Pesach Seder: How is This Night Different

Pesach Seder (in Hebrew)

Level: Intermediate

  • Seder is designed to contrast with traditional daily and holiday practices
  • It is best understood in the context of those practices

The best-known quote from the Pesach Haggadah is, "why is this night different from all other nights?" This line is traditionally recited by the youngest person at the table (or at least, the youngest person capable of reciting it). It is meant to express the child's confusion at the difference between a typical every-day or holiday meal and the unusual features of the seder.

The Haggadah was written by Jews for Jews at a time when most Jews observed (or at least were familiar with) Jewish law and custom. It was written with the assumption that even the youngest child the seder would know the daily rituals followed by observant Jews and would notice how this night is different from other nights. The Haggadah deliberately contradicts those expectations in order to provoke the child to ask questions about the proceedings.

Times have changed. Today, more than 80% of Jews have attended a Pesach seder, but barely half of all Jews have had any Jewish education whatsoever. In addition, many gentiles attend seders; in fact, it has become so common for churches to conduct seders that a young Catholic co-worker of mine was surprised to hear that Passover was a Jewish holiday! To much of the modern audience, the seder is a confusing mix of unfamiliar, meaningless practices. Everything is different from what they know, so they don't understand how this night is different from typical Jewish practice.

This page will provide a context for the rituals observed in the Pesach seder. If you're looking for deep spiritual insights, then you're probably in the wrong place. But if you want to understand what's going on and why, the similarities and differences between the seder and other Jewish holidays and observances, then this is the page for you.

First, we will look at a regular Jewish weekday meal at the time the Haggadah was written (practices still followed by observant Jews today). Next, we will see how the everyday practices change for an ordinary Shabbat and holiday dinner. Finally, we will look at how the seder is different by following the outline of the Haggadah. You may find it useful to have a Haggadah handy for that section. See my discussion of buying a haggadah if you don't already have one.

A Weekday Meal

Before eating, an observant Jew recites a blessing acknowledging G-d as the creator of the food. There are different blessings for different classes of food: one for "bread" (including pizza, matzah, and many other foods made from dough derived from one of five grains), one for other grain foods, one for fruits, one for vegetables, one for wine and one for miscellaneous foods.

At the time that the Haggadah was written, bread was at the heart of every meal, and anything else eaten at the meal was considered secondary to the bread. Whenever bread is a significant component of a meal, the blessing over bread is recited first and covers all of the food and beverages at the meal (except wine). The blessing over bread is called motzi (pronounced "MOH-tzee"). See the text of this blessing under Shabbat Home Ritual.

Before eating bread, we must also "wash" our hands. This washing is a ritual purification, not a soap-and-water washing (although of course you should do that first!), and is followed by a blessing called netilat yadayim ("lifting up the hands"). Immediately after this washing and blessing, without interruption, we recite motzi and begin the meal. See the procedure and the text of this blessing under Shabbat Home Ritual.

Observant Jews also recite a blessing after we eat. Like the blessing before eating, the blessing after eating varies depending on what we have eaten. Also like the blessing before eating, if bread was a significant component of the meal, there is a blessing that takes precedence and covers everything else. This blessing after a bread meal is called Birkat ha-Mazon (usually translated as "Grace After Meals," although it literally means "blessing of the food"). Reciting this blessing is referred to as bentsching (Yiddish for "blessing"). Birkat ha-Mazon is a lengthy blessing; in fact, it is so long that some observant Jews, when pressed for time, will go out of their way to avoid eating bread at a meal to avoid triggering the need to bentsch!

So to sum up a typical daily meal for an observant Jew:

  1. wash the hands
  2. recite netilat yadayim
  3. recite motzi
  4. eat
  5. bentsch

A Shabbat or Holiday Meal

On Shabbat or a holiday, a meal is more festive and more elaborate, and so are the prayers that go along with it.

The Shabbat or festival meal begins with a special blessing over wine called kiddush, which recognizes the holiness of the day and the reason that the day is special. This blessing includes within it the normal blessing over wine as a beverage (called ha-gafen). At the end of the blessing, we drink the wine. See the Shabbat Kiddush or the Sukkot Kiddush.

Motzi is also somewhat more elaborate on Shabbat and holidays. On an ordinary day, motzi would simply be recited over the bread we're about to eat, but on Shabbat or a holiday, we have special loaves of fancy bread set aside for this blessing. We say motzi over the bread, then tear apart one of the fancy loaves and give a piece to everyone at the table to begin the meal.

In addition, bentsching is more elaborate. On an ordinary weekday, birkat ha-mazon might be recited quickly in an undertone, or with only the first and last paragraphs read aloud as a group. On Shabbat or a holiday, birkat ha-mazon is sung by the group to festive tunes.

So to sum up a Shabbat or festival meal:

  1. recite kiddush
  2. wash the hands
  3. recite netilat yadayim
  4. recite motzi over loaves of bread
  5. break the bread
  6. eat
  7. bentsch with elaborate songs

Pesach: How This Night Is Different

A traditional child raised in an observant household would know that Pesach is a holiday, and would expect the sabbath or festival procedure laid out above, but Pesach has a distinctly different set of observances. The seder is broken into 15 parts: Kaddesh, Urechatz, Karpas, Yachatz, Maggid, Rachtzah, Motzi, Matzah, Maror, Korekh, Shulchan Orekh, Tzafun, Barekh, Hallel, Nirtzah.

Recite a blessing over wine in honor of the holiday.
The seder begins normally enough with kiddush. In fact, the kiddush that is recited for Pesach is almost identical to the one recited on several other festivals, with only one line different: the one identifying the holiday and its significance as "this day of the Festival of Matzahs, the time of our liberation."
Wash the hands without saying a blessing.
Things seem to be continuing as usual with the washing of hands, but after washing, we don't recite netilat yadayim. This is the first difference that would catch a child's attention. Indeed most traditional commentaries say that the reason we don't say the blessing after the washing is so the children will ask!
Dip a vegetable (usually parsley) in salt water, say a blessing and eat it.
We didn't have to say netilat yadayim after washing because we're not going to eat bread for a while. That's the second difference that is supposed to catch a child's attention: instead of proceeding from wine to bread, we're eating a vegetable first. Vegetables shouldn't be eaten before bread and bread should be right after kiddush. We also dip the vegetable in salt water, which is not forbidden, but it's not a traditional practice at any time other than Pesach. Then we recite the blessing for vegetables (the same blessing we would recite any time we eat vegetables without bread), and we eat the vegetable.
One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside.
The third difference comes with the breaking of the matzah. "Breaking" bread before eating it is not unusual on Shabbat or a holiday, but normally we would say a motzi before the breaking and eat the bread afterwards. On Pesach, we break the bread without saying motzi, and instead of eating it we hide a piece and put back the other half.
A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the seder.
At this point, the Haggadah assumes, the child is overwhelmed with curiosity about the proceedings, and is encouraged to ask the "Four Questions," noting four differences between this night and other nights: 1) we eat matzah instead of bread, 2) we eat bitter vegetables, 3) we dip our vegetables twice, and 4) we recline instead of sitting up straight. Obviously, this child has been to the seder before, because we haven't eaten bitter vegetables yet (although they are on the table), and we've only dipped once so far!

The family then joins together to tell the story of Pesach as it is laid out in the Haggadah. The Haggadah collects together a variety of materials from the Talmud talking about the meaning of Pesach. It also explains the significance of the various items found on the seder plate at the table.

Telling a story at the table before eating is not a typical Jewish practice; we normally don't delay eating!
A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.
After the Maggid section of the Haggadah, things settle down to a more normal Shabbat or holiday pattern. We wash the hands and recite netilat yadayim, as on any day of the week before eating bread.
Motzi and Matzah
Recite two blessings over the matzah, break it, and give a piece to everyone to eat.
Two blessings are recited over the matzah. This is unusual: normally only one blessing is recited over bread. The first blessing is the same motzi blessing recited over bread before any bread meal. This is followed by a special blessing regarding the commandment to eat matzah, which is recited only at Pesach. The matzah is then broken and eaten by everyone at the table.
A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually horseradish) and it is eaten.
Normally, once the bread is broken, we dig into the meal, but there are two more rituals to observe before eating at Pesach.

First, we recite a blessing regarding the commandment to eat maror (bitter herbs, usually horseradish) during Pesach, then we dip the maror in charoset (a sweet apple-nut-cinnamon mixture, recipe here) and eat it. This is the second dipping that is mentioned in the Four Questions near the beginning of the Maggid section of the Haggadah.
A bitter vegetable (usually romaine lettuce) and charoset (a sweet apple-wine-nut mixture) are placed on a piece of matzah and eaten together.
Korekh is sandwich made from matzah, bitter herbs and charoset. It is not eaten at any other time of the year. The custom of eating korekh at the Pesach seder derives from a question regarding the precise meaning of a phrase in Num. 9:11, which instructs people to eat the pesach offering "al matzot u'marorim." Although this phrase is usually translated as "with matzahs and bitter herbs," the word "al" literally means "on top of," so the great Rabbi Hillel thought that the pesach offering should be eaten as a sort of open-faced sandwich, with the meat and bitter herbs stacked on top of matzah. Out of respect for Rabbi Hillel, we eat matzah and bitter herbs together this way. We don't have a pesach offering any more, so we can't include that, but we do include some of the charoset. The bitter herb we use for this is a different one than the one used for maror. Romaine lettuce is usually used for this second bitter herb.
Shulchan Orekh
A festive meal is eaten.
Finally! It's time to eat. A large, festive meal is eaten at a leisurely pace. But don't eat too much! It will make you sleepy, and there is plenty more to come after dinner.
The piece of matzah that was set aside is located and/or ransomed back, and eaten as the last part of the meal, a sort of dessert.
The last thing that is eaten at the meal should be the afikomen, the second half of the matzah that was broken and hidden during the Yachatz portion near the beginning of the seder. This may be eaten after more typical dessert items, such as kosher-for-Pesach cake and cookies, but the afikomen must be the last thing eaten. There are different traditions about what to do with the afikomen: either the children hide it and the parents find it or vice versa. Either way, it usually winds up with the children being rewarded. This custom is clearly intended to keep the children's attention going until after dinner. It is often a child's fondest memory of the seder!

This custom is unique to Pesach; Jews don't normally play hide-and-seek with dessert, and we usually end a festive meal with something sweeter than matzah.
Grace after meals.
As on any other day, after a meal with bread (and matzah counts as bread), we recite Birkat Ha-Mazon (grace after meals), a lengthy series of prayers. The Barekh portion of the seder is almost identical to the Birkat Ha-Mazon recited on major holidays and on the first of every Jewish month.

Barekh is followed by the blessing over and drinking of the third cup of wine, which is unique to Pesach. We do not normally drink wine after bentsching.

At this point, the seder shifts from discussions of past redemption to hopes for future redemption. We pour an extra cup of wine and open the door to welcome the return of the prophet Elijah, who will be the herald of the Messiah. We pray for G-d to express his anger and wrath at those who oppress us today as he did against Pharaoh when Pharaoh oppressed us in ancient times. This discussion is also unique to Pesach.
Psalms of praise.
Next we recite Hallel, which consists of Psalms 113-118 praising G-d. Hallel is routinely recited as part of the morning synagogue service on most holidays as well as on the first day of every Jewish month. We recited Psalms 113-114 earlier, toward the end of the Maggid section of the Haggadah. Now we pick up the rest of Hallel: Psalms 115-118, followed by the usual prayer that concludes Hallel during a morning service (They shall praise You, L-rd our G-d, for all your works…for from eternity to eternity You are G-d). Although Hallel is a common part of morning prayer services, it is normally not recited at night. Pesach seder is the only time that we recite Hallel at night. Of course, if your seder runs as long as the seder of the sages, described at the beginning of the Maggid section, then perhaps you will be reading this in the morning!

The Hallel psalms are followed by Psalm 136, a psalm praising G-d that specifically mentions the Exodus, and a series of prayers. Both of these are part of the Shabbat Pesukei d'Zimra (verses of song), the early "warm-up" part of weekly sabbath services. Again, these are things that are normally recited in morning services rather than at night.

At the end of this section, we bless and drink the fourth and final cup of wine.
A statement that the seder is complete, with a wish that next year the seder might be observed in Jerusalem.
Nirtzah simply announces the end of the seder. There are many songs and stories that follow this that people often linger and recite or sing, to express their joy with the seder and their unwillingness to leave, but the seder is complete with the declaration, "Next Year in Jerusalem!" This declaration of our messianic hopes (that the messiah will come soon, allowing us to celebrate next year in Jerusalem rebuilt) is part of liturgy on several Jewish holidays.

Thus is concluded the explanation of the seder!

Related Pages

Learn about the Jewish holiday of Passover, known to Jews as Pesach.  Includes an outline of the seder (the family holiday ritual meal) and a recipe for charoset (a traditional seder food). Pesach: Passover
Learn about the Jewish holiday of Passover, known to Jews as Pesach. Includes an outline of the seder (the family holiday ritual meal) and a recipe for charoset (a traditional seder food).
Sweet Potato Lasagna Pesach (Passover) Cooking Tips
Suggestions and tips to help you plan meals for Pesach (Passover). This page focuses on the many things that you can eat, instead of the usual focus on things you can't eat.

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