzah, but the larger half is reserved as the afikomen (“dessert”), which is eaten at the end of the meal.

    In some families, the afikomen is taken away and hidden somewhere in the house, and near the end of the seder, the kids are allowed to go looking for it (see Step 12). Another common practice is to place the afikomen near the leader, from whom the kids must steal it during the seder without the leader noticing. In some Sephardic families, each person places a broken afikomen matzah on their shoulder, symbolizing the quick exodus from Egypt.

  5. Maggid (telling the story)

    Usually the longest of the 15 seder steps, the Maggid is the telling of the Exodus narrative. It’s now that the youngest child at the table asks the four questions (every haggadah lists them). Actually, any person can read the questions, or everyone can read them together. The four questions all revolve around the basic question, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” (Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?)

    The rest of the Maggid answers this question with the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, some Torah study, and a discussion of the description of the four types of children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who doesn’t know enough to ask a question. You may be tempted to look around the table to find a good example of each child, but it's more appropriate to look inside, to find the parts of ourselves that fit each of these descriptions.

    Finally, the second cup of wine is poured, but don’t drink it yet! Traditionally, you dip a finger into the wine and transfer ten drops of wine to your plate, one for each of the ten plagues in Egypt. Then, after songs praising God, pointing out the various items on the seder table yet again, and reciting the blessing over the wine, you can drink the second cup. By this time, you usually need it!

  6. Rachtzah (handwashing with a blessing)

    It’s time to wash your hands again, but this time you do say the blessing. It’s customary not to speak at all between washing your hands and saying the blessings over the matzah. You can use this time to reflect on the sanctification and purification that you’re undergoing.

  7. Motzi (blessing before eating matzah)

    Next, raise the matzah and recite two blessings over the bread: the regular motzi blessing and one specifically mentioning the mitzvah (Jewish commandment) of eating matzah at Passover.

  8. Matzah (eating the matzah)

    Blessings said, everyone breaks off a piece of matzah and eats it.

  9. Maror (eating the bitter herb)

    It’s perfect Jewish irony that just as your stomach is starting to growl, you get to eat maror, the bitter herbs. Whether you eat a fresh slice of horseradish (which promises to bring tears to your eyes) or a leaf of romaine lettuce (which is pretty wimpy), you should be thinking of the bitterness of slavery. Traditionally, you should dip the maror in the charoset (the apple-nut-wine-cinnamon salad) to taste a small amount of sweetness along with the pain.

  10. Korech (Hillel’s sandwich)

    While the English Earl of Sandwich is generally credited for inventing the snack of his namesake, Hillel may have originated it two thousand years ago by combining matzah, a slice of paschal lamb, and a bitter herb. Jews no longer sacrifice and eat the lamb, so the Passover sandwich is only matzah, charoset, and a bitter herb now (many people use the chazeret instead of horseradish).

  11. Shulchan Orech (eating the meal)

    Once the korech is finished, it’s time for the real meal, usually beginning with a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water and quickly progressing to gefilte fish with horseradish, matzah-ball soup, chopped liver, and as much other food as you can stuff down your gullet.

    Although you drink four ceremonial glasses of wine during Passover, this doesn’t mean you can’t have some more during dinner, too. No beer, though.

  12. Tzafun (eating the afikomen)

    Whether or not dessert is served after dinner, the last food that is officially eaten at the seder is a piece of the afikomen matzah (see Step 4), which symbolizes the Pesach sacrifice. If the afikomen is hidden or stolen by the children, it must be returned to the leader by the end of the seder. The seder can’t be concluded without the afikomen (and tradition says that the seder must end before midnight), but the children are usually pretty tired at this point, so both sides have good bargaining positions. Many folks don’t actually eat the afikomen itself; any taste of matzah will do once the afikomen has been returned.

    The afikomen also represents the part of the self or soul that is lost or given up in enslavement. The seder represents the journey from enslavement to freedom, and at Tzafun, people reclaim the pieces of self that were missing. Again, it’s traditional to ingest the symbol to internalize it.

  13. Barech (blessing after eating)

    Jewish meals always conclude with a blessing, and this meal is no different. At this point, however, the meal may be over, but the seder is not. The third cup of wine celebrating the meal is poured and, after a blessing is recited, drunk. Now, a curious tradition occurs: A cup of wine is poured in honor of the prophet Elijah, and a door is opened to allow Elijah in. Many folks think the cup is for Elijah. Actually, the extra cup stems from a rabbinic debate over whether we should drink four or five cups of wine during the seder; the compromise was to drink four (the fourth is drunk in Step 14), pour a fifth, and wait until Elijah comes to tell the Jews which is correct.

    An alternative custom invites each person to pour a little of their own wine to fill Elijah’s cup, symbolizing each person’s own responsibility toward bringing about redemption.

  14. Hallel (songs of praise)

    After closing the door, the final seder ritual includes singing special songs of praise to God, and then filling, blessing, and drinking the fourth cup of wine.

  15. Nirtzah (conclusion)

    The prescribed rituals and actions end at the 14th step; Nirtzah celebrates a conclusion. The most common prayer at the end is simply L’shana haba-a bi-Y’rushalayim, meaning “Next year in Jerusalem!” Then, depending on the hour and the energy level of the participants, you may find yourself singing more songs and possibly even dancing! Some families make a tradition of reading aloud the Song of Songs at the end of the seder, though be prepared for sleepy groans if you suggest it.

Like ballroom dancing, the seder has relatively clear rules and an order, but what makes the evening special are the extra flourishes that all the participants add along the way. You have plenty of room to be creative and add stuff to the seder — additional songs, prayers, poems, stories, commentary, and so on — so if you aren't having fun, you aren't doing it right.

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