Your Ultimate Guide to the Passover Seder
From the symbols on the Seder plate to the traditional holiday dishes, here's what to expect at a Passover Seder.
If you’ve never been to a Passover Seder before, it can be hard to know how to prepare. This ritual meal is the centerpiece of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which marks the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt in ancient times.
Whether you’re attending a Passover Seder for the first time as a guest or hosting your inaugural Seder, this guide will help orient you to the Jewish foods, symbols and rituals that are part of the spring holiday.
By the way, these are the Jewish cookbooks you should add to your bookshelf.
What’s a Passover Seder?
In 2021, Passover starts on March 27 and runs through April 4. The Seder is generally held on the first night, but some families hold Seders on both the first and second nights. (Here’s how to celebrate Passover during the pandemic.)
The word Seder means “order.” It takes place at a table and involves dozens of traditions that represent different aspects of the Passover story. A typical Seder includes songs, readings in Hebrew and English, and rituals relating to the Seder plate. Then there’s a traditional Seder dinner followed by more prayers and other activities.
However, not all Seders are alike—some are more formal and organized, and some are laid back. Every family’s Passover traditions vary, especially in different countries around the world. The dress code will also depend on the type of Seder you’re attending. If you’ll be a guest, check with your host to see if you should dress up.
Editor’s tip: Avoid showing up to a Seder with a completely empty stomach. There will be a big meal later on, but the before-dinner rituals can take some time. Plus, if you follow the Seder script, you may be drinking a couple glasses of wine before the main meal! These are the kosher wine brands you’ll want to know about.
The Seder Plate
Stephanie Howard/Getty Images
The Seder plate is a key component of the Passover celebration. It has five or six (depending on the host’s custom) ceremonial foods that represent different themes in the Passover story.
Some families have one decorative Seder plate in the center of the table as well as individual Seder plates at each place setting. This is especially helpful for large Seders because it allows each participant to partake in the Seder plate items without having to pass the large plate around.
Editor’s tip: The traditional Hebrew Passover greeting is chag sameach, which means “happy holiday!”
The shankbone represents the lamb that the ancient Jews sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The egg represents the pre-holiday offering traditionally brought into the Holy Temple. Many families use a hard-boiled egg that you can eat during the Seder. Some people also say the roundness of the egg represents the circle of life.
This sweet mixture represents the brick and mortar that the Jews used to build structures for the pharaoh when they were slaves in Egypt. There are many variations of charoset around the word, but our charoset recipe contains apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon.
Maror (Bitter Herbs)
Maror, or bitter herbs, is a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. You can use various vegetables as maror, but many people use horseradish or romaine lettuce. Some families use both.
At a certain point in the Seder, you dip the maror in the charoset and eat it. Later, you eat maror sandwiched between two small pieces of matzo.
The karpas is a green vegetable that represents hope and rebirth. Many people use parsley, but you can also use other greens.
It’s customary to serve the karpas alongside a small bowl of salt water. During the Seder, you dip the karpas into the salt water to remember the Jewish people’s tears when they were slaves in Egypt.
In addition to these traditional items, some families place an orange on the Seder plate to represent gender equality or an olive (calling to mind an olive branch) to symbolize peace.
What Is Matzo?
Cavan Images/Getty Images
Matzo, a type of unleavened bread, is one of the central Passover foods. According to the traditional Passover story, it’s flat and unleavened because the Jewish people didn’t have enough time to let their bread rise when they were escaping from Egypt.
There are three covered pieces of matzo on the Passover table that represent the three groups of Jews: The Israelites, Levites and Priests. It’s customary for the Seder’s leader to hide one of the pieces, known as the afikomen. Later in the evening, the children go searching for it—whoever finds it wins a prize.
(Here’s the difference between matzo and matzo meal.)
Other Seder Traditions
While the Seder Plate and matzo are some of the most well-known Passover traditions, there are other elements of a traditional Seder:
- Haggadah: This is the special Passover text that’s read aloud during the Seder. There are multiple versions of it, and some families create their own.
- Wine: Traditionally, the Seder involves drinking four cups of kosher wine. (Alternatively, you can drink grape juice or just take four sips.) You’ll also see a cup of wine set out for the prophet Elijah, who is said to visit every Jewish home on Passover.
- 10 plagues: Part of the Seder ritual involves remembering the 10 plagues that forced the Egyptian pharaoh to free the Jews from slavery. Some families use games or Passover decorations and props to represent the plagues, which include frogs and locusts. It’s also customary to spill 10 drops of wine into the salt water or onto your plate to represent each plague.
These are just some of the Passover traditions—the Seder is full of them! Every family has their own customs, and there are also different Passover traditions around the world.
The Passover Seder Meal
The food at your Seder will vary depending on whether your host adheres to the general kosher cooking rules as well as the extra set of kosher-for-Passover restrictions. If your host asks you to bring a dish, ask about their dietary guidelines.
Passover Starters and Sides
Since Passover dietary rules restrict most grains, you won’t see bread or pasta. Sephardic Jews (from Spain and the Middle East) eat rice and legumes on Passover, but Ashkenazi Jews (from Eastern Europe) do not.
Passover Main Course
Kosher-for-Passover sweets like macaroons, matzo toffee and flourless chocolate cake commonly close out the traditional Passover meal. If you need inspiration, check out these Passover dessert recipes.