Every year, Jews around the world gather to celebrate the Passover Seder, retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and enjoying a festive meal with family and friends. Interestingly, though the Seder typically takes place at home (rather than in the communal setting of the synagogue) it is, according to many statistics, one of the most widely observed Jewish ritual practices today, even among Jews who are otherwise non-observant.
When does the Passover Seder take place?
In Israel, the Seder is held on the first night of Passover, while in the Diaspora (everywhere else) it is celebrated on the first two nights of the holiday. Pesach, as the holiday is known in Hebrew, occurs in the spring, usually sometime in April.
How is a Passover Seder conducted?
At the Seder table, a special book called the Passover Haggadah is read out loud. The Haggadah includes the story of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt as well as Seder rituals and traditions.
On the Table:
The Seder Plate holds small portions of several ritual foods, described below, which are referenced (and sometimes tasted) at various points during the Seder.
The 3 Matzot -- on another plate, or tucked into or special cloth envelope with 3 sections, are 3 matzot, which represent Cohen, Levi, and Yisrael, the three castes that make up the Jewish people. Many people use shmurah matzo -- literally guarded matzo -- which is supervised from the time of harvest through baking to ensure that the grain never comes in contact with water or ferments, which would render it chametz. These matzot are handmade, and have a distinctive round shape, sturdier texture, and more rustic appearance than machine-made square matzot.
Kos Eliyahu and Kos Miryam (Elijah's Cup and Miryam's Cup) -- Eliyahu is the prophet who, it is believed, will be the harbinger of the Moshiac (Messiah). A cup of wine is set out for him, and it is a Seder tradition to open the door to invite him to join the proceedings. Setting out a cup of water for the prophetess Miryam, Moshe's (Moses') sister, is a newer tradition, and acknowledges the importance of women in the Passover narrative. In Miriam's merit, a spring of fresh water was present for the Israelites during their desert wanderings after the Exodous from Egypt, hence the water in her Seder cup.
Ritual Food and Drink:
Karpas -- a raw vegetable or herb, often parsley, is included on the Seder plate, and is eaten dipped in salt water. The raw green represents spring, the salt water, the tears of the Israelite slaves.
Charoset -- this mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine is meant to represent the mortar used by the slaves in Egypt.
Maror -- or bitter herbs, are eaten to remember the bitter lives endured by the Israelite slaves in Egypt.
Korech -- this is a "sandwich" made of matzo and maror, originated by the renowned sage Hillel. The name "korech" is also a clue to the fact that the matzo was probably originally soft enough to bend.
Eggs -- a roasted egg is included on the Seder plate, and represents the festival offering brought to the Temple in ancient Jerusalem. Many also have the tradition to serve hard boiled eggs in salt water at the start of the festive meal, because eggs are symbolic of the life cycle.
The Festive Meal:
After the reading of the Haggadah, a festive kosher-for-Passover meal is eaten. The following is a traditional Ashkenazic Seder menu with links to recipes.