Written and compiled by Rabbi John L. Rosove

Pesach is a unique opportunity for family and friends to come together and bond with the people of Israel and with humanity as a whole. Since October 7, the people of Israel and the innocent among the Palestinians living in Gaza have suffered deeply. Our Seders this year ought to reflect the circumstances in which we and the Jewish people have lived over the past year.

Throughout Jewish history, our people have lived with fear first as slaves to the Egyptian masters and then in many lands and eras in which we’ve been powerless and vulnerable to antisemitic attack. We’ve been schooled in the experience of oppression, subjugation, and violence. We know the heart of the stranger and what happens to vulnerable individuals and groups when evil powers oppress them. We’re taught that no one is secure if anyone lives in fear. No one is free until everyone is free.

One of the unique characteristics of Pesach is that in one event – the Exodus – the particular and the universal, the tribal and the humanitarian are experienced together. Consequently, the Jewish people understands that in history we have been both a people living apart and a people linked to the whole of humanity. Our interests and the interests of others necessarily intersect morally, spiritually, and politically.

Hopefully, our Seders this year will give us an opportunity to reflect about the meaning of October 7 and the Israel-Hamas war, the dramatic rise in antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israel sentiment in our country and around the world, the right of our own people to live securely in our Homeland, and the right of the Palestinian people to live securely and free from the yoke of a cruel Hamas and free from Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

What follows are interpretations and insights into this festival of Pesach and into the texts and rituals left to us in the Hagadah. I am grateful especially to my teacher and friend, Rabbi Larry Hoffman (Professor of Liturgy, Worship, and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York) who, more than 45 years ago, taught me much about the Hagadah and the significance of this extraordinarily rich liturgy. He called the Hagadah a mirror of the experience of the people of Israel over time, and he noted that when we are sensitive to the people and experiences that gave rise to the texts, midrashim, rituals, songs, and traditions in the Seder, it is as if we are sitting around the Seder table with all who came before us. He was right about that then, and his words and teachings still ring true.

If you find this blog worthwhile before Pesach, consider sharing it with those who will be with you at your Seder.

May your Seders be filled with meaning, joy, and song, with debate and with visions shared of a wholeness that is yet to come.

1. Key Hebrew Terms: Pesachפסח – Passover; Sederסדר – “Order” of the Passover ritual; Hagadahהגדה – The book used during the Seder.

2. The Seder Plate contains the egg (ביצהbeitzah), bone (זרועz’ro-a), parsley (כרפסkarpas), bitter herb (מרור maror), apples/nuts/honey/wine mixture (חרוסתcharoset), lettuce (?). There is a debate among the sages about whether there should be 5 or 6 items. Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) argued that there should be 6 items because of the mystical resemblance to the Star of David (a symbol of redemption).

3. The Symbolism of the Foods: Egg = birth and rebirth (personal and national); Bone = God’s strong outstretched arm that redeemed the slaves; Parsley = Spring-time (salt water – tears of slavery); Bitter Herb = hardship of slavery; Charosetחרוסת = mortar that held bricks together; Lettuce = unknown, but possibly represented sacrifice in Temple

4. The 3 Matzot מצות on the Traditional Platter – Originally they represented the 3 sacrifices brought to the Temple; the Pascal offering – פסח  (lamb), the Tamid – תמיד offering (daily), and the Maaser Sheini – מעשר שיני  (tithing). The number 3 also represents the three classes of Israelites, all of whom are present at the Seder; the Priests (Kohanim – כוהנים), the Vice-Priests (Levi-im – לווים Levites), and the common folks (Yisraelim – ישראלים Israelites).

5. The Matzahמצה – Sometimes called the “bread of affliction” or the “poor bread” in the Ha Lachma – הא לחמא (Aramaic) section of the Seder, the Matzah is a salvationary substance that points to God’s redeeming power. The midrashim – מדרשים  (rabbinic legends) speak of bread hanging from the trees in the Garden of Eden. The mannah – מנה of the desert is thought to be the food of the hosts of heaven, much as Greek ambrosia was the food of the gods. In any event, the matzah (or bread) not only sustains life, but is directly linked to God’s redemptive power.

6. Afikomanאפיקומן – The last item eaten in the Seder, the Afikoman is the middle matzah on the ceremonial matzah plate and is broken off and hidden (tzafun – צפון) before the Seder begins to be found by the children/adults at the end of the meal. Since it is impossible to break evenly the Afikoman, the larger half is hidden symbolizing the larger hope the Jewish people hold out for our future. Afikoman is sometimes translated “dessert,” but in all probability it is an Aramaic word originally derived from the Greek “afikomenos,” meaning Ha-ba – הבא, the “Coming one” or Messiah. Breaking the middle matzah symbolizes the broken state of the Jewish people in slavery and the brokenness of the world badly in need of healing. It also symbolizes the Kabalistic idea of the sh’virat ha-keilim – שבירת  הכלים (the breaking of the vessels) and the introduction of the sitra achra – סִטְרָא אַחְרָא (the “other side” of  God, or the dark aspect of the universe, or evil) into the corporeal world. Finding the Afikoman at the end of the Seder, we restore it to the other half symbolizing the redemption of the individual, the people of Israel, the world, and God’s own name (YHVH) that split apart when the creation of the universe began. In effect, the Jewish people is charged with effecting tikun – תיקון (the restoration of the world – the reclaiming of the Garden of Eden – the reunification of God and the restoration of the people of Israel to the Creator/Redeemer). Then all Seder participants eat the Afikoman together. Prizes are given to those who participate in the hunt.

7. The Number 4  – The number 4 is repeated many times in the Seder (e.g. 4 cups of wine, 4 children, 4 sages, 4 questions, the 4-letter Name of God YHVH – the God of “being” that includes God’s imminence and transcendence). Cross-culturally, the number 4 is symbolic of wholeness, integrity, and completion (Hebrew – sh’leimut – שלימות ), a principle goal of Passover and of Jewish life.

8. Elijah the Prophet – is destined to announce the coming of the Messiah – Mashiach – משיח “anointed one.” The Cup of Elijah – Kos Eliyahu – כוס אליהו – entered the Seder in the 15th or 16th century in times of great stress, anxiety, and fear experienced by Jewish communities following the crusades, disputations, blood libel riots, and the Black Plague.

9.  The Open Door – Jewish folklore suggests that at this moment Elijah comes to every Seder bringing his message of hope. Originally, Jews opened the door to show Christian passers-by that nothing cultic or sinister was occurring at Jewish Seders. This tradition began during medieval times when the infamous blood libel, desecration of the “Host” (the wafer in the Catholic Eucharist – symbolizing the body of Christ), and fear of Jews inspired anti-Jewish riots during the Easter season. The most dangerous day of the year for the Jewish community was when Passover and Good Friday coincided.

10. Birth Imagery – The imagery of birth and the important role of women in the Exodus story is prominent and significant throughout the Seder. The holiday of Passover occurs at the spring equinox when the lambing of the flocks took place. Passover celebrates the birth of the Jewish nation out of slavery. The Israelite boys are saved at birth by two Hebrew mid-wives, Shifrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15-21). Yocheved (Moses’ mother) and Miriam (Moses’ older sister) save the future liberator from certain death. Miriam persuades the Egyptian princess, who adopts Moses, to use his own mother, Yocheved, as his wet-nurse to sustain the connection between Moses and the Israelites. Moses grows to manhood and leads the people through the opening of the Sea of Reeds, a metaphor of the opening of the womb into the light. The name of Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim – מצריים (literally, “narrow or constricted places,” like the birth canal). The salt water might suggest the amniotic fluid heralding the beginning of spring. In the end, not only are the Jews born into freedom, but the holiday celebrates newness, rebirth, and birth.

11. The 4 Children – the wise – chacham – חכם; the evil – rasha – רשע; the simple – tam – תם; the one who does not know enough to ask – einu yodea lishol – אינו יודע לשאול . The wise child wants to understand the rituals and the deeper messianic purpose of the Seder and, consequently, the deeper purpose of one’s life as a Jew. He/she/they ask specifically about the meaning of the Afikoman (see above #6). The evil child separates him/herself/themselves from the community. Not participating, standing aloof, being unaccountable, irresponsible, indifferent, and passive leads to the breakdown of community. The rule of law is an essential part of Judaism. To each child we are instructed to teach according to his/her/their circumstances.

12. The 4 Sages – warned by a disciple that the morning Sh’ma שמע was about to be recited in the Temple, these four sages, led by the great Rabbi Akiba (1st-2nd century C.E.), were in fact plotting revolution against Rome. The disciple was warning the 4 that informers were coming into the synagogue and that the sages’ absence from Morning Prayer would alarm the Roman authorities. The passage Arami oved avi” – ארמי אובד אבי (My father is a wandering Aramean – Deuteronomy 26:5) is a disguised attack on Rome. If we switch the letters around and change the vet ב of avi to a mem מ to create ami – my people) and we interchange the hearing-sound of the ayin = ah with the aleph=a, we come up with Romai oved ami – רומאי אובד עמי (“Rome is destroying my people”).

13. The Purpose of the Seder – to personally experience and empathize with our people’s historic struggle for liberation; also, for the individual to confront those spiritual and psychological enslavements that prohibit inner growth. The ultimate purpose, spiritually and metaphysically, is for each of us to glimpse wholeness sh’lei-mut – שלימות (i.e. the unity of humankind, the unity of the Jewish people, the unity of God’s holiest Name YHVH – and to become one with God). Passover teaches the Jewish people not to be cruel because we know the heart of the stranger and we understand what happens when a people becomes powerless. Jews are traditionally known as rachmanim b’nai rachmanim – רחמנים בני רחמנים – compassionate children of compassionate parents.

14. The 4 Cups of Wine – recalls the four times (Exodus 6:6) that God tells the people that the Redeemer will liberate them.

15. How is this Night Different?Mah Nishtanah – מה נשתנה – The 4 questions concern why we eat unleavened bread and the bitter herb, dip the greens twice, and recline at the Seder table. Originally, the Q and A associated with the 4 questions reflected an ancient Greco-Roman tradition of having a feast followed by a philosophical/religious discussion.

16. Leavened BreadChometzחומץ – is forbidden during Passover and the tradition recalls the hasty exit of the Israelites from Egypt. Chometz symbolizes sin, the fomenting of the evil impulse (yeitzer ha-ra – יצר הרע), and the necessity of morally cleansing oneself and physically removing from one’s home chometz during the Passover festival. Technically, matzah that is kosher (permitted) for Passover must be mixed, kneaded, and put in the oven to bake within 18 minutes. Any dough that stands longer than 18 minutes is presumed to be chometz and unfit for Passover consumption.

17. The Search for Chometz – B’dikat Chometzבדיקת חומץ – A tradition conducted the day before Passover.  All chometz is gathered and either burned publicly (bi-ur chometzביעור חומץ), sold, or given away to non-Jews. On the night before, it is a tradition that children take a spoon, feather, and a candle and search the house for chometz crumbs. Five grains are considered chometz during Passover: wheat, spelt, barley, oats, and rye. The following are consequently forbidden to be consumed during Passover: whiskey, beer, and bourbon because of the fomenting process. In some Sephardic homes, rice is permissible during Passover but not so in Ashkenazi homes, because of the principle of mar’it  ayin – מראית עיין (“how a thing appears” – i.e. it may in some form look like leaven).

18. Dayeinu and Hallel – דיינו והלל – are sung just before the meal is eaten. These songs reflect the gratitude of the Jewish people that God redeemed us and will redeem us again. The Hallel is composed of passages from the Book of Psalms and the section is among the most ancient in the Hagadah.

19. Why Moses in missing from the Hagadah – Moses’ name is never mentioned in the Hagadah. This obvious oversight is a deliberate attempt by the rabbis who developed the Hagadah to remind the people that it was God and God alone Who redeemed the people from slavery. Much of the Hagadah developed in the centuries after Christianity was making inroads into the Jewish community in the first centuries of the Common Era. The rabbis were concerned that Jews not deify any human leader as the Christians had done with Jesus.

20. Wine and Matzah in Christian Tradition – Jesus reportedly said at the Last Supper (thought to be a Seder) while pointing at the matzah and wine: “This is my body and this is my blood.” Christian theologians argued for this doctrine of transubstantiation (concretized in the Eucharist) as a legitimate outgrowth of Judaism in the first century of the Common Era (C.E.). It was, however, a significant theological leap from traditional Judaism. For Jews, the bread was widely understood to represent the lamb of the Pascal offering. For Christians, Jesus replaced the lamb even as the wine symbolized his blood. The anti-Semitic defamation of the “blood libel” is a convoluted distortion of the Eucharist turned against itself and against the Jewish people that had refused to accept the divinity of Jesus as the Christ Messiah.

21.  The 10 Plagues – (blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, blight, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the first born). Many of these plagues represent an attack on the ancient Egyptian gods in an effort to teach that only YHVH, the God of Israel, is the legitimate deity. Traditionally, we take the index finger and drop a bit of wine on our plates as we recite each plague symbolizing the reduction of our joy (symbolized by wine) even when our enemies suffer. The index finger is used to recall God’s finger. It’s a Syrian and Greek tradition to collect all the wine, pour it into a bowl and dump all of it into the street. The characterization of Judaism as tribal/national and humanitarian/universal is expressed in the same event of the Exodus. The diminishing of the cup of wine with a drop for each plague suggests that we must diminish our joy even when our enemies, also created in the Divine image, suffer and perish. This custom, observed by most Jews today, was first initiated by Isaac Abravanel (1438-1508 – born in Portugal and died in Italy) who fled Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition after 1492. This tradition can be introduced this year in the context of Israel’s war against Hamas and the death and injury of so many Palestinian civilians.

22. Moses’ Family – Yocheved (mother), Miriam (sister), Aaron (brother), Zipporah (wife – daughter of the Midianite priest and possibly of Ethiopian origin).

23.  Blood on the Lintels – The Israelites were instructed to smear the blood of the lamb on the lintels and door posts of their houses so that the angel of death (מלאך המוות – mal’ach ha-mavet) would “pass over” their houses while striking dead all the first born of Egypt. Hence, the English word (“Passover”) for the holiday. The word Pesach, however, refers to the Paschal offering in the Temple in Jerusalem and has nothing to do with the angel of death “passing over” the Israelite community.

24. Fast of the First-Born Son – Traditionally, the first-born son fasts on the day before Passover to recall with gratitude God’s saving the first-born sons through the Hebrew mid-wives Shifrah and Puah. In Sephardic homes, the first-born son eats the egg last to recall this personal redemption.

25. Sections of the SederKadesh – urchatz – karpas – yachatz – maggid – rachtzah – motzi/matzah – maror – korech – shulchan orech – tzafun – barech – hallel – nirtzah. At the beginning of the Seder, Sephardim (Jews originally coming from Spain) pass the Seder plate over the heads of the guests symbolizing the passing of the angel of death over the Israelite homes thus sparing the damage caused by the angel of death. While the plate is passed, the sections of the Seder are sung.

26. The Biblical Story of the Exodus – Found in the Book of Exodus, the Israelites had settled in the land of Goshen after a severe famine in the land of Canaan. Joseph brought his father and the 12 sons and 1 daughter to Goshen. But then there “arose a Pharaoh in Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) and put all the Hebrews into slavery and hard labor to build his cities. The story is believed to have taken place around the year 1250 B.C.E.  Jews did not build the pyramids, which date from the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C.E. Though the Biblical story says our people were slaves for 400 years, it is likely that they were slaves for a generation (perhaps 40 years). The Bible also says that over 600,000 were freed from slavery (Exodus 1:11). An unruly number, it is more likely that between 10,000 and 15,000 Hebrews and others (i.e. a mixed multitude) came out of Egypt. A people used to slavery, they would be condemned to wander for 40 years (a generation) until the generation of slaves died. Moses himself never entered the land of Israel primarily because of his defiance of God at the incident of M’ribah – מריבה (Exodus 17:2) – Moses was disgusted by the Israelites’ complaining in the desert for a lack of water. God commanded Moses to “speak” to the rock and water would gush forth. However, Moses struck the rock out of anger and his defiance of God’s instruction. He paid the ultimate price for a failure to at once respect God’s command and the failure of leadership of the people to behave peaceably and with compassion as their leader. The Exodus story is completed by the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19 and 20), thereby establishing a covenant between God and the people. Following this most important event in the history of Judaism, the people were instructed under the leadership of the architect/artist B’tzalel to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-6) so that God may dwell amongst the people. The people wandered for 40 years in the desert and they entered and settled the Land of Israel (ארץ ישראל – Eretz Yisrael) (circa 1200 B.C.E.). They ultimately built the First Temple in Jerusalem. For Jews, freedom, responsibility, accountability, engagement with community, and ethical living are part of the Covenant with God.

27. The Very First Seder – The first Seder was held in Egypt at night before the Exodus itself.  Consequently, the Seder is not a celebration of redemption because the redeeming event had not yet taken place. Rather, the Seder is an expression of faith that there will be redemption in the future, that the world is not yet perfected and that there is to be a better more peaceful and more just order of human affairs.

28. The Seder as a Night-time Ritual – The Seder is the only ritual in Judaism that customarily occurs during the dark of night. This is the only time that the Hallel is said at night, and is the only full ritual conducted in the home. Rabbi Levi Meier z’l (1946-2008) suggested that whereas in daylight everything is public, during the nighttime our higher selves are evoked. When Jacob wrestled with divine beings at the river Jabok (Genesis 32) we learn that following the struggle that Yaakov shalem – יעקב שלם (Jacob became whole). This night-time ritual provokes us towards wholeness and integration – i.e. the unification of body, mind, heart, and soul with God. Note that Rabbi Meier was trained as a Jungian therapist.

29. The Miracle of the Sea – Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (b. 1943) wrote: “All of Pesach is concealed within one self-contradictory verse: בתוך הים ביבשה – B’toch haYam b’yabashah — And the children of Israel went ‘into the midst of the sea on dry ground.’ (Exodus 14:22) The miracle, you see, was not that the waters parted but that we all drowned and were reborn free on the other side. You want to be reborn? You must be willing to walk into the midst of the sea on dry ground and risk it all.”

30. Jews in Every Era – The Hagadah includes elements that were introduced in every period in Jewish history including the Bible, Greek, Roman, Arab-Muslim, Ottoman, Christian Europe, 19th Century Enlightenment, Zionism, the State of Israel, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, post Shoah, modern Diaspora, and Israel. We are instructed that every Jew must see him/hers/themselves as if each of us personally went free from Egypt and from our individual “constricted places.” Consequently, when we sit down at the Seder table, if we are sensitive to the history and subtleties of the Seder and the context of the different customs, when and why they were introduced, Jews of every age join us and we link ourselves with them across time and place.

31. The Messiah and Next Year in Jerusalem – The hope of the Jewish people is for a world redeemed of its pain and at peace. The coming of the Messiah symbolizes that dream, and our people’s historic yearning for Jerusalem is a sign of the end of days. Freedom, therefore, involves not only freedom from oppression by dictators, but spiritual freedom from enslavements of our own making. Traditionally, at the conclusion of the Seder all say together לשנה הבאה בירושליםL’shanah ha-ba-ah biY’rushalayim Next year in Jerusalem. A new Israeli Reform Hagadah changes the final ending to: לשנה הבאה של שלוםL’shanah ha-ba-ah shel Shalom May the next year be one of Peace.

32. Contemporary Traditions and Suggestions to Add Depth and Meaning to your Seder:

  1. Include an orange on the Seder plate – an idea introduced by Dr. Susanna Heschel (b. 1956). She asked everyone to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit (Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam borei p’ree ha-eitz) and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish LGBTQ individuals and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community, including widows, in particular. This tradition was changed, as Dr. Heschel explains, by homophobic men and/or women, who felt they could not celebrate and include homosexuals at their Seders. Instead, someone came up with the statement that in response to women becoming rabbis: “That is as appropriate as having an orange on a Seder plate.”
  2. Include Olives on the Seder Plate – olives are grown plentifully in the land of Israel and placing olives on our Seder plates connects us with Israelis and our people living in our historic Homeland.
  3. Place a Kos Miryam – כוס מרים next to the כוס אליהוKos Eliyahu – In honor of the matriarch Miriam and older sister of Moses we remember the role women played in the Exodus story and throughout Jewish history by having a glass of water next to the Cup of Elijah. This tradition reminds us of Miriam’s Well believed (in the Midrash) to have sustained the people throughout the period of wandering until Miriam’s death when the wells dried up (Numbers 20:1-2).
  4. Introduce Poetry – Ask members of your family/friends to bring poetry on the themes of freedom, change, redemption, and salvation, and intersperse this poetry (original or from established poets) throughout the Seder.
  5. Invite Personal Testimonies – Ask individuals to share transitional experiences from this past year that enabled them to escape from constricted places – מצריים – of their own making. Ask participants to bring a concrete item that represents a liberating experience from the last year and share throughout the Seder.
  6. Invite Personal Memories – Ask individuals to share the most meaningful Seder they ever attended and why it was so meaningful and transformative.

Notes on the Number “32” – I deliberately stopped at 32 items. The Hebrew for 32 is Lamed-Bet לב and spells lev (meaning “heart”). Number symbolism in Judaism is a long-standing tradition and is found in the Talmudic literature. The mystical tradition of Kabbalah teaches that there are 32 pathways to the heart. 22 is the number of letters in the Hebrew aleph-bet – א-ב. The Hebrew aleph-bet are regarded as the building blocks of creation – we are the people of “The Book” and words are holy. 10 represents the 10 Words (or commandments) – 22 + 10 = 32 (Lev).

May this Passover season be one of liberation for the Israeli hostages languishing in Gaza, and may there be rejoicing, rebirth, and renewal for you and your dear ones. May our people in the State of Israel and around the world experience peace with security in the coming year. We hope for the security and peace for the innocent among the Palestinians caught up in the Hamas-Israel War, and for those living in Ukraine, Africa, Latin America, and every place where violence threatens life and well-being, especially of the innocent.

חג פסח שמח

Happy Pesach