Pesach Seder: How is This Night Different
- 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 usually 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 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
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
Before eating, an observant Jew recites a
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
Before eating bread, we must also "wash" our hands. This washing is a ritual
purification, not a soap-and-water washing, 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
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
So to sum up a typical daily meal for an observant Jew:
- wash the hands
- recite netilat yadayim
- recite motzi
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
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:
- recite kiddush
- wash the hands
- recite netilat yadayim
- recite motzi over loaves of bread
- break the bread
- 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,
Korekh, Shulchan Orekh,
- 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
- 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
- Dip a vegetable (usually parsley) in salt water, say a blessing and eat
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
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!
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) and eat it. This is the second dipping that
is mentioned in the Four Questions near the beginning of the Maggid section of
- 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
- 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
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 to 118 praising
G-d. Hallel is routinely recited as part of the
service on most holidays as well as on the
first day of every Jewish month. We recited Psalms 113 and 114 earlier, toward
the end of the Maggid section of the Haggadah. Now we pick up the rest of
Hallel: Psalms 115 through 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
- 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!
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