The elements of the Passover Seder explained

THIS YEAR, the eight-day festival of Passover starts on the evening of Wednesday, April 5 and ends at sunset on Thursday, April 13 (in Israel the holiday is celebrated seven days, ending on. April 12). Like all Jewish holidays, the passover begins at sunset of the previous day; thus, the first seder is held the evening of Wednesday, April 12.

A SPRING FESTIVAL, Passover starts on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. It is one of the most important celebrations on the Hebrew calendar commemorating the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. It begins with families gathering together the first night for dinner called seder. In Israel, only one seder is held.

PASSOVER IS ALL ABOUT SYMBOLISM, with the various elements of the Seder representing different elements of our escape from slavery and our journey to freedom and redemption. And so, recently, Rabbi Josh Pernick, director of the New Haven Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and rabbi in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, asked several of our local rabbis to dissect the seder, with each one—including Rabbi Pernick himself, offering insights into the significance of various elements of the Seder. Here is what they had to say.

Rabbi Danny Moss, Temple Beth Tikvoh, Madison
Haggadah means storytelling. “A Haggadah,” by extension, is the book or pamphlet containing the Passover story and its ritual trappings. The central act of the Passover Seder is educational: telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Jews are storytellers by nature—it’s how we convey meaning, feel connected through a powerful ritual experience,
and pass wisdom from one generation to the next.

Rabbi Eric Woodward, Beth El-Keser Israel, Westville
Matzah is understood as having two seemingly opposite names: the bread of affliction, and the bread of freedom. But this dual nature of matzah, which reminds us both of slavery and freedom, of suffering and redemption, of pain and healing, actually invites us to reflect on the inter-connectedness of our lives. Pesach is about thinking of ourselves as interconnected with other Jews and with the world around us–and using that inter-connectedness to foster empathy, care, and a push for liberation.

Rabbi Brian Immerman, Congregation Mishkan Israel, Hamden
The Afikomen is the broken piece of middle matzah, hidden and joyfully discovered for ransom by the children before continuing with the seder. Even through joy, we are reminded that uncovering brokenness in our own lives and world requires work to seek and discover what we cannot readily see. Only then can we everyone experience full redemption.

Rabbi Leah Benamy, Temple Beth David, Cheshire
Bitterness incarnate, this vegetable, often raw horseradish root, is meant to be difficult to eat. The sharp, almost painful bite reminds us viscerally of our bitter experience as slaves. It may bring tears to your eyes as well, which is another reminder.

Rabbi Barbara Paris, Hillel Advisor, Southern CT State University
As the Israelites were leaving Egypt they were instructed to put the blood of the ram on their lintels so that the Angel of Death would pass them by. My teacher Jill Hammer added a beet to the Seder plate for those that were vegetarians and also who might not have the means to sacrifice a ram.

Rabbi Josh Pernick, JCRC/Rabbi in Residence
The “zeroah”, or shankbone, functions as a stand-in for the Korban Pesach, the Paschal offering, which served as the core element of the Passover experience when the Temple stood. We no longer bring the Korban Pesach but we bring a stand-in, a bone, and put it on the plate. We call the shankbone a “zeroa”, literally a forearm, a reminder of the "zeroa netuyah", the strong arm, with which God brought us out of Egypt.

Rabbi Josh Pernick
There are two bitter herbs on the seder plate: The first, maror, is difficult to eat. But the second, “chazeret”, is not eaten at all. Some of our experiences as slaves were so horrific as to be entirely indigestible. This item reminds us of
the decree against the male sons, a pill so bitter that Moses’ mother could not accept it, the first crack in the armor of
the authoritarian rule of Pharaoh.

Rabbi Alvin Wainhouse, Congregation Or Shalom, Orange
We are all familiar with the traditional explanation of charoset, as meant to “recall the mortar/mud we used to make bricks”. But I've always felt myself drawn to another explanation—namely, a fulfillment of the verse, “The path of Torah is a path of pleasantness.” That is, Yiddishkeit must never be a bitter pill; religion’s purpose in general, and Judaism’s purpose specifically is to sweeten life!”

Rabbi Josh Pernick
The four cups of wine each function as a time portal, transporting us to a different moment in our people’s story. The first cup teleports us to our earliest days in Egypt; with the second cup, we move forward to our final meal in Egypt as slaves. With the third cup we fast forward to the edge of the Sea of Reeds, awaiting our freedom, and with the Fourth to Sinai and our preparation to enter into an eternal covenant with God.

Rabbi Josh Pernick
The karpas is a reminder of the earliest stages of our sojourning as a people in Egypt: “The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” (Exodus 1:7). The parsley on our plate, with sprouts seeming to bloom in all directions, all tracing their roots to a common stem, is most symbolic of our rapid flourishing from only seventy souls in a land not our own.

Rabbi Josh Pernick
The “beitzah”, or egg, reminds us of the additional offering, the “korban chagigah”, or festival offering, that was brought in the days of the Temple on Passover. The roasted egg reminds us of the fulfillment of God’s promise
to the Jewish people: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the LORD.” (Exodus 6:8)


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