A First-Timer’s Guide to the Passover Seder
If you're attending for the first time and not sure what to expect, we're covering all the basics.
Photo: Shutterstock / tomertu
No matter the holiday or observation, being a newcomer to another family’s traditions can be especially nerve-wracking. Especially if it’s one you’re unfamiliar with. Questions like, “What do I wear?” and “What do I bring?” are all too common. So if you’ve never been to a Passover seder before, it can be hard to know what to expect. We asked a few first-timers for their insight on attending (and hosting!) Passover seder. If you’re a newbie, or just interested in learning about the traditions, here’s what you need to know:
Passover Seder at a Glance
Passover is the Jewish holiday celebrating the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The holiday lasts seven days and is traditionally celebrated with a seder. Think of the seder as a celebratory dinner with family and friends. What’s on the table, you ask? Delicious recipes like these.
This year, the holiday falls from March 30-April 7, but the seder is generally held on the first night. Some families hold two seders on the first two nights, first with family and second with friends.
What to Expect
The word seder means “order.” At a traditional seder, you’re likely to partake in a dozen (or more) traditions, from washing your hands to breaking the matzah to singing Pslams. Each represents a part of the Jews journey from slavery to freedom.
However, not all seders are alike. For most families, the traditions may vary and the steps may be abridged, Taste of Home staffer Gina Kapfhamer explains how she hosted her first seder, “We cut out the singing, for example, because we had all non-Jewish friends coming and wanted to have them get the ‘gist’ of what a seder is, but didn’t want it to be quite as long as a traditional seder.”
Pro tip: The dress code may vary depending on if your seder is more cultural or religious. Be sure to check with your host if you should plan to dress more casually or formally.
The Seder Plate
The seder plate is the center of the celebration, and has five ceremonial foods representative of parts of the story of Passover.
- Zeroa (shankbone): This represents the lamb that was the paschal sacrifice on the eve of the exodus from Egypt, and annually in the Holy Temple on the day before Passover.
- Beitzah (hard-boiled egg): The egg represents the pre-holiday offering traditionally brought into the Holy Temple.
- Charoset: This sweet mixture represents the brick and mortar that they used to build for the Pharaoh. Check out our recipe, here.
- Maror (bitter herbs): The bitter herbs, often horseradish served on romaine lettuce leaves are representative of the bitterness of slavery.
- Karpas (vegetable): While the type of herb can vary, it is often customary to serve parsley alongside a small bowl of warm salt water, representing the tears of the Jews while leaving Egypt.
“We had a traditional seder plate to explain all the symbols, but had mini seder plates along the table,” says Kapfhamer. “This worked out great, so we didn’t have to pass the large plate.”
Pro tip: Tradition and wine typically come before the main course if following the steps of the seder, so don’t go in with a completely empty stomach.
Matzah, unleavened bread, is one of the central foods of the holiday. The Haggadah (special Passover text) tells us that the bread is flat, crispy and unleavened because there was not enough time for the Jew’s bread to rise before leaving Egypt.
Along with the seder plate are three covered and stacked pieces of matzah, representative of three groups of Jews: Israelites, Levites and Priests, and also commemorating the three measures of flour that Abraham told Sarah to bake into matzah after being visited by three angels.
“Every year at the Pesach seder my grandma tells the entire table about how her mother and grandmother taught her to make matzah with a little pinwheel (they called it a dreidel). My grandma had to hide her religion from their neighbors because it was illegal to practice any religion in the USSR. The family would close the shutters and do everything in secret. Pesach is about freedom, and I love how my family has its own Exodus story,” says Fanya Donin, a student at Pace University.
When it comes to the main course, this is completely personal preference and up to the host. A few traditional dishes that you may find at the table are roast chicken, matzo ball soup and brisket. You can also try these Passover lamb recipes. If your host asks you to bring a dish, make sure to check if the meal will be Kosher for Passover, which needs specific preparations.
“We tend to have a lot of side dishes (farfel, kugel, etc), matzo ball soup, and a salad—we have a few friends who are vegetarian, so with those options everyone has plenty to eat!” says Kapfhamer.
When it comes to dessert, chocolate covered matzah can be purchased or made at home, as can a delicious toffee bark. Expect lots of Manischewitz and red wine to be shared and enjoyed as well.
More Seder Traditions
Some of the traditions you may see as part of the seder are the hiding of the afikomen (a piece of matzah—unleavened bread—in a traditional wrap), which is typical if there are children at the table. You’ll also see a cup of wine set out on the table or by the door for the prophet Elijah who visits every Jewish home during the celebration (although the host is usually responsible for sneaking in to drink the wine).
“It’s a great way to share a culture and celebrate a tradition over food with friends. Keeping the story alive, and sharing the experience with people of different faiths, it’s a beautiful thing,” says Kapfhamer.
Chag Sameach! Have a wonderful holiday!