The Seder Structure and Experience

An overview of preparing for the seder and the elements of a traditional seder.

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At the end of the meal the afikoman is "found," surrendered, and eaten, and grace after meals is recited over the third cup of wine. The Hallel (Psalms 113-18) and other hymns of thanksgiving are recited over the fourth cup of wine.

Before the recital of the Hallel, a cup is filled for the prophet Elijah, the herald of the Messiah, who, legend states, visits every Jewish home on this night. The door of the house is opened to let Elijah in and the children watch eagerly to see if they can notice any diminution in Elijah's cup, as the prophet quickly sips the wine and speeds on his way to visit all the other homes. From medieval times it was the custom to recite at this stage of the proceedings a number of imprecations against those who oppressed the Jews and laid waste the Temple. Many Jews no longer recite these imprecations, substituting for them a prayer for peace and freedom for all mankind. Some sing in English the famous spiritual, "Let My People Go."

The seder concludes with the cheerful singing of table songs, ending with "Had Gadya," the tale of the kid, the cat, and the dog. Some pious Jews recite the Song of Songs after the seder before retiring to bed.

Including Everyone

Practically all Jews with any association with Jewish life have a seder, but not necessarily in the home. It is now the practice in many synagogues and in many Jewish hotels to have a communal seder, but many feel that the full flavor of the seder can only be tasted when it is a home celebration. It is the custom, however, to invite guests to the seder, especially those who would not otherwise have one. Some invite non-Jewish guests and this custom is attested to in the writings of the 18th-century Rabbi Jacob Emden.

The rabbinic authorities advise that the meaning of the rituals of the seder and the Haggadah as a whole should be explained in the vernacular for the benefit of participants unfamiliar with Hebrew. Fuller descriptions of the seder are to be found in the numerous editions of the Passover Haggadah. [The necessity of explaining the seder's meaning in vernacular is dictated by the commandment of getting everybody spiritually and physically involved in the seder experience.]

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.