Have you just been invited to celebrate Passover and you wonder what to expect at your first Seder? We’ve always invited a guest to our Passover Seder from outside of our family and close friends. (It’s an Eastern European Jewish tradition.) In recent years, we’ve moved from inviting a Jewish guest without family nearby, who presumably would celebrate with his or her own family if they could, to inviting a guest who has never attended a Seder before.
Hosting a non-Jew at our Seder is easy for me. I encourage that guest to relax, enjoy the company and the festivities, and to eat, just as I would do for any other guest.
But is my first-time Seder guest as comfortable as I am? What’s going to happen at the Seder? What’s it like to be a Seder guest?
For me, being Jewish is not so much about the answers as it is about the questions. I wondered what questions a non-Jew would have about Passover and the Seder, and who better to ask about such questions than someone who has never participated in a Seder?
When I talked about this with my friend Yvonne, of My Halal Kitchen, it turned out that she has never been to a Seder and is curious about the holiday. Unfortunately she can’t come to my Seder this year (I’m in Washington DC and she is in Chicago), but she had wonderful questions. I hope that Yvonne and I will celebrate a Passover Seder together next year – in DC or in Chicago (where my daughter Eleanor also lives.) In the meantime, our conversation about Passover and Seders sparked this dialogue.
What to Expect at Your First Seder
- Our conversation skews toward food. We can’t help it – we’re food-obsessed. There is much more to Passover than the food, but as with much else, if you understand the food, you’re well along in understanding much more than that.
- Of course, there is incredible diversity among Jews. I’m no religious expert and my family Seder foods and traditions are no more representative than any other.
What does Passover mean to Jewish people?
Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew) tells the story of the oppression of the Jews in Egypt and commemorates their journey from slavery to freedom during the time of Moses. More broadly, it celebrates the theme of redemption, deliverance, and the renewal of hope throughout Jewish history. The holiday is also harvest-related, as it comes in the spring, the season of rebirth and renewal. Prior to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt the tradition tells of a set of plagues that God imposed on the Egyptians in an effort to get the Pharaoh to release the Jews from bondage. The name Passover refers to the last plague, when God killed the first-born son of the Egyptians, but passed over the homes of the Jews, sparing their first-born sons.
What is “Kosher for Passover” and how is it different from kosher at other times of the year?
As the story goes, when the Jews left Egypt, they had to flee suddenly and didn’t have time to make bread that would rise. That is the origin of matzo, a cracker-like bread that must be made (from the moment the flour and water touch until it goes into the oven) in no more than 18 minutes and does not include any leavening. The sheets of matzo dough are then cooked at a high heat for just a few minutes. Traditionally Jews do not eat bread or other foods that contain leavening such as yeast, baking powder, or baking soda, during Passover.
The holiday lasts for 7 or 8 days (depending on the Jewish denomination) and observant Jews will clean their homes to remove all crumbs of bread, and other food that is, or could be leavened or has come into contact with leavened food. “Kosher for Passover” food is certified by a rabbinic authority as having been made in compliance with the special dietary rules for Passover in addition to other Jewish religious requirements that would apply to that food when it is certified “Kosher” for the rest of the year.
In some foods, the ingredients must be changed. For example, corn syrup is not kosher for Passover according to some Jewish authorities, so companies that make products with corn syrup during the rest of the year such as Coca Cola, may put out special “Kosher for Passover” versions that substitute cane sugar or other sweeteners for the corn syrup during Passover.
What is the Seder? Is it a dinner?
Seder means order, reflecting the order of steps and rituals followed during the meal. In many homes, the Seder also includes singing and games for the kids in attendance. It’s a festive occasion and can last for hours. There is usually a Seder leader, but at many Seders (including ours) everyone takes turns reading unless they can’t read or don’t feel comfortable participating in that way. The Seder may include Hebrew prayers and songs or may be conducted wholly in English (or other “mother tongue”) depending on the host family’s tradition. In our home, if we have guests who don’t understand any Hebrew, when we use Hebrew in a prayer or song, we try to include a translation or to explain what the Hebrew means. Some of us learned Hebrew prayers or songs by rote, so the translation or explanation helps us too.
The Passover story, and the prayers and songs for the Seder are contained in a special book called a Haggadah, which literally means the “telling.” There are many different Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) and Seder meal traditions vary tremendously, from families or groups that spend almost no time on ritual and get right to dinner (my parents had a friend who used to say as each Seder got underway, “same as last year, let’s eat”) to those that spend hours talking and praying before eating substantial food.
Do you eat special foods at a Seder?
There are special foods, displayed on a “Seder plate” and referred to throughout the Seder rituals. Traditionally they are: a shank bone; a roasted egg; bitter herbs (horseradish or romaine lettuce); a fruit-and-nut paste called charoset; and a non-bitter root vegetable (often parsley, celery, onion or potato).
Those foods can vary though, depending on the beliefs and observances of those holding the Seder. For example, I know vegetarians who substitute a beet for the shank bone or other vegetarian alternatives. Also, in modern American Seders like mine, you may see an additional item, an orange, to symbolize and be supportive of people who may feel marginalized in the Jewish community. The orange initially referred to gays and lesbians, but the symbolism has been expanded to include others, such as the disabled.
During the course of the Seder, the participants drink 4 glasses of wine (or grape juice), accompanied by prayers for each glass.
There are no particular requirements as to what should be eaten during the main festive meal other than matzo and tastes of the foods represented on the Seder plate. If the Seder participants are kosher, they will not mix dairy and meat, if the meal includes poultry or red meat, there will not be any dairy and vice versa.
Do Jews of different ethnicities eat different types of foods at Passover or during the Seder or does everyone have to eat the same thing?
Foods that are traditionally eaten – and those that are forbidden – vary by ethnicity and typically reflect the cuisine of the geographic areas where groups of Jews lived. For example, a Passover menu for Jews whose ancestors were originally from Eastern Europe (called “Ashkenazic” Jews) may include chicken soup with matzo balls (dumpling-like balls made primarily of well crushed matzo called matzo meal, and egg), fish balls called gefilte fish, and a main course of beef brisket or roast chicken. My family also likes matzo rolls and a sweet matzo kugel or pudding. Also, we often serve salmon instead of meat as our main course.
Matzo gets baked and cooked in all sorts of dishes during Passover. Much as I love matzo-related creativity, by the end of the Passover week, I am sooo glad to get back to “real” bread and leavened foods.
Ashkenazi Jews traditionally did not eat corn, rice, beans, millet, seeds, lentils or other legumes during Passover, although that is changing both by custom and by rabbinic rulings in some denominations. Jews whose ancestors were from Spain, Portugal, North Africa or the Middle East (called “Sephardic” Jews) have customarily eaten those foods during Passover and their appetizers, soup and main course foods tend to reflect their ethnic cuisine.
If I were invited to a Seder what would you recommend I bring the hostess?
Given the complexity of figuring out which rules your host family may follow, unless you know for certain how they observe and whether a particular food is acceptable, it would be safest to bring either a non-food gift such as flowers, or fresh fruit, which (as far as I know) is acceptable without restriction or conditions.
How far in advance do you prepare the food for the meals at Passover?
I prepare and freeze some parts of the Passover meal 1-2 weeks ahead. (I find it is much easier than trying to make right everything before the holiday.) Those who clean their homes strictly in accordance with the rules for eliminating all leavened materials, will not make food until they have cleaned their homes in accordance with those rules.
How long does Passover last?
Passover lasts 7 or 8 days, depending on the denomination. Jews celebrate a Seder on the first night, and many celebrate a second night Seder as well. One of my women friends puts together a fabulous women’s seder too, so I’ve often gone to 3, after which I am completed Sedered-out, but in a good way.
Does your congregation or do any others have community Seders where non-Jews are invited to partake in the tradition?
Many synagogues or temples and other Jewish community groups hold Seders that are open to the public. It’s a good way to find a place to go to your first seder if you don’t get invited by a Jewish family or friend. In addition, there are interfaith Seders in many communities. I found a number of them online, such as a “Jewish Community and African American Christians Celebrating a Passover Seder Together” in Chicago and an Interfaith Passover held at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in suburban Washington, DC.
If you’ve never celebrated a Seder, what other questions about Passover foods and Seder traditions or observances do you have? If you celebrate Passover, which aspects of your Seder might you explain to first-time Seder goer?