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Chernynkaya On March - 31 - 2010

Yesterday, I wrote about Passover basics. I mentioned that there were three ways of discussing traditions and texts: The face-value way, the story behind the face value and the secret or hidden meanings. Today, I will talk about the story behind the ritual and about the Seder—the festival meal which is at the centerpiece of the holiday.

The Seder (which means “order”) is the ritual we perform on Passover. Pretty much everything about the Passover Seder is symbolic in nature. The food that is blessed and eaten is especially symbolic. Here is a breakdown of what each food represents. This information is written in the Passover booklet, the Haggadah, which is read prior to the Passover meal.

Seder Plate

The special plate we use for the ritual contains the symbolic food we eat during the Seder:

The Matzah– When the Jews were freed from slavery, they left in a rush and their bread did not have time to rise.

Bitter vegetable– The bitter vegetable, such as parsley is dipped in salt water to represent the hardship and tears that the Jews suffered as slaves in Egypt

Haroseth– The ingredients of Haroseth vary according to sect of Jews, but it mainly consists of a mixture of apples, cinnamon, nuts and raisins, usually mashed. This represents the mixture that slaves used to build the buildings in Egypt

Shank bone– the shank bone represents the sacrificial lamb which was offered to God as Passover sacrifice in ancient times

Egg– The egg is a symbol of life. Also, it is said that the egg is the only food that gets harder the more it is cooked– in the way that the Jewish people get tougher the more the adversity.

Bitter herb- The bitter herb, usually horseradish, represents the bitterness that slavery caused for the Jews

The Passover Seder

The text of the Passover Seder is written in a book called the Haggadah. The content of the Seder consists of the following parts:

1. Sanctification

This is a blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.

2. Washing

A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the first ritual food- the vegetable (Karpa)s.

3. Vegetable

A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.

4. Breaking

One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).

5. The Story

A retelling of the story* of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Passover. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions*, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the Seder.

The Story is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people: the wise son, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked son, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple son, who needs to know the basics; and the son who is unable to ask, the one who doesn’t even know enough to know what he needs to know.

It includes a description of the *Ten Plagues of Egypt.

At the end of the Story a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.

6. Washing

A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.

7. Blessing over Grain Products

The blessing is a generic blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.

8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah

A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.

9. Bitter Herbs

A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The matzah is eaten with a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine (called maror), which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery.

10. The Sandwich

Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich.

11. Dinner

A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal. (Just nothing with leavening.)

12. The last matzah  (Afikomen)

The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as “dessert,” the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.

13. Grace after Meals

The third cup of wine is poured, and grace after meals is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any Sabbath. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for prophet Elijah who is supposed to herald the Messiah and is supposed to come on Passover to do this. The door is opened for a while at this point (supposedly for Elijah, but historically because Jews were accused of nonsense like putting the blood of Christian babies in matzah, and we wanted to show our Christian neighbors that we weren’t doing anything unseemly).

14. Praises

Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.

15. Closing

A simple statement that the Seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Passover in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come within the next year). This is followed by various hymns and stories.

The main highlights of the Seder are the recitation of the Ten Plagues that befell Egypt, causing the Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves leave, and the Four Questions, and the story of the exodus.

*The Story in a Nutshell

After hundreds of years of slavery to the Egyptian Pharaohs, during which time the Israelites were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable horrors, God saw the people’s distress and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me.” But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed God’s command. God then sent upon Egypt ten devastating plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops.

At the stroke of midnight of the Hebrew month of Nissan 15, God visited the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, killing all their firstborn. While doing so, God spared the Children of Israel, “passing over” their homes—hence the name of the holiday. Pharaoh’s resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land. The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise. 600,000 adult males, plus many more woman and children, left Egypt on that day, and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as the Israelite people.


The plagues as they appear in the bible are:

Water turned to blood killing all fish and other water life.


Lice or gnats


Disease on livestock


Hail mixed with fire



Death of the first-born of all Egyptian families.

The plagues represent a serious problem for me and for Jews throughout history. Although the Ten Plagues are not the first to appear in the bible, they are the most significant: they represent the first time God intervenes in history to shape a peoples’ destiny. In fact, the Ten Plagues goal is not to compel Pharaoh to free the Hebrews—the last plague alone would have been enough for that; they were to show God’s power over the gods of Egypt and to punish the Egyptians for slavery.

Egypt drowned male babies into the Nile. Although most Egyptians did not personally participate in that, the very first plague—turning the Nile into blood—makes clear that all Egyptians share the guilt—the river itself gives witness to the infants drowned in the water.

Some of the early plagues cause more nuisance than suffering. Later plagues inflict economic destruction. The tenth plague is the final revenge for murder of the Hebrew newborns.  On one night, the firstborn sons of Egypt perish, and Pharaoh allows the Hebrew slaves to be freed.

The Book of Exodus reiterates repeatedly that throughout the plagues, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the Hebrews leave. This seems morally problematic: God deprives Pharaoh of free will, and then punishes him for being hard-hearted!  The Talmud kind of ties itself in knots over this one and comes to the explanation that , actually, if God had NOT hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it would have deprived him of free will—he would have let the slaves go not by choice but out of terror. By hardening his heart, the Egyptian king no longer feared the kind of physical devastation that would terrify and evoke instant obedience from a normal person. However, there was nothing to stop Pharaoh from intellectually realizing the injustices he had inflicted on the Hebrew slaves, and letting them go. Only when the first born started dying did he realize he was facing a force stronger than his own.

Although the Ten Plagues must have been satisfying for the long-suffering slaves, Jewish tradition is extremely uncomfortable with the devastation of Egypt. During the Seder, when we recite the plagues, a drop of wine is spilled for each one, reminding us that we cannot celebrate another’s suffering. Also, when the Hebrews had safely crossed the Red Sea, we are told that God admonished them when the cheered as the Egyptian army drowned: “My creatures are drowning, and you are singing songs!” Similarly, in Deuteronomy, we are commanded by God—“You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” (23:8)

*The Four Questions

The child is the most important participant at the Passover Seder. The entire Seder is constructed around the goal to mystify the child, to stimulate his curiosity, to compel him to ask: Why is this night different from all other nights? The Seder is celebrated especially for the children. It is important for Jewish children to be and feel involved in the celebration of Passover. Much of the ceremony is based on the commandment in the Bible that says, “And thou shalt tell thy son [now, children]

The youngest child has the job of asking these four questions about why this night is different from all other nights:

1. On all other nights we eat all kinds of breads and crackers…

Why do we eat only matzoh on Passover?

Matzoh reminds us that when the Jews left the slavery of Egypt they had no time to bake their bread. They took the raw dough on their journey and baked it in the hot desert sun into hard crackers called matzoh.

2. On all other nights we eat many kinds of vegetables and herbs….

Why do we eat bitter herbs, maror, at our Seder?

Maror reminds us of the bitter and cruel way the Pharaoh treated the Jewish people when they were slaves in Egypt.

3. On all other nights we don’t usually dip one food into another….

Why do we dip our foods twice tonight?

We dip bitter herbs into Charoset to remind us how hard the Jewish slaves worked in Egypt. The chopped apples and nuts look like the clay used to make the bricks used in building the Pharaoh’s buildings.We dip parsley into salt water. The parsley reminds us that spring is here and new life will grow. The salt water reminds us of the tears of the Jewish slaves.
4. On all other nights we eat sitting up straight….

Why do we lean on a pillow tonight?

We lean on a pillow to be comfortable and to remind us that once we were slaves, but now we are free.

The Haggadah itself stresses the importance of the Seder as “a spectacle meant to excite the interest and the curiosity of the children.” Everything in the Seder is meant to make the children curious and to ask questions.

The whole ritual of the Seder is to answer these questions.  We are instructed to not merely tell the story of the exodus, but to feel and believe that each of us, personally, was actually there. We are not supposed to tell the story as if it happened to other, but literally to each of us.

To be honest, as anyone who has children can attest, the Passover Seder is a misery for kids. The ritual is long and usually boring, even though we try to make it fun for kids. They have to sit during the whole reading of the Haggadah while they can smell the food that won’t be served until later; they are usually hungry and cranky. And yet, the holiday is one of those experiences that stays with them forever, for better or worse. Like the Thanksgivings or Christmases, where we are forced to spend time with weird uncles and aunts who pinch our cheeks. With crazy sisters-in-law. Where family tensions erupt. But hey, that’s a tradition!

Categories: News & Politics

Written by Chernynkaya

I am an artist and have lived in Los Angeles all of my life, except for a brief hippie period when I lived in SF. I am currently (semi-unwillingly) retired, but have had several careers.

37 Responses so far.

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  1. Suzanne525 says:

    Thank you, Cher!! An excellent article.

    Lots of memories came flooding back, as I have not participated in a Seder since my husband passed away 8 years ago. I shouldn’t be getting teary at work!

    I clearly remember my first Seder, held on a Good Friday. I was in my late 20s, living in NYC. Having been raised Catholic, eating meat on Fridays in Lent was not done without consideration.

    Turkey was served for dinner, and I felt I must be gracious and eat it, as I was a guest in the home of my boyfriend’s brother. I was so worried a lighting bolt would be striking me momentarily!

    • Chernynkaya says:

      Oh, Suzanne, thank you! Sorry to bring those tears though-- I hope they were at least semi-sweet. And I am sure glad you dodged that lightening bolt! 😉

  2. escribacat says:

    Thanks, Cher. I enjoyed reading this. There really is something soothing about the ritual and the ancient meanings. The human (and other) animal needs ritual. I even have small rituals with my animals. If I forget, they remind me.

    • Chernynkaya says:

      Thank YOU, E’cat! Soothing is the right word. Funny, once I stopped trying to make the Seder “perfect” I could really enjoy it and learn from it. And Zorro ALWAYS insists on his rituals! If he doesn’t whine, he nudges me with a big, wet nose.

  3. boomer1949 says:

    Thank you Cher. Tradition is often the only glue holding families and memories together. I was a stay-at-home-mom. My kids are older now, but they’ve not forgotten many of the things we did when they were little, especially during the Christmas holidays.

    My ex-husband has been in retail for decades. He worked days, evenings, and weekends, often leaving before the kids woke up and returning long after they were asleep. All of this intensified during the “retail rush” between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so much so, that I worked around the store not closing until 6 pm on Christmas Eve to counteract the craziness.

    It became a tradition to have a soup supper on Christmas Eve; homemade vegetable soup, rolls, egg nog, and peppermit ice cream for desert. That was it. When he arrived home, we’d load the kids in the car and head to church. However, when we returned, the table was set, the house was decorated, and the aroma of simmering soup was quite a warm welcome home.

    To this day, if I do not make vegetable soup for Christmas Eve or shortly thereafter, I hear about it — especially from my younger daughter.

    The flip side to all of the above is that he was an oberserver, not a participant, and to this day, reaps all of the credit for the “good days gone by.”

    • kesmarn says:

      If I might sneak in here (or maybe butt in is more accurate!), I have to say I can relate! Many things were accomplished “in spite of” rather than “because of,” if you know what I mean. Nevertheless, today everyone is on reasonably good terms, and I suppose that’s a good thing…! 😀

      • boomer1949 says:

        Yes kes, I hear you. 😉

        I busted my butt for years attempting to make up for the “in spite of” and the “because of.” In the 15 years since the big D (which by the way I’m glad I’m not in AZ), he has overcompensated for all the lost time, even with the grand kids. Of course he makes 4 times as much as I and is in a better place financially and makes me feel like a slacker.

        One of the kids has completely forgotten, or refuses to remember, the way things were when she was younger or while she was away at college. She has him on such a pedestal he needs an oxygen mask to breathe. Yet, he has remained passive-aggressively silent, allowing her to blame me for bursting her Family Ties bubble. She has learned the game well and is the primary reason I don’t see my grand kids. She is the hold-a-grudge, unforgiving one. She could care less whether I’m alive or dead. Seriously, I’m not joking.

        The younger one was there, saw it, and has a couple of t-shirts to prove it; she gets it and for this I’m truly blessed. Otherwise, it would just be me and my 3 furry ones, and I can’t even get them to answer the door or take a message when the phone rings. God help me if I fall and can’t get up! 😆

      • Chernynkaya says:

        Love your “butt” Kes-- always! Yeah, and I am on wonderful terms with him now. It’s all water under the bridge, and he’s a really good guy-- now that he’s an ex.

    • Chernynkaya says:

      Boomer, what a beautiful, touching story. I pictured it perfectly. I love it!

      And, ah, the flip side--yep, I have that too. I did it all, and my ex enjoyed it but did nothing to make it happen, and probably would have been OK if we did nothing. But he is of course, part of the memory. That’s OK too.

  4. Khirad says:

    Um, could you run by that Talmudic thing with the Pharaoh again for me, please?

    Is the game of hiding a matzoh really incentive?

    Are the pillows not only symbolic, but possibly older tradition?

    Heh, it was nice to see the egg. This sorta helps me with my article, actually.

    BTW, I opened up a temple prayer book I’ve got.

    Would you know what is up with the refrain:

    “Dew, precious dew”?

    • Chernynkaya says:

      Khirad, those are some pretty astute questions! Let me tell you, there is more in the Passover Seder that I could ever write about if I had devoted my whole life to it. Every little action is brimming with symbolism and exegesis and commentary! I am serious. (My ex had a theory about Jews

      • Khirad says:

        Aha. Makes sense. With symbolism it is important (at least to me) to understand the original context.

        I actually don’t find the theory on studiousness far-fetched at all. And, yes, I have seen pictures of ‘The Talmud’ -- very misleading -- as if it were just one big book.

        I know that a set will only set me back two grand though. 😆

        Oh, a prize with the matzoh, I get it! Like hiding Easter eggs, too. More about the game after a tedious (though rich and important) time at the table. Like getting to play after being bored to death in the pews during an Easter service, perhaps.

        I also forgot to mention that I found the spilled wine very profound. It’s interesting to see this custom in many cultures (I can even think of Hip-Hop culture). But moreover, in the Jewish context, an added poignancy is gives weight to the history.

        Yes, that was the prayer. I was just confused what it had to do with Passover. Beautiful. And very kind to do that for Bito.

        • Chernynkaya says:

          Khirad, if you are really considering buying a Talmud, get the Steinslaz Talmud. It’s by a brilliant scholar (Adin Stensaltz) and is sold in several books so you can buy one at a time until you have the whole set. And he is traditional and highly acclaimed.

      • kesmarn says:

        Cher, what a beautiful way to pray for someone! “Dew is a symbol of youthful promise, may it protect the generations. …For life and not for death. For plenty and not for scarcity.”

        And look at all that the children in a community can learn from this:

        -that they are valued and that ritual centers on them and their future

        -that curiosity is a good thing and asking questions is not “bothering” adults

        -that cleanliness and order are valuable

        -that we can learn from the past if we don’t allow ourselves to forget it

        …and so much more!

  5. AdLib says:

    Thank you so much for this and your previous post about Passover!

    However, I still have to watch The Ten Commandments just to hear Edward G. Robinson say, “Myah! Where’s your savior now? Myah?”

  6. Kalima says:

    I’m a tradition enthusiast, I find it totally fascinating and admire the cultures where they are still observed. The same with religions in many cases. Even though I’m no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, I do still give up meat on the Fridays during Lent. It was normal during my childhood where my grandparents observed fasting and abstinence, even though they left that choice to the individual, if seemed selfish to indulge in their presence.

    I won’t be eating meat this Good Friday, but that is always more in honour of their memory than anything else.

    Thank you Cher for taking the time to share this with us, you’ve made things that much clearer and it’s such a pleasure to read.

    • choicelady says:

      Thank you for this and especially the beautiful illustrations that help make this more clear to those of us who still don’t fully understand it all.

      I’ve been to seders since part of my family is Jewish, but the oddest one was years ago at the home of a non-religious family that served much of the traditional food, had almost none of the ritual and as a main course served -- lobster! Even I knew that was not kosher! I hold that experience as a part of the oddity of American life -- too much acculturation leads to weird excess! Still and all, it was interesting.

      Thank you for reminding us of the story. Continuity through thousands of years is still pretty awesome.

    • Chernynkaya says:

      Me too, Kalima, as you can probably guess by now I am a tradition lover too. There is much wisdom in traditions and a way of centering. And of course, the wonderful memories they evoke!

      • Kalima says:

        This where we left off yesterday Cher and ditto with the cherished memories, for without them life would be so less rich and maybe we, less caring.

        • Chernynkaya says:

          I recently read some research that found that if you grow up in a family with strong rituals, you’re more likely to be resilient as an adult, and it has led some therapists to help families establish rituals as a way to heal family tensions.

          Sadly, such bedrock rituals as a nightly dinner are giving way as more kids are raised in single-parent homes or by mothers and fathers with demanding jobs. Psychologists are urging these families to create alternative rituals to fit their circumstances.

          I think

          • Kalima says:

            I would have to agree with the findings of this research.

            Our family as all families had it’s ups and downs but whatever it was, it was forgotten or diluted by the time we sat down to eat dinner together.

            The traditional celebration of Christmas Eve, Easter and other holidays were always observed by the whole family and relatives. Even the occasional spat was put on hold until the end of the holidays, by that time many of them would not be as important as they had seemed.

            My grandmother learned from her mother, my mother from her and I tried to continue once I came over here. Hubby loves his Christmas Eve celebration, even though it’s now only just the two of us and the furry ones, it is still important to us.

            • choicelady says:

              I was raised by a highly dysfunctional mother who nevertheless did GREAT holidays. We were fairly simple about it all, but it was always fun. We had friends and family around most of the time, and I never had a bad time. I know people who hate the holidays, but I love them. I shared Hanukkah with my sister-in-law’s family one year when it overlapped with Christmas so we did both, and it was a joy! Both parts were glorious, and I loved it.

              Tradition! It really does help make you strong!

            • Kalima says:

              Oh absolutely cl, tradition does make you strong.

              Last year a friend of mine lost his father to small cell cancer, it was painful but brief, thank goodness. His father’s brother did not visit the hospital once or attend the cremation service. It broke my heart to think that even in the face of death we chose not forgive each other.

              I had a similar experience with a close friend many years ago, she betrayed my trust badly and I stopped seeing her. From a mutual friend I learned that she had given up her job here with the Finish embassy to join the Dalai Lama in India.

              On hearing of her return to Tokyo, I sent her a long letter, ending it by saying that I had forgiven her and wishing her a good life. Six months later her ex- husband called to tell us that she had passed away in her native Finland from cervical cancer

              It was a shock, even though we were no longer friends, I’m happy that I made my peace with her.

              Sorry my mind suddenly went on a trip because I was thinking that funerals are also traditional depending on religion or cultures.

    • javaz says:

      Hi Kalima!

      Remember when we couldn’t eat meat at all on Fridays all year long and not just during Lent?

      Or we had to fast for at least 3 hours before receiving communion?
      That was reduced to an hour eventually, and not sure if any of that applies today.

      Or how we were to give up something we loved during Lent?

      Usually with us kids, we would give up candy, and then Easter Sunday it was time to raid the Easter Baskets after peeling colored hard-boiled eggs and having them with ham and toast for breakfast.

      I wonder if people still practice those traditions?

      We also do not eat meat on Good Friday and usually watch “Jesus Christ Super Star”.

      • Kalima says:

        Hi javaz.

        Yes there are some who still practice no meat on Fridays and the painted chicken eggs are still a big thing in Germany, see the last picture of today’s “24 Hours in Pictures.”

        Not eating any meat on any Friday was never a compulsory thing for us and children, the sick and the old were exempt in any case. As I said above, it was an individual choice, we were never forced to comply.

        Yes I remember the sounds of rumbling tummies all around me at Sunday early Mass, it used to make me giggle, but brought stern looks from my grandmother, so I stifled them in my hanky, the giggles not the stern looks. :)

  7. javaz says:

    Wow, excellent again, Cher, and very fascinating.

    With everything that you’ve outlined and explained, it leads me to believe that a person must be extremely dedicated to the traditions.

    I used to listen to Howard Stern years ago when he was on free-radio and he used to tell the funniest stories about his family and the fasting during Passover and then the food.

    He described with great humor about the crankiness from his family being hungry and how it affected their breath and made them smell bad on the whole.

    It was funny the way he described it and even though I grew weary of Howard and his spiel, he had a talent for humor and a skill with vividly painting the scenario.

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