This week, Jewish people worldwide are celebrating Passover. Though the celebration continues for a whole week, the holiday’s most important meal — the Passover seder — generally falls on the first night. Filled with storytelling, ritual foods and lots of wine, the seder dinner can be both mysterious to goys (non- Jews) and enthralling for all who secure an invite.
While most Passover seders came and went April 14, leaving a washed up tide of Manischewitz headaches and matzah dust in their wake, the Passover holiday continues through Tuesday, April 22.
If you’re curious about all those grocery store displays of powdered potato pancakes and gefilte fish, or just want to bone up on Jewish history and food traditions so you can get yourself invited to a Passover seder next year, we’ve compiled the go-to guide for gentiles.
A short history:
At its heart, the Passover holiday, or Pesach, celebrates the Israelites’ freedom from Egyptian slavery.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Exodus tale, here the cliff notes: Thousands of years ago, the Israelites were enslaved under the Egyptians. Moses came along and told Pharaoh to “let my people go.” Pharaoh declined like a jerk so God inflicted 10 plagues on the Egyptians — frogs, lice, flies, boils, etc. and, ultimately, the death of all first-born children. God instructed all Israelites to mark their doors with slaughtered sheep’s blood so the angel of death would “pass over.” When Pharaoh finally caved and freed the Israelites, they booked it out of Egypt so fast that their bread didn’t even have time to rise. Which brings us to matzah.
Passover employs a number of symbolic foodstuffs to recount the wretchedness of slavery (matzah) and the joyfulness of freedom (wine). To remember the hasty way in which they fled Egypt, Jews are commanded to rid their houses of all leavened bread products made from barley, wheat, oats, spelt or rye. During Passover, they’re not allowed to consume any of these delicious grains (or beer!) except for matzah — a cardboard-y cracker produced in under 18 minutes.
“For this Passover holiday, anything that’s a grain product or has the capacity to rise in Hebrew is known as chametz,” explains Rabbi Marc Soloway of Boulder’s Congregation Bonai Shalom. “But not only are we forbidden from eating any of it, we’re not supposed to have any in our homes or even own any of it for the seven or eight days of Passover.”
While some Jews will draw up a contract and sell their chametz to a non-Jewish friend for the duration of the holiday, others use it as motivation for physical and spiritual spring cleaning.
“It has become, symbolically, a sort of internal, spiritual idea,” says Soloway. “What is leaven? It’s something that puffs us up so it’s connected to excessive pride or arrogance. … So there’s a very deep spring cleaning process where we clean our physical environment, but for many people it’s mirrored by an internal spiritual process where we kind of clean up the leavened substances within ourselves.”
The seder is a wine-soaked ceremonial dinner that’s hosted on the first and/or second evening of Passover. Filled with reading, singing, wine, reclining, more wine and lots of ritual foods, the seder is like a scripted, all-night dinner party.
In Hebrew, the word “seder” means “order,” which takes the form of the Haggadah, a Jewish text that recounts the Exodus tale for the seder table. There are countless versions of the Haggadah that range from super traditional Hebrew texts to the New American Haggadah, edited by hipster icon Jonathan Safran Foer.
Jewish dating site JDate even made its own cheeky Haggadah, which begins with, “A long, long time ago, in a desert far, far away, there was a land where the people worshipped cats and men wore eyeliner. No, this wasn’t the Internet; it was the land of Egypt.”
The Seder plate:
While reading the Haggadah, seder guests are instructed to eat various ritual foods from the seder plate — a dish with Hebrew inscriptions and six round craters that looks sort of like a vintage deviled egg platter. It contains:
-Zeroa: a roasted bone or beet that represents the lamb sacrifice in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
-Beitzah: A hard-boiled egg that represents the circle of life.
-Maror: Bitter herbs, usually fresh horseradish, which represents the bitterness of enslavement.
-Chazeret: More bitterness, this time in the form of romaine lettuce or endive.
-Charoset: A chutney of chopped fruits, nuts and spices that represents the mortar slaves used when erecting buildings for the Egyptians.
-Karpas: Usually parsley, but can be any spring vegetable, which is dipped in salt water and symbolizes the tears of the slaves.
A seventh symbolic item, a stack of matzos, gets its own plate on the table. In recent years, a number of families have also started adorning their seder table with less traditional symbolic foods.
“There was a rabbi who famously said, in referring to whether women can be rabbis, ‘A woman is as welcome on the bimah as an orange on a seder plate,’” explains Soloway. “[The orange] became a symbol for feminists but also some people are now extending it to be an inclusion symbol for the LGBT community. A symbol to say, just because it’s not a traditional food, who we are as a people evolved and we have a responsibility to be more inclusive in that way.”
Red, red wine:
Throughout the meal, seder guests are also commanded to drink four glasses of wine or grape juice. Though it can technically be any kind of kosher wine, it often takes the form of a sweet red wine, like Manischewitz.
“Wine is a very powerful substance that has this very ritual quality to it that can help elevate and transform mundane into holy,” explains Soloway. “The four cups of wine, traditionally, that’s considered so important that even if you’re really poor and you have to take charity from others, there’s this idea that you must still try to drink four cups of wine over the course of the Seder, because in a sense the Seder is symbolizing this feast where we really demonstrate our freedom.”
Since children come of age at 13 in the Jewish tradition, seders are, unsurprisingly, the first time most Jewish teenagers get hammered (along with whatever friend they brought to dinner that night).
In case a bottle of wine and some bitter herbs don’t sound like a satisfying dinner, the Passover seder also includes a full meal. Items served at this part of the evening tend to be more cultural versus ritual, so they vary widely by family and region.
“Brisket is a very common seder meal and chicken is a common seder meal — people will have chicken matzo ball soup to start,” says Soloway, who grew up in London eating salmon during the seder.
Other popular seder dishes include gefilte fish — chilled ground fish dumplings bound with eggs, matzo meal or potato starch — roasted veggies, sweet potato kugel and even quinoa.
“I think quinoa has been an interesting addition, because even though there are some people who say it’s not kosher for Passover, I think most people say it is because it’s not technically a grain and it’s a great source of protein, especially if you’re a vegetarian,” says Soloway. “So I think a lot of people are serving quinoa at their seders these days.”
Before the Passover seder is finished, a piece of matzah from the table is broken in half, wrapped up and hidden for the children to find. The one who finds the Afikoman gets a prize and everyone ends the meal by eating a final piece of matzah.
“In Hebrew, that section of the seder is known as ‘Tzafun,’ which means ‘hidden.’ So mystically, it’s this idea that there’s more hidden than revealed in the world,” says Soloway.
Food as intergenerational dialogue:
Ultimately, Passover is a way to pass down Jewish history from generation to generation. And food — whether it’s bitter herbs dipped in salt water, unleavened bread or juicy brisket — helps to enrich that narrative.
“It’s not just telling, passively, a story in history, it’s about putting ourselves into the story and seeing ourselves as part of the story and retelling that story in a very engaged and lively way,” says Soloway.