If you’ve never been to a Passover seder , you might be feeling a bit intimidated at the prospect. Relax. The seder is an opportunity for celebration, discussion and lots of tasty food. Here are some things to know before you go:
What should I wear?
People usually dress up a little for the seder, but it’s best to ask your host ahead of time, as seder attire can run the gamut from jeans and T-shirts to suit-and-tie. You’ll probably eat a lot, however, so don’t wear anything with a tight-fitting waist!
What should I bring?
Again, it’s best to ask the host ahead of time. If he or she requests food or wine, make sure to find out whether the family keeps kosher and how strictly they observe Passover dietary laws. Even if your host does not keep kosher, you should avoid bringing baked goods, like breads or cakes, as these flout the tradition of avoiding leavened foods, unless the products are labeled kosher-for-Passover. Flowers are always a good option as well.
Is there a prayer service before the meal?
The seder, which commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt (the first 15 chapters of Exodus), is a service of sorts, replete with various blessings, rituals, songs and readings. To get a better feel for what happens and in what order, we recommend you check out this article about the seder and this one about the Haggadah.
Will the seder be in Hebrew?
Some families do conduct the seder all in Hebrew, but many primarily stick to English, with the exception of reciting some prayers and blessings in Hebrew. To familiarize yourself with some of the Hebrew terms used throughout the seder, check out some Must-Know Passover Terms (page 17).
How long does the seder last?
Seder length varies even more than seder attire! Some families read every page of the Haggadah (the book that details all the Passover rituals, blessings and readings) along with all sorts of supplemental readings, while others do a very abbreviated version. Which means the seder can range from under 30 minutes (followed by a leisurely meal) to literally all night long. Traditionally, the seder has two parts: readings and rituals for before the meal is served, and readings and songs that follow the meal.
However, many families—particularly those with small children—dispense with the second part and focus on the pre-meal rituals. You can ask your host to provide a ballpark estimate in advance.
Should I show up on time or fashionably late?
The seder has a specific structure, and hosts rarely begin until all the guests have arrived. So you should definitely show up on time.
How soon will we eat?
That varies greatly depending on how long the ritual components of the seder last. Some hosts provide snacks before the seder or have food to nibble on before the meal, but it’s best not to arrive ravenous and to be prepared to wait at least an hour before chowing down.
What foods are usually served at a Passover seder?
Before the meal, a number of foods with ritual significance are eaten: a sprig of parsley (or other green) dipped in salt water; charoset, a fruit-and-nut paste that symbolizes the mortar slaves used to make bricks; horseradish or other spicy/bitter food to symbolize the bitterness of slavery; and a hard-boiled egg as a symbol of rebirth. Food at the meal itself varies a great deal, depending on whether your host is Ashkenazi (of Eastern European descent) or Sephardi (of Spanish or Middle Eastern descent). It also depends on your host’s own family traditions. That said, commonly served foods in the United States include gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzah balls, lamb, chicken and various kugels (a type of casserole). Some popular desserts are macaroons, chocolate-covered matzah, kosher-for-Passover cakes and fruit compote. If your host keeps kosher, no dairy will be served with or after meat.
Is it really true that you have to drink four cups of wine? I don’t want to get drunk and embarrass myself.
Traditionally people do drink four cups of wine over the course of the seder, but they do not have to be large cups of wine. Also, many hosts also have grape juice on hand, which is a perfectly acceptable substitute.
Must-Know Passover Terms
A zissen Pesach — Have a sweet Passover! (Yiddish)
Chag aviv sameach — Have a happy spring holiday! (Hebrew)
Chag kasher sameach — Have a happy and kosher holiday! (Hebrew)
Chag v’sameach — Have a happy holiday! (Hebrew)
Moadim l’simcha — May your times be joyous! (Hebrew, said only during the Hol Hamoed, or intermediate, days of the holiday)
Afikomen — From a Greek word meaning “dessert.” A piece of matzah that is hidden during the course of the seder , found after dinner, and eaten as dessert at the end of the seder meal.
Arba Kosot — Hebrew for “four cups.” In this case, it refers to the four cups of wine drunk at the Passover seder.
Barekh — The 12th step of the Passover seder, in which Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals is said.
Beitzah — Hebrew for “egg.” A roasted or hard-boiled egg is placed on the seder plate to symbolize rebirth.
Chad Gadya — Aramaic for “one goat,” this is the last of the songs sung at the conclusion of the seder and tells the story of the little goat a father bought for a pittance.
Chag Ha Aviv — Hebrew for “The Spring Holiday.” One of the alternate names for Passover.
Dayenu — Hebrew for “enough for us,” this is the name of a song sung at the Passover seder that tells of all the miracles G-d performed for the Israelites.
Gebrochts — Yiddish for “broken,” this refers to matzah that has absorbed liquid. It is customary among some Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews to avoid gebrochts as an extra stringency on Passover.
Haggadah — Hebrew for “telling” or “recounting.” A Haggadah is a book that is used to tell the story of the Exodus at the seder. There are many versions available ranging from very traditional to nontraditional, and you can also make your own.
Hallel — The 13th step of the Passover seder, in which psalms of praise are sung.
Hametz — Bread or any food that has been leavened or contains a leavening agent, hametz is prohibited on Passover.
Haroset — A sweet mixture of nuts, wine, and apples on the seder plate that symbolizes the mortar used by slaves in Egypt.
Hol HaMoed — The intermediate days of the holiday, between the first two days of holiday, and the last two days of holiday.
Karpas — The third step of the Passover seder, in which a piece of greenery such as parsley is dipped into salt water and then eaten.
Kiddush — The first step of the Passover seder, in which a blessing over a glass is recited.
Kitniyot — Hebrew for legumes, the term here also includes corn and rice. These items were prohibited for use on Passover by some Ashkenazic rabbis in the medieval period, but many Sephardic Jews (and increasingly Conservative Jews) do allow them on Passover.
Korekh — The ninth step in the Passover seder, in which bitter herbs are eaten together with a piece of matzah.
Maggid — The fifth and most substantial step of the Passover seder, in which the story of the Exodus is recounted.
Maror — Bitter herbs. The eighth step in the Passover seder, in which the herbs (usually horseradish), symbolizing the bitterness of life under Egyptian rule, are eaten.
Matzah — Unleavened bread. According to the Bible the Israelites ate matzah right before they left Egypt. Today matzah is eaten during Passover to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt.
Motzi Matzah — The seventh step in the Passover seder, in which a piece of matzah is eaten.
Nirtzah — The 14th and final step of the Passover seder, in which the night is concluded by saying “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Pesach — Hebrew for “pass over.” Cooked meat that, according to the Bible, was eaten by the Israelites just before they left Egypt.
Rahtza — The sixth step of the Passover seder, in which the hands are washed for a second time, and a blessing is recited.
Seder — Hebrew for “order.” The Passover ritual where family and friends gather on the first one or two nights of Passover to retell the story of the Exodus. The story is told in a particular order, with specific rituals.
Shir Hashirim — The Song of Songs, the text read in synagogue during the Shabbat of Passover.
Shulhan Orekh — The 10th step in the Passover seder, in which the meal is served. Pass the matzah balls!
Tzafun — The 11th step of the Passover seder, in which the afikoman is found and eaten as dessert.
Urchatz — The second step of the Passover seder, in which the hands are washed but no blessing is recited.
Yahatz — The fourth step of the Passover seder in which a piece of matzah is broken in half.
Zeroa — Shank bone. The bone is placed on the seder plate and recalls the blood on the doorposts and the terror and the anticipation of the night of the plague of the first born.