The Meaning of the Seder (Part 1)

From the first cup of wine to the breaking of the matzah

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Kiddush: Blessing Over Wine

The Kiddushsanctifies not the wine, but the holiday. Pesach is dedicated "to remember the Day of your Exodus from Egypt" (Ex. 13:3). [On Shabbat remember to insert the additional words in your Haggadah.] 

Offer to pour the wine or grape juice into someone else's cup. In turn each one is served by another as befits royalty. Having attained the high status of freedom, we celebrate it in style, preferably with red wine, because the rabbis considered it more elegant.

Stand to recite the Kiddush, then reclineto the left to drink the wine as befits nobles who once reclined at symposia (intellectual drinking banquets). If there are no pillows on the chairs, ask the children to bring as many as possible.

The Four Cups and the Four Verbs: The rabbis identified each cup of wine with the fourfold promise of redemption: "God spoke to Moshe [Moses]: Tell the children of Israel: I will bring you out… I will rescue you… I will redeem you… I will take you for me as a people and I will be for you as a God…" (Exodus 6:2-7).

seder plate with haggadah and matzah cover

Photo: Flickr - Michael Ignatieff

Urhatz: Washing Hands

Jewish law requires the ritual washing of the hands before eating bread. This washing before bread is accompanied by a blessing [whereas this first washing of hands at the seder has no blessing attached to it]. But why do we wash before eating the green vegetable, and why in this case is no blessing recited?

Fruits or vegetables dipped in water can acquire ritual impurity (Leviticus 11:34). Washing before eating vegetables that have come into contact with water is a holdover from Talmudic times. In that period, many rabbis attempted to eat all their foods in a state of ritual purity--trying to experience in their daily eating the sense of sacredness associated with the Temple. To emphasize that this is only a pious custom, and not even a rabbinic requirement, no blessing is recited.

Except for the seder night, the custom has fallen into general disuse, even among the strictly observant. But on seder night we wash at the beginning of the evening to create the spirit of a sacred gathering conducted in purity and devotion.

The Many Meanings of Karpas (Spring Vegetable)

Spring Greens: Metaphorically, karpas, the spring vegetable, represents both the historic birth of Israel born out of the womb of Egypt in the Exodus and the rebirth of nature renewed each spring. According to Philo and to Rabbi Joshua, the original birthday of nature--the Creation--occurred at Pesach-time, not Rosh Hashanah. Similarly, the Italian name for spring, primavera, and the French printemps preserve the sense of the return to the original "first time" of the world. Spring (old English) is originally applied to the place of origin from which a stream arises. Later it was applied to the season, the "spring of the year."

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Noam Zion

Noam Zion is the Director of Shalom Hartman Institute's Resource Center for Jewish Continuity. He specializes in teaching Jewish Holidays, Bible and Art, and has edited several educational books for the Shalom Hartman Institute.

David Dishon

David Dishon has been with the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978 and founded their Torani High School for Boys, where he currently teaches.