Your Passover Seder How-To Guide

Essentials for Your Passover Seder

Passover, also called Pesach, is one of the most important and celebrated holidays in the Jewish calendar. Falling in early Spring, the holiday commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian oppression and the subsequent 40 years of wandering in the desert.

For seven days, Jews around the world abstain from eating anything leavened to commemorate what the Israelites had to eat after fleeing their oppressors and not having time to bake their bread properly. Jews also reflect on the exodus and freedom from slavery by holding a Passover seder, which simply means "order." The Passover seder is a lengthy meal with a variety of ritual, tradition, and, most importantly, objects to complete the seder experience. 

These are just some of the basic items you'll find on a typical Passover seder table with a quick and easy explanation of how they're used and the meaning they hold. 

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The Seder Plate

Seder Plate

Perhaps the most important component of the seder, the seder plate holds specific components that are central to the retelling of the exodus story at the seder

There are special spots on the plate for

  • karpas, a green vegetable like parsley that represents the initial successes of the Israelites in Egypt. It’s dipped in salt water at the meal to represent the tears that were shed over their eventual entrapment in slavery.
  • charoset, a mixture of fruits and nuts that symbolizes the mortar that the Israelites used in building structures for Pharaoh.
  • maror, a bitter herb like horseradish or romaine lettuce that represents the bitterness of slavery and oppression.
  • z’roa, a roasted lamb shank that represents the lamb that was sacrificed prior to leaving Egypt, as well as representing the Passover offering at the Temple in Jerusalem.
  • beitzah, a roasted egg that represents the hagigah sacrifice that was offered when the Temple stood in Jerusalem.

There are different traditions for additional items on the seder plate, as well as to how a seder plate should look and where these components should be placed, as well. 

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The Haggadah

Passover Haggadah

Without a haggadah, it would be difficult to have a Passover seder! The haggadah is basically a book that retells the story of the Exodus from Egypt and provides a guide for the entire meal. 

The origins for the haggadah are derived from Exodus 13:8, which says, "And you shall instruct your son on that day ..." The term haggadah translates as "telling," and the haggadah allows Jews the world over to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt every year. 

There are many different types of haggadot (plural of haggadah), and you'll want to pick the right one for your family: Picking the Right Haggadah

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Matzah Cover and Afikomen Bag

Matzah Cover and Afikomen Bag

The central component to the holiday of Passover is the matzah, an unleavened bread product that in modern times is more like a cracker. At the seder, the matzah plays an interesting role in the retelling, and as such, there are several items used at the meal for the matzah. 

The matzah cover/bag holds three slices of matzah at the beginning of the meal that are used in different ways as the meal progresses. The matzah cover is often decorated beautifully with symbols of Passover, Jerusalem, and Israel. 

The afikomen (coming for the Greek word for dessert) bag holds a piece of the middle matzah after it is broken in two during the third part of the seder meal. The larger piece is placed in the afikomen bag and hidden somewhere in the house and, at the end of the meal, children go on the hunt for the afikomen to exchange it for a prize, treat, or candy. 

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Matzah Plate

Matzah Plate

During the seder, you need a place to put the matzah, because of its significant role in the seder meal, and this is known as a matzah plate or matzah tray. 

These plates come in many forms, from the extravagant silver, three-tray system with a seder plate to a simple ceramic plate with the word matzah written on it. They are used both to hold the excess matzah at the meal, because there is no bread to be eaten, and as the location to place the matzah cover/bag. 

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Cos Eliyahu

Cos Eliyahu

The Prophet Elijah appears many times in the Jewish narrative and serves as a legendary figure who frequently saved the Israelites from impending doom. At the conclusion of Shabbat, there's even a song that is sung in honor of Elijah. 

At the Passover seder, the Cos Eliyahu (Elijah's cup) serves a very practical purpose in that it resolves a dispute by the rabbis over whether there should be four or five cups of wine consumed during the meal. Thus, there are four cups consumed as part of the meal and then Cos Eliyahu satisfied the possible necessity of a fifth cup. 

During the meal, Cos Eliyahu is filled with wine and toward the end of the meal children run and open the door to let Elijah in to join the meal. Someone at the table usually shakes the table so a bit of the wine spills out, so when the children return they see that Elijah joined the meal and partook of the wine. 

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Kiddush Cup

Kiddush Cup

The kiddush cup is most commonly used on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays when wine is consumed at the beginning of a festive meal. There is a special blessing that is recited over the wine that is called kiddush or sanctification, hence the name of the cup.

At some seder tables, every participant will be given their own special kiddush cup since there are four glasses of wine consumed, while at other tables only the host will have a special kiddush cup and the rest of the guests will have regular wine glasses.

Because there is special Kosher-for-passover wine, it's common to have a special kiddush cup that is used only for Passover. There are, however, families where the weeks leading up to Passover are spent polishing the silver to guarantee there is no chametz (anything with leavening). 

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Passover Pillow Cover

Passover Pillow Cover

It might seem like a strange addition to the Passover seder, but every time wine is consumed or matzah is eaten, Jews take the time to lean to the left on a pillow in order to live like royalty.

Thus, many people make or purchase extravagant Passover pillow cases for the seder for all of their guests so that they can eat like royalty, in contrast with the subjugation of slavery in the Exodus. In some communities, on the other hand, only men lean left when consuming wine and matzah

The pillowcase will frequently feature symbols of the Passover holiday and words taken from the haggadahHalaila Hazeh Kulanu Mesubin, or "on this night we all recline."

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Miriam's Cup

Cost Miriam

The Cos Miriam (Miriam's cup) is a modern addition to the seder table that is meant to honor the valor and importance of women in the Jewish narrative. 

Miriam was Moses's and Aaron's sister and when the Israelites wandered in the desert a well followed Miriam around, providing sustenance for the nation. When Miriam died, the well dried up and Moses and Aaron had to plead with God for sustenance. 

In Miriam's merit, some will place a Cos Miriam at their seder table alongside the Cos Eliyahu.

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Kosher-for-Passover Wine

Kosher-for-Passover Wine

The final component you'll need for your Passover table is plenty of kosher-for-Passover wine. A good rule of thumb is one bottle per person at your seder, because everyone will be drinking at least four glasses of wine. 

There are different opinions and traditions as to how many ounces satisfy the requirement for having consumed a "glass" of wine. In some cases, it's as little as 1.7 ounces and for others it's a minimum of 3.3 ounces or more. 

Take time to read up on mevushal wine, as well, to make sure you accommodate everyone at your table.