How Passover Works

The Seder: Setting the Stage

Haggadah, Seder, Miami Beach Haggadah, Seder, Miami Beach
Guests follow along in their copies of the Haggadah at a community Passover Seder at Beth Israel synagogue, Miami Beach, Florida. Rabbi Efraim Katz (2nd R) leads the Seder . Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Hebrew word Seder means "order," reflecting the very structured nature of the meal. The structure helps to establish the Seder as something special, far from the typical family dinner [source: Judaism 101]. Before the Seder even begins, symbols and order dominate. Candles are lit to usher in the holiday. A special "Seder plate" (k'arah) sits on the table, displaying six symbolic foods:

  • maror, a bitter herb such as horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery
  • chazeret, another bitter vegetable such as romaine lettuce, also to symbolize the bitterness of slavery (some people do not include this one on the plate)
  • beitzah, a hard-boiled egg, for the ancient practice of sacrificing an animal before a holiday
  • karpas, a green vegetable such as parsley, to be dipped in salt water, for the hope of new birth and growth mixed with the tears from remembering death
  • haroset, a mixture of fruits, wine or honey and nuts, for the mortar the slaves used when forced to build
  • z'roa, a shank bone (frequently lamb), for the animal sacrifice that allowed the Jews to mark their homes before the 10th Plague [source: Judaica Guide, Jacobs].

Underneath or beside the Seder plate, there are three pieces of matzo, typically wrapped in a napkin. These pieces are set aside to be used at prescribed times during the Seder. In many homes, the middle piece will become something exciting (at least for the kids). But not until the 12th step in the "order."

Of the Seder's 15 steps, eating the actual meal is one of the last, which can make for some very hungry adults and some very restless children. But purposeful involvement of everyone at the table aims to address that.

Each person has a copy of the Haggadah, the text of the Passover Seder. Anyone can lead the meal -- in some homes, it is the oldest family member, in others the person hosting the meal, and in others the attendees simply vote, or volunteer, or rotate every year.

The traditional meal unfolds in 15 steps.