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How does a Seder work?

A Passover Seder is a ritual dinner with its own prayerbook or script, known as the haggadah. There are plenty of different haggadahs, or haggadot (produced by everyone from Maxwell House, the coffee company, to novelist Jonathan Safran Foer) but all of them share a core structure: the retelling of the Passover story to commemorate the suffering of Jews in Egypt and the broader suffering of people today; discussion of the significance of Passover symbols and their relevance; and, at the end, hopes for a freer and more peaceful world.

At the beginning of the Seder, the youngest child at the table asks the traditional Four Questions — which highlight some of the differences between a Seder and a typical meal, and provide an opportunity to launch into the Passover story.

Interspersed with telling the Biblical story are discussions of how the that story connects to present-day struggles for freedom, the significance of the Passover story and its symbols for today, the meaning of being part of the Jewish community, and expressions of hope that the unfree in the world will find freedom. Some Jews design inserts for their haggadot discussing contemporary issues, or adding alternative takes on the Passover story: if you’re interested in a feminist reading, for example, check out Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s haggadah reading.

The Seder is built around explaining. According to ancient rabbis, there are three key obligations Jews must fulfill during the Seder, all of which involve explaining important parts of the ritual through symbols:

  • The Passover offering (the lamb shank), which is a reminder that the Jews were spared in Egypt when firstborn Egyptians were killed. The lamb shank can be a callback to the animal sacrifices at the ancient Jewish Temple, and a hope that it can someday be rebuilt; an expression of thanks to God for preserving the Jewish people for so long; or a reminder of how mind-bogglingly long Jews have managed to survive as a people.
  • The matzah, which is a reminder of the Jews’ rush to freedom — and of the sacrifices that must be made for it. (According to Exodus, some Jews began to regret leaving Egypt when they realized they were trading the fish and melons they ate in slavery for matzah.)
  • The maror, or bitter herb (it’s usually horseradish for modern Jews), which is a reminder of the bitterness of slavery — for the ancient Jews and for those suffering today.

Other traditional foods also have symbolic meaning, like charoset, a sweet mixture of fruit and nuts that’s meant to symbolize the mortar used for construction by Jewish slaves in Egypt.

The actual Passover meal comes fairly late in the Seder. After the meal, the Seder shifts to hopes for peace in the future, symbolized by the coming of the Prophet Elijah and the traditional closing, ”next year in Jerusalem.”