Northern Hills Synagogue-Congregation B'nai Avraham logo NHS-CBA building exterior

The Seder

The Seder Stripped-Down

The Torah teaches us (Exodus l3:8): "V'higadta l'vincha bayom hahu", "you shall tell your children on that day." This commandment of "v'higadta" is the basis of the Haggadah, the telling of the story of the Exodus on Passover night. Thus, the seder is essentially an educational institution. I believe that the form of the Haggadah as it has come down to us through tradition is an expression of the genius of Judaism, and that we should all try to appreciate its lessons. However, this appreciation ought to be subordinate to the reliving, in terms which are meaningful to each individual, of our people's liberation from Egyptian bondage.

1. Haggadot. There are many haggadot available, each with its own character. Here are some haggadot which you may want to consider:

(a) Haggadah shel Pesah. ed. Morris Silverman Prayer Book Press). Considerable explanatory material, and some transliteration of Hebrew passages.
(b) Haggadah shel Pesah. ed. Nathan Goldberg (KTAV). Undistinguished in appearance, but with a clear and readable text.
(c) Haggadah shel Pesah. ed. Nahum Glatzer (Shocken). Clear Hebrew and English text. Scholarly commentary.
(d) Haggadah shel Pesah. ed. Philip Birnbaum (Hebrew Publishing Co.). Clear Hebrew and English text. Good scholarly commentary. Includes Music for seder songs.
(e) Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom. ed. Rachel Anne Rabinowicz (Rabbinical Assembly) Modern translation and excellent explanatory commentary. Contemporary material added, and some changes in the traditional text.
(f) A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah, by David Dishon and Noam Zion. Many creative ideas for enhancing the seder.
(g) The Art Scroll Family Haggadah, ed. Avie Gold and Nosson Scherman. Strictly Orthodox in outlook, but with a readable type-face and detailed explanations.

(I have included references to the page numbers of the Feast of Freedom (e) and Goldberg (b) Haggadot, in order to make these notes on the seder more useful.)

2. Time of the seder. The seder should begin as soon as possible after nightfall, that is, when three stars are visible, but no earlier than that. Since this means that dinner will be rather late, it is a good idea to have a snack of some Passover cakes, fruit, etc., in the late afternoon. Many people have a problem with the late starting time. How can children stay up that late? Certainly, the traditional timing was not based on the assumption that people would be going to school or work the next morning. One possible course to follow is to recognize that a seder is not a once-in-a-lifetime event. Each year, children should be able to stay up later. In any case, people have to make their own choices based on their values and priorities.

3. Guests at the seder. As part of the seder we say, "let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are needy come and observe Passover." It is especially meritorious to invite guests to the seder. Hospitality is an important part of Pesah observance. Think about inviting to your seder someone who might otherwise be alone, or who might not otherwise have a seder. If you would like suggestions for seder invitations, contact Holly Robinson, 761-1465 – Many college students would appreciate home hospitality for sedarim. To invite a UC student to your seder, call Hillel at 221-6728.

4. Arrangement of the kaarah (seder plate). One should have available: three matzot, a roast egg and a bone or other cooked dish (sh’ney tavshilin), a vegetable for karpas, bitter herbs (maror), haroset, and salt water or vinegar. A number of different arrangements of the items on the plate are possible; the following one, suggested by Rabbi Isaac Luria (Ari Hakadosh), (l6th century) is the most common:

Egg      Bone
Maror I
Karpas    Haroset
Maror II

Following this arrangement, the matzot and the salt water are not actually put on the kaarah, but are rather placed beside it.

(a) Three matzot. We need two complete matzot in order to fulfill the requirement of having two complete loaves (lehem mishneh) at a Festival meal, and the third one to break in two, for afikoman and for the "bread of affliction".
(b) Sh’ney tavshilin. Literally, "two dishes". These represent the korban pesah and the hagigah, the two sacrifices offered on Pesah in the time of the Temple.
(c) Karpas. We dip some vegetable (customarily, but not necessarily, parsley) in salt water or vinegar near the beginning of the seder in order to provoke the curiosity of the children.
(d) Maror. We eat bitter herbs as a reminder of the bitterness of Egyptian bondage. It is customary among Ashkenazic Jews to use horseradish root (not the bottled horseradish preparation!) for this purpose, but some authorities hold that it is most proper to use Romaine lettuce. The usual arrangement of the seder plate shown above includes two places for maror. Some people use horseradish for one of them and Romaine lettuce fort he other. Chicory or endive may also be used for this purpose.


5. Reclining (hasevah). In ancient times, the wealthy reclined on couches at their banquets, and from that practice there arose the practice of reclining at the seder. Maximally, everyone at the seder should recline all the way through the evening (except for eating maror, which reminds us of our affliction). Minimally, the leader of the seder should lean to the left side while drinking the four cups of wine and eating the matzah and the afikoman.

6. Kadesh (F24-26, G5). The first cup of wine to be drunk at the seder accompanies the usual Festival kiddush. One Friday night, passages appropriate to the Sabbath are inserted, and on Saturday night, kiddush is combined with havdalah. (It is customary to use the Festival candles for the blessing over the light in havdalah, and no spices are used on this occasion.) The kiddush cup should hold at least 3 1/2 ounces and should be filled to the top, and one should drink at least half the cup. This rule applies as well to the other cups of wine drunk at the seder, except that it is customary to drink all of the last cup. Grape juice may be used for the four cups, but it must be certified as kosher for Passover. Cherry wine and such beverages, which do not require the brakhah "bore pri hagafen," should not be used.

7. Urhatz (Hand-washing). (F26, G7). The ritual handwashing (which consists of pouring water from a vessel over each hand alternately) is a prelude to eating the karpas. In former times, it was the usual practice to wash one's hands before eating any food dipped in a liquid.

8. Karpas (F26, G7). The Hebrew word karpas means celery, but any vegetable which grows in the ground, and not on a tree, may be used. Although karpas is often taken today as a symbol of spring, in the classical sources this part of the seder is described simply as the tibul rishon, the "first dipping," an unusual practice designed to provoke curiosity. One should eat less than an olive's bulk of karpas.

9. Yahatz (F26, G8). We divide the middle matzah, saving half for afikoman.

10. Maggid (F30-68, G8-24). This section is the heart of the haggadah. The four questions with which it begins should be taken only as examples of the questions which might be asked at the seder. Give-and-take is of the essence in education and is especially appropriate in the transmission of values and attitudes, which constitutes the real meaning of the seder. Some questions which one might want to discuss at the seder are:

  • What kind of people in our experience are represented by the four sons?
  • What is the lesson of the passage concerning the four sons for our synagogues and schools?
    • Why does the "Maggid" section of the seder have two beginnings, "avadim hayinu" ("we were slaves") and "mit'khilah ovdey avodah zarah hayu avotenu" ("Our ancestors were originally idolators")?
  • How has God's providence for the Jewish people been manifested in the 20th century?
  • What justification is there for advancing our own interest at the expense of others (Think of the suffering of the Egyptians)?

11. Hallel (F68-70, G24-25). The liturgical rubric "Hallel" refers to Psalms ll3-ll8. These joyful expressions of thanksgiving are recited in the synagogue on the Festivals, Rosh Hodesh, and Hanukkah, and at the seder. Psalms ll3 and ll4 are said before the meal, and the rest of Hallel after it. It need hardly be said that Hallel should be sung; there are many traditional and modern melodies to which it has been set.

12. Second cup of wine (F70, G26). This cup accompanies the recitation of the first part of Hallel.

13. Rahtzah (F72, G26). We wash our hands in preparation for eating bread. While some families observe the practice that only the leader of the seder washes his hands before eating karpas, it is essential that everyone present wash, with a brakhah, before eating the matzah.

14. Motzi-matzah (F72, G27). Matzah is unleavened bread, and the regular blessing for eating bread must be said before eating matzah. As on the Sabbath and the other Festivals, we use two complete loaves (lehem mishneh), in this case, two complete matzot. In addition, we are specifically commanded to eat matzah on the first night of Pesah, and recite the special blessing for the performance of this commandment and eat of the third, broken matzah. Halakhah defines "eating" as the consumption of an olive's bulk of food within the time that one could eat a standard-sized loaf of bread (if one were eating bread only). Scholars have worked out many different ways of translating these talmudical measurements into those familiar to us. We ought to take care to eat enough matzah to make an impression on us (rather more than the bulk of an average olive of today), in a single act of eating, without talking or eating anything else. According to the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Abraham Karelitz, a leading authority of this century), one should eat half a matzah within 4 minutes.

15. Maror (F74, G27). We dip the bitter vegetable in haroset and eat it with the appropriate blessing. The same halakhic definition of eating which applies to matzah applies to maror as well.

16. Korekh (F74, G27). There is a dispute recorded in the Talmud, whether the matzah and the maror are to be eaten separately or together. We do both; paragraphs l4 and l5 above refer to the eating of matzah and maror separately; here we wrap (korekh) the bitter herb in the matzah and eat them together. We should include at least an olive's bulk of each of matzah and maror.

17. Shulhan orekh (The Passover Meal) (F76, G28). It is customary not to eat roast meat on the first two evenings of Pesah, in order to distinguish clearly between our meal and the eating of the korban Pesah, the Passover lamb, which was eaten during the time of the Temple, and which had to be roasted whole on a spit. Some people have the custom of not eating food made with matzah meal at the seder, so as not to detract from the importance of the matzah shel mitzvah. Some people have the custom of not eating food made of matzah or matzah meal soaked in a liquid (matzah shruyah or gebrokht) all during Pesah.

18. Tzafun or Afikoman (F76, G28). The word afikoman is clearly of Greek origin, and means either "dessert" or "after dinner entertainment". According to the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:8), we do not have afikoman; the last item on the agenda for Passover night was the eating of the lamb. The association of afikoman with the end of the meal has caused the term to be transferred to the last piece of matzah that we eat, which is a reminder of the Passover lamb. Once again, we should eat an olive's bulk. It will be noted that it is impossible for any considerable number of people to eat the proper quantity of matzah (at least three olives' bulk each) if only three matzot are available. The matzot on the seder plate are really for illustrative purposes only; one should supplement them from one's general supply of matzah in the house.

We should be careful to eat the afikoman before midnight (more precisely, before half the time between sunset and sunrise has elapsed). It is traditional for children to steal the afikoman and hold it for ransom; this practice is probably derived from the fact that the seder cannot be finished until the afikoman is eaten. (In some families, the leader of the seder hides the afikoman, and the children try to find it. I have mentioned this practice only parenthetically, because the other practice is attested as far back as the Middle Ages, while I never heard of this one until I came to Cincinnati - GLB)


19. Barekh (Grace after meals) (F78-92, G28-33). There is a practice, not often followed today, of reciting the grace after meals over a cup of wine, and drinking the cup at the end of grace. This practice has, however, been made an integral part of the seder.

20. Cup of Elijah (F102-104, G33). After drinking the third cup of wine, we pour the fourth cup. We also pour a fifth cup, the cup of Elijah. This custom may be explained in one of two ways (or both of them). First, it may be noted that there is a minority opinion in the Talmud that we should drink five cups of wine at the seder; we do not follow that opinion, but, in deference to it, we pour a fifth cup of wine, to be kept until Elijah comes and decides, as tradition holds that he will do, whether or not we should drink it. Second, there is a tradition that Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, will come back on earth on Pesah, and this extra cup of wine is poured for him, "just in case".

21. Opening the door (F103, G33). It is customary to open the door of the house while saying the verses "sh'fokh hamatkha" ("Pour out Your wrath on the nations who do not know You ..."). This section of the haggadah was added during the Middle Ages. We open the door to show that we are not afraid of our enemies because God protects us. Some people sing the song Eliyahu Hanavi at this point; when Elijah comes to announce the advent of the Messiah, all strife and persecution will cease.

22. Hallel (F106-116, G34-39). We complete the recitation of Hallel, with the addition of Psalm l36 and the concluding blessing, birkat hashir ("blessing of the song"), and drink the fourth cup of wine. There are several different traditions concerning the proper arrangement of the psalms and blessings in this section of the seder.

23. Nirtzah (F134, G43). This passage, actually the end of a longer medieval poem, concludes the formal part of the seder; it expresses the hope that we may be next year in Jerusalem, that the entire Jewish people may enjoy the blessings of national, religious, and personal freedom in Eretz Yisrael.

24. Sefirat ha-omer (F132). In the days of the Temple, a sheaf of barley, measuring an omer (3.89 liters) was cut on the second night of Pesah and then forty nine days were counted until the first fruits were brought to the Temple on Shavuot. Today, we still count the days between Pesah and Shavuot each night, beginning with the second night of Pesah.

25. Songs. The songs which conclude the seder stem largely from the Middle Ages. Two of them, Vayehi b'hatzi halaylah ("And it came to pass at midnight") and V'amartem zevah Pesah ("And you shall say, it is a Passover offering") are piyutim (liturgical poems) taken from the traditional synagogue service. The last song, Had Gadya, written in artificial Aramaic, is often taken as an allegory for the history of the Jewish people, in which one conqueror succeeds another, until they are all superseded by the Messianic Kingdom of God.

26. Contemporary notes. It is important to relate the haggadah to our contemporary experience. This may be done through the seder conversation, or by including special readings in the seder.



As popular and beloved as the Seder Leyl Pesah is, many people are daunted by the mass of material found in traditional Haggadot. Here is a guide for a stripped-down seder, which meets all halakhic requirements.

One should include all of the elements of the seder, as outlined in the mnemonic included at the beginning of Haggadot: kadesh (Kiddush), Ur’hatz (Hand-washing), Karpas, Yahatz (Divide the middle matzah), Maggid (Tell the Passover story), Rahtzah (Handwashing), Motzi-Matzah (Eat matzah), Maror, Korekh (Eat matzah and maror combined), Shulhan Orekh (The Meal), Tzafun (Eat the afikoman), Barekh (Birkat Hamazon), Hallel (Psalms), Nirtzah (Conclusion of the seder). The elements that may be abbreviated are Maggid, Hallel, and Barekh.

Here is a minimum Maggid section. The page numbers are those of the Passover Haggadah edited by Rabbi Nathan Goldberg, published by Ktav Publishing House.

1. “Ha lahma” (This is the bread) through “Avadim hayinu” (We were slaves): page 8, line 1, through page 9, line 13.
2. The Four Children and “Mit’hilah” (Long, long ago): page 10, line 10, through page 11, line 15
3. “V’hi she-am’da” (This promise): page 12, lines 1-3
4. The Ten Plagues: page 16
5. “Rabban Gamliel” through “V’nomar l’fanav”(Let us therefore sing): page 21, line 6, through page 24, line 12

The absolute minimum is “Rabban Gamliel” through “b’farekh” (rigorous): page 21, line 6, through page 23, line 9.

Although Hallel is included in the order of the seder after the meal, it actually begins before the meal. To abbreviate Hallel, I would suggest saying one paragraph from the section before the meal (page 24, line 13, through page 25, line 10), and one paragraph from the section after the meal (page 34, line 1, through page 38, line 4).

A shortened form of Birkat hamazon may be found in the back of Siddur Sim Shalom. If one doesn’t want to use a book other than the Haggadah, one should say from the beginning (page 28, line 1) through the end of the first b’rakha (page 29, line 7), and then each sentence that begins “Barukh atta Adonay” (page 29, line 17, and page 31, lines 2 through 5).

The songs in the seder, even such favorites as “Dayenu” and ”Addir Hu,” are optional.

Return to Pesah Index


Home  |  About Us  |  PrayingLearning  | Doing |  Giving | Calendar | Contact Us | Facebook logo

Copyright © 2017 by Northern Hills Synagogue. All rights reserved.
Please send comments or suggestions to the