Passover starts Friday evening with our first Seder. Many of you know the story behind the holiday of Passover from reading the Bible; it is a celebration of how God brought the Jews out of slavery in Egypt.

Passover is a holiday of both celebration and asceticism. During Passover, which lasts for eight days, we do not eat any food that is “leavened.” That includes a great deal more than just yeast breads; it includes most grains that are part of our daily lives, such as barley, corn, wheat, oatmeal, rice and legumes. The only grain we eat is Matzah, the “Bread of Affliction,” and products made of matzah.

We deny ourselves the pleasure of bread and grains in remembrance of the poor-quality food eaten by slaves, and in remembrance of the unleavened bread that we took on our journey out of Egypt. By eating only Matzah, we affirm our solidarity with our ancestors who struggled for freedom and with Jews throughout the world.

For those of us who cannot eat wheat (Matzahs are made from wheat), this is a problem. But luckily today, we can purchase Kosher-for-Passover “Gluten Free” matzah-like crackers made from tapioca flour.

Although Passover lasts for eight days, the first two days are the biggest celebrations — the Passover Seders. “Seder” means “order” in Hebrew, and it refers to a specific order of the service that we perform the first two nights of Passover.

These are the “steps” in the Seder. There is even a song that is just a list of the steps in a Seder. I start to sing that whenever I think about Passover coming: “Kadesh, urchatz, karpas, yachatz. Maggid, rachtzah, motzi, matzah. Maror, korech, shulchan orekh. Tzafon, barech, hallel, nirtzah.”

Here are the meanings of those steps:

  • Kadesh — lighting of holiday candles and blessing God
  • Urchatz — washing of hands without saying a blessing
  • Karpas — blessing, and eating greens, symbol of spring, after we dip them in salt water, a symbol of tears of suffering
  • Yachatz — breaking the middle matzah in half and hiding part of it
  • Maggid — the retelling of the story, including the asking of four questions by the youngest member of the group
  • Rachtzah — washing of hands after saying a blessing
  • Motzi Matzah — Blessing and then eating matzah
  • Maror — Blessing and eating bitter herbs (horseradish), a symbol of suffering
  • Korech — eating bitter herbs with Haroset, an apple-nut mixture representing the mortar used to build the pyramids
  • Shulchan Orekh — the “spread table,” eating of the festive holiday meal
  • Tzafon — Children find and ransom the hidden matzah, called the Afikomen, which is the official “dessert”
  • Barech — blessings after the meal
  • Hallel — songs of praise for God’s many blessings
  • Nirtzah — completion of the Seder and looking forward to next year in Jerusalem and to Peace

Seders are traditionally held in the home with the extended family; friends, strangers and people who have no family are invited to join. Some congregations and communities hold Community Seders.

During the Seder, we retell the story of how Jacob and his family moved to Egypt because of famine, and how they stayed for several generations and became enslaved. We recount the drama in which Moses and Aaron confronted Pharoah, and we recount each of the 10 plagues that God brought on the Egyptians. Many of you know this story well from reading the Book of Exodus.

We drink four cups of wine (or grape juice) throughout the Seder, as we tell the story. Wine is a symbol of joy, and each of the four cups of wine is a celebration. However, during the Seder we pause to remember the costs of our freedom. Although the 10 plagues enabled us to escape, the Egyptian people suffered terribly. So before we eat our dinner, we recount the plagues, one at a time and remove a drop of wine from our wine glasses 10 times, once for each plague. In this way, we diminish our joy at Passover, in remembrance of the suffering of our Egyptian neighbors.

At the beginning of the Seder, we put a separate cup of wine on the table that is set aside for Elijah the Prophet. Traditionally Elijah visits each Seder and drinks a little wine. After the meal and blessings, we open the door to the house and invite Elijah in. Children watch the Elijah cup very carefully for signs that the wine has been drunk, while the adults sing “Eliahu Ha Navi,” in which we wish for the coming of Elijah.

We believe that Elijah will come to announce the arrival of the Messianic age, when we will all live in peace together. It is an important reminder to us all that we need to work together to bring that Peace to the earth; that we need to work together to bring the Messianic age. And we must not just recite this year after year ... we need to work on it!

There is a modern addition to the Seder ritual called “Miriam’s Cup.” A second modern addition is putting an orange on the Seder plate. Both of these new rituals are done to acknowledge the role of women in Jewish life, which has been ignored through much of history.

Miriam’s Cup is a beautiful wine glass filled with water, put on the Seder table. Before dinner, we raise the cup of water and recite from the Exodus 15:20-21, about how Miriam led women in dance on the beach, celebrating their deliverance at the Red Sea.

But why an orange? Perhaps this is just a legend, but I was told that long ago a less-than-enlightened rabbi made a comment about why women should not be rabbis. He said that a woman becoming a rabbi was as alien to Judaism as having an orange on the Seder plate. So many people, who believe in equality of women in the clergy, started putting oranges on the Seder plate. And we have many great women rabbis today!

Did you notice throughout this article I said “we” escaped from Egypt? We emphasize during the Seder that it was not just our ancestors who escaped from Egypt, but that we all escaped from Egypt. God did not perform the miracles of the Exodus for our ancestors alone, God performed those miracles for us, too.

So we, like our ancestors, eat the unleavened bread of affliction during this period, as we recall the great miracles by which God made us into a free people. The lesson of Passover is that we need to work for peace and for the freedom of all people now, in our time, in our land, on our Earth.

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Emily Burt-Hedrick is the President of the Congregation Beth Tikvah.