An Order for the Passover Eve Service

An Order for the Passover Eve Service


Dr. Seth Ward

(Posted to UWYO.EDU November 2010. Ward is currently on the faculty of the University of Wyoming). This essay was prepared for a brochure distributed at the Allied Jewish Apartments Denver, Colorado, Passover, 5758 (April 10, 1998). Dr. Ward was then at the Center for Judaic Studies, University of Denver

The "Seder" gets its name from the fact that it is a guide to fulfilling all the requirements of the Passover Eve ritual in the proper order. The word Seder actually means "order." The "Order for Passover Eve" is also the name of a mnemonic poem, which gives titles to each of the Seder’s various sections. The book used to follow the ritual of the Seder is called the Haggadah. The table is set with a wine cup for each individual, and a festive "Seder Plate" with special foods associated with the Seder.

The activities of Passover Eve have several roles. (1) They fulfill Biblical commands, such as the eating of Matzah and the recounting of the story of the Exodus, and various precepts instituted by the Jewish sages, such as the drinking of four cups of wine. (2) Other elements provide additional ritual recollection of the Exodus from Egypt, or (3) a reenactment of the way Passover was celebrated when the Temple was standing. (4) Moreover, the Exodus from Egypt is, for Jews, the paradigm of Divine redemption; several motifs of this evening’s service mark the hope for a future redemption.

When the Temple was standing, Jews ate a meal which consisted of the regular Festival sacrifice (Hagigah) and the Paschal Sacrifice, which was eaten with Matzah and Bitter Herbs, according to the Biblical precept. Today, as with any Festival or Sabbath meal, the Seder begins with the "sanctification of the Day," or Kiddush, said over wine. This is followed by washing of the hands, which is usual before a meal. But at this point, the meal is not begun. Instead, a vegetable (often parsley or celery) is eaten, dipped in salt water to recall the tears of the slaves. The next section is the formal retelling of the story. The Bible tells us to "Remember the day of your going out of Egypt," but also indicates several times that "it shall come to pass when your child will ask you" about the Exodus, you will tell him about it. After a formal invitation, this section fulfills the Biblical promise by having the youngest child ask four questions.

There is neither a straightforward answer to the questions nor a simple retelling of the history. Instead, we find three distinct approaches. The first two reflect a disagreement between two third-century Rabbis about how one could encapsulate what happened in its most basic form. For one, the essence of the story is "We were slaves in Egypt, and the Holy Blessed One, brought us forth to freedom." The other Rabbi took a longer view of the course of Biblical history: "At first our ancestors worshiped false gods; now God has brought us to worship Him." These two approaches are both mentioned in the Seder, interspersed with other loosely-related material, including a lively account of the "Four Sons," reflecting the four times in which the Bible commands "you shall tell your child."

The third approach is to mandate the recitation of the Biblical verses Deuteronomy 26:5-8. These were recited in ancient times over the Offering of the First Fruits, and thus reflect yet another link between Temple ritual and the practice of the contemporary Seder. These verses retell the story of the Israelites from the times of Abraham. The recitation made over First Fruits included a verse about entering the land of Israel and making the offering, which is not said at this Passover Seder. It is easy to lose sight of the Biblical text, however, as the recitation is broken up by explanations of virtually every word. The conclusion of this section is actually a lengthy elaboration of verse 8, associating it in various ways with the Ten Plagues, which are enumerated and recited—and we recite nonsense words based on the first letters of the plagues as an aid to remembering them. Drops of wine are spilled with each one to symbolize that even when those afflicted were the evil taskmasters, they were human and their suffering reduces the joy of freedom.

Our story does not stop with the Exodus; instead, the Haggadah continues literally to count and recount divine miracles at the Red Sea, the next step towards redemption. One of the best-known segments, the "Dayyenu," underscores the many miracles and suggests that even a single miracle would have sufficed. This section, moreover, links the story of the Exodus to the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai and the building of the Temple, completing the train of thought of Deuteronomy 26:5-8 in a way that seems to remind us that Passover celebrates not merely freedom from slavery, but also freedom to make a commitment to Torah and to divine worship.

The Haggadah narrative may be said to conclude here, but two more items remain to be recited: the explanations of the three key features of the Paschal Sacrifice, and a Ceremony of Psalms. These are followed by a formal benediction which concludes this section. After the Temple was destroyed, the sacrificial rituals ceased, but Jewish tradition taught that merely mentioning them would suffice.

In this spirit, Rabban Gamliel, who lived in the first generation after the Destruction of the Temple, maintained that the three elements of the Paschal sacrifice must be mentioned: the sacrifice itself, the Matzah, and the bitter vegetable. After mentioning the three terms, each one is explained.

Next comes the Ceremony of Psalms, called "Hallel" in Hebrew, containing Psalms 113-118. Only the first two are recited at this time; presumably because Psalm 114 talks of the Exodus. The concluding benediction praises God’s redemptive power, leading to the blessing over the second cup of wine.

Now that we have concluded the telling of the story, with rejoicing and thanksgiving, we prepare for the eating of the ritual foods and the festival meal. Ritual hand washing precedes the familiar "Ha-Motzi," the blessing before meals, praising God for bringing bread forth from the earth, and a second blessing regarding the mitzvah to eat Matzah. It is also considered a commandment to eat the Bitter Herb, which is done at this point, again with a blessing. It is eaten in two ways: First, with charoset, a mixture of apples, honey and wine; then, together with Matzah, recalling the practice of Hillel, who lived while the Temple was standing. He would eat the Paschal Sacrifice bound together with the Matzah and Bitter Herb, in what today is often called a "Hillel Sandwich."

Although it did not become a formal part of the Haggadah, in many Jewish communities, there is a tradition to serve an egg at the beginning of the meal in order to remember the Hagigah, or Festival Sacrifice, which, as noted, was a part of the ancient menu in Temple times. The Paschal Sacrifice was eaten last; nothing was to be eaten after it. Today, the Paschal sacrifice is remembered by having a piece of Matzah saved from earlier and eaten after desert. This is called the afikoman; often it is "stolen" by children and redeemed for prizes after dinner; as the adults may not proceed without it.

Grace after meals is recited over the Third Cup of wine. The Fourth Cup represents the future redemption. At this point, the door is opened for Elijah, the herald of redemption. The remainder of the Ceremony of Psalms is said, with its blessings, and an assortment of poetry, hymns and children’s songs round out the service.

During the course of the evening, the Seder includes the fulfillment of the following precepts and practices:

Normal to a Sabbath or Festival Meal:


Washing the Hands,


Grace after meals.

Specific to Passover:

Recitation of the Story

Explaining Paschal Sacrifice,

Matzah and Bitter Herb

Reciting the Ceremony of Psalms

Eating Matzah

Eating Maror (Bitter Herb)

Recalling the Paschal Sacrifice

Four Cups of Wine

The Hope for Future Redemption: Opening the Door for Elijah


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