Customs and Traditions of the Seder

    April 2009 Passover Edition            
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Some Customs of Passover

By Nachum Mohl

The Day before Passover

From the day before Passover until the Seder, matzah is not eaten. Although many eat Matzah all year around, never the less, on Erev Passover (the day before Passover), we do not eat it. There are two reasons for this custom: One reason is that the day before Passover serves as an interval period in which we distinguish between the Matzah of the Mitzvah as opposed to the matzah which we eat all year around that is optional. A second reason is that one must come to the Seder with a desire to eat the Matzah of the Mitzvah.

Also we do not eat bread on the day before Passover with the exception of an early breakfast. It is permissible to eat bread until one third of the day (approximately 10:00AM). After this we have an additional hour in which we must rid ourselves of all bread and leavened products (such as noodles, whiskeys, various other food substances that contain wheat, etc). The main method today of getting rid of the Chametz, (leavened products) is by selling their Chametz to a non Jew, but this is complicated and requires Rabbinical assistance. We burn that Chametz which is left over and then afterwards, we verbally disown and absolve ourselves from ownership of any Chametz, and again, one should seek rabbinical assistance to properly understand this.


At the Seder we must drink four cups of wine which correspond to the four expressions of 'freedom' or 'deliverance' mentioned in the Torah (Exodus 6:6-7) in relation to our exodus from Egypt. They are:

  1. I will bring you out
  2. I will deliver you
  3. I will redeem you
  4. I will take you to Me as a people

    Since there are four different expressions of liberation, each expression is celebrated by one separate cup of wine. Therefore we make a blessing over each separate cup which is considered a separate mitzvah.

    Women are also obligated to drink from the four cups of wine since it was in the merit of those righteous Jewish women who supported their husbands during the suffering in Egypt when all looked so dim. It was in their merit that we were liberated by G-d; therefore women should also partake in the wine (grape juice is also accepted).

Seder Plate Explanation:

The reason that we have a bone or a chicken neck on the Seder plate is that it should remind us of the Paschal lamb that was eaten on this very night. It was roasted whole on Passover night. The bone or chicken neck on the Seder plate is not to be eaten; it merely serves as a reminder of the Paschal sacrifice.

The hard boiled egg is put on the Seder plate to remind us of the other sacrifice that was offered on that night. This was the 'Chagigah,' or festival sacrifice, which was brought on this night. Since the egg is also the symbol of mourning, we put it on the Seder tray to remind us that our holy Temple is still not rebuilt and until it is, we can not reach the exalted level of happiness that we did in the times of the Temple.

Incidentally, Tisha B'av (the day in which we remember and mourn for the loss of the Temple) always occurs on the same day of the week as Passover. On Erev Tisha B'av before the onset of the fast, we eat an egg dipped in ashes to remind us of the destruction of the holy Temple. In addition, traditionally the first food that mourners eat is an egg.

Charoset is the pasty loose consistency fruit mixture which is to remind us of the hard work that we were forced to do in Egypt as slaves. We were building the cities for Pharaoh using bricks and mortar. The Charoset reminds us of the mortar – it is a thick brown mixture made with dates, apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine. The word Charoset comes from the Hebrew word Chares, which is clay.

Karpas is a vegetable, many use celery, and others use a boiled potato. It is to remind us of the excruciating back breaking labor that our ancestors were forced to do. The Hebrew word Karpas is the same letters as Perach, (back breaking work) and can be divided into two syllables: Peh (mouth) and Rach (soft) to remind us that it was through the Egyptians' smooth talking which we naively believed and accepted that caused us to be led into slavery. Karpas is eaten at the beginning of the Seder. We wash our hands in the usual manner as if we were going to eat bread, and instead, we dip the Karpas into salt water. This is done to arouse the curiosity of the children – for it is for their sake that the Seder is set up and recited, in order that they be initiated into the tradition of the Jewish customs through asking questions.

Morar is the bitter herbs – today usually romaine lettuce or ground horseradish root. This reminds us too of the bitter lives which our forefathers endured in Egypt. We have two measures of Morar on the Seder plate. The first is used for the mitzvah of eating the bitter herbs and the second is for the Korach, the sandwich, which is eaten later in the Seder when we eat the matzah and the morar dipped in the charoset together during the Seder as Hillel did.

Eating the Matzo:

Now at the Seder we use three matzahs. Why three? Normally on each Shabbat and Yom Tov meal we place two loafs of bread (or matzo) on the table; on Passover eve we put three. The three remind us that today we only have three types of Jews: Cohens, Levys, and Israels who must always be together. Another reason is that we must break the middle matzah to use for the Afikomen (the final taste of matzah that must linger with us through the night). Since we put this Afikomen away in a hiding place so that the children should look for it (this keeps them awake). This leaves us with two and a half matzahs left for the Seder.

When we make the blessing 'HaMotzi' (the regular blessing on the bread or in this case Matzah) we hold the broken piece in between the two whole matzahs. Then when we make the special blessing on the mitzvah of eating the Matzah tonight, we drop the bottom whole matzah and only hold on to the upper whole matzah and the half matzah below it. We eat from both the top and the middle broken matzah.

Passover is full of many traditional customs which vary from family to family and from community to community. Passover is a time to renew our faith and belief in the goodness and might of G-d. The more a person studies and then performs the Seder, the greater will his belief in G-d be strengthened. The Zohar calls the matzah the bread of faith.

Therefore it is important that every person study the Haggadah before the beginning of the Seder that he may know and understand all the many customs and traditions of the night.

May we all merit seeing the final redemption.

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For more on Passover, see our Passover Archives


from the April 2009 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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