What Is a Seder?

Staff Writer
A guide to the sacred Passover meal
What’s a Seder?
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Learn the food traditions behind this holy holiday.

As the Jewish holiday Passover approaches, matzah is on end-caps at local grocery stores, jelly candies are in the seasonal aisle, and kosher seltzer bottles with yellow Hebrew-inscribed caps crowd the shelves. Say goodbye to fluffy white bread and other leavened treats, and hello to dry crunchy matzah!

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The weeklong holiday begins with a Seder, a fifteen-part ritual meal, on the first night of Passover. In Hebrew, "Seder" means "order," referring to the parts of the ritual leading up to the Passover dinner. A Seder is not your typical family sit-down dinner — food is an important symbolic element used to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt through the Haggadah, “the telling.”  

According to the Hebrew Bible, after living peacefully in Egypt, Israelites began to be feared, resulting in their enslavement and the drowning of their firstborn sons. After fleeing into the Sinai desert, Moses, an infant rescued by the pharaoh’s daughter and adopted into the royal family, returns to Egypt to free his kin by God’s command..  Pharaoh rejects Moses’ pleas to free the Israelites, so God unleashes 10 plagues on the Egyptians, including the slaying of their firstborn sons. The Israelites are told to mark their doorframes with lamb’s blood, and the plague would  “pass over” their homes. Finally, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, but Pharaoh sends soldiers after them. God parts the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to cross before closing the waters and drowning the soldiers — a true miracle, bringing them closer to their ancestral home in Canaan, the Land of Israel.

One of the most widely known practices of Passover is the removal and abstaining of all leavened foods. As the story goes, in their rush to escape Egypt, the Israelites were unable to allow their bread to rise, resulting in unleavened flat breads similar to matzah. Bitter herbs, a lamb shank bone, and charoset (fruit, nuts, and wine) are some other symbolic foods that recall the enslavement and escape of the Israelites featured in a Seder.

Though many of them serve as reminders of stgruggle, Passover is about celebration as well. What is a celebration without good food? The Seder dinner, amid the rituals and storytelling, includes delicious Jewish staples — fatty brisket, comforting matzah ball soup, potato kugel and more.

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