A Short Practical Guide to the Seder

  • Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon

A Short practical Guide to the Seder

 

By Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon

Translated by David Strauss

 

THe four cups of wine

 

            The four cups of wine were enacted to attain two goals: a) in order to publicize the miracle of the exodus from Egypt in a way that symbolizes freedom; b) to recite the Haggada to the accompaniment of cups of wine. The cup used must contain at least a revi'it (86 milliliters; the more meticulous insist on a cup containing 150 milliliters, especially for the first cup). Ideally, one should drink the entire cup, or a least the majority of the cup. The wine must be drunk while reclining on the left side.

 

            It is preferable to use wine, but if a person does not like wine, or if it causes him a headache or drowsiness, he may drink grape juice.

 

            According to the Ashkenazi custom, a blessing is recited over each of the four cups. Sefardim recite a blessing only over the first and third cups.

 

One should hold the cup in his hand and recite the blessing with joy and gratitude to God for the miracles that He performed for us. He should have in mind to fulfill the mitzva of drinking the four cups of wine (and with the first cup, also the mitzva of Kiddush). When he recites the "shehecheyanu" blessing, he should also have in mind the other mitzvot that will be performed that night.

 

U-rechatz (washing the hands)

 

            One should wash his hands (in the ordinary manner, with a utensil and a revi'it of water) without reciting a blessing, because one will immediately afterwards eat a vegetable that had been dipped in a liquid. Ideally, all of the participants at the seder should wash their hands. When there are many guests and it is difficult for them all to wash, there is room to be lenient so that only the seder leader washes his hands. If by mistake a person recited a blessing over the washing, he should be careful to eat at least an olive-sized portion of karpas.

 

Karpas – A vegetable appetizer

 

            One takes any vegetable (some are accustomed to use parsley or celery; many are accustomed to use a potato or some other vegetable), and dips it into salt water. One recites the "bore peri ha-adama" blessing, and eats the karpas.

 

            The authorities disagree whether or not the karpas must be eaten while reclining, and many are accustomed to do so, but in any case it is not indispensible.

 

            It is customary to eat less than the volume of an olive (a piece that is smaller than the size of an ordinary matchbox), so as not to enter into a situation of doubt whether or not to recite a blessing after the eating. If one ate more than the volume of an olive, one should not recite a blessing after the eating. Some are accustomed to eat more than the size of an olive; if one wishes to follow this custom, one may do so, especially if one is hungry and it will be otherwise difficult for him to focus on the Haggada.

 

Yachatz - Breaking the matza

 

            The middle matza on the seder plate is broken into two pieces. The larger piece is put aside for the afikoman, and the smaller piece is put between the two whole matzot, and the Haggada is recited over it, with the intention of reciting the Haggada over “bread that is fit for a poor person,” who is accustomed to eat his bread broken and not whole.

 

Maggid – the Haggada

 

            One of the central duties at the seder is telling the story of the exodus from Egypt. Telling the story of the exodus is a mitzva from the Torah. One is obligated to relate the story slowly and in detail, and to include both our suffering at the hand of the Egyptians ("We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt") and our rescue at the hand of God ("And the Lord, our God, took us out from there"). Telling the story of the exodus from Egypt is meant to bring the entire family to offer thanks and praise to God, who performed these miracles for our forefathers and for us.

 

            One must try to personally experience the exodus from Egypt, to feel as if he himself has just left Egypt, to be a free man who is subservient only to God, and not to any external bondage.

 

            The Haggada should be recited slowly, happily and respectfully, with awe before God and immense gratitude to Him.

 

            One must encourage one's children - through questions and other means of stimulation – to participate in what is going on around them, and thus turn them into a part of the story of the exodus.

 

Rochtza ­– washing before the meal

 

            After completing the first part of the Haggada, one must wash one’s hands and recite a blessing. There is a widespread custom that the head of the house has someone else wash his hands, as a symbol of freedom (Vayaged Moshe 23, 3).

 

Motzi Matza – Eating the matza

 

            The mitzva to eat matza is a Torah commandment even in our time. One should eat the matza with joy and while reclining, and have in mind to fulfill the positive precept of eating matza. The amount of matza that must be eaten (for the first two olive-sized portions) is three quarters of a machine matza (if this is difficult, there is room to be lenient and eat half a matza).

 

            The matza that is eaten for the mitzva should be matza shemura (guarded matza). It is commendable to eat an olive-sized portion of hand-made shemura matza.

 

Ideally, one should eat his portion of matza within four minutes. It is not necessary to time it, but one should eat it in a normal yet quick-paced manner, without talking or occupying oneself with other matters until one finishes eating the required amount.

 

One should take hold of the three matzot (with the broken one in the middle), and recite the "ha-motzi" blessing. One should then release the lower matza, and recite the "al akhilat matza" blessing. One should then take an olive-sized portion of the whole matza and an olive-sized portion of the broken one, and eat them both in a reclining position.

 

The seder leader should give out an olive-sized portion of matza to each of the participants, or he should give out a small piece and each person will complete the olive-sized portion on his own (or other people should have three matzot before them).

 

Maror – the bitter herbs

 

            The mitzva to eat maror was a Torah commandment when the Paschal sacrifice was eaten. Today, it is only a Rabbinic obligation. The maror of choice is Romaine lettuce. One should be careful that the lettuce is free of bugs. One eats an olive-sized portion of maror without reclining (eating in an ordinary but non-interrupted manner). One recites the blessing over the maror, having in mind both the maror that is eaten separately as well as the maror that will be eaten together with the matza. The maror is dipped into the charoset, which is then shaken off.

 

Korekh – the Sandwich

 

            After eating the matza separately and the maror separately (thus fulfilling one's obligation according to the Sages), one eats matza and maror together, in keeping with the custom instituted by Hillel, who would eat them in this manner during the time of the Temple.

 

            One takes an olive-sized piece of matza (half of a machine matza, and if necessary a third of a matza suffices) from the third matza (the lower matza which has not yet been used for any mitzva), and then breaks it into two, and puts a piece of lettuce between them (a small to medium piece, 28 cubic centimeters, or even 19 or 17 cubic centimeters when necessary). [The reason we use half a machine matza here and three quarters earlier is because eating the earlier matza fulfills a biblical commandment, and here we are recalling Hillel’s custom.] Before placing the lettuce between the two pieces of matza, one dips it into charoset. Some are accustomed to shake off the charoset; others are accustomed to leave it.

 

            Before eating the matza and maror, it is customary to recite: "Thus did Hillel do at the time of the Temple" (some recite this after the eating, based on the Bi'ur Halakha, but the common practice is to recite it before the eating).

 

            The "sandwich" should be eaten without interruption and while reclining (if one did not recline, one has nevertheless fulfilled one’s obligation), and ideally one should not speak (talk that is unrelated to the meal) from the time one recites the "ha-motzi" blessing until after one finishes eating the "sandwich."

 

Shulchan Orekh – The meal

 

            The meal is eaten in a spirit of sincere gratitude. It is eaten in the middle of Hallel, and it is like a meal of thanksgiving. One should take care that this is the tone of the meal – a meal marked by sanctity, Torah discussions and telling the story of the exodus from Egypt. In this meal one should not eat roasted meat, but one is permitted to eat meat that was prepared in the oven with gravy. Many have the custom to begin the meal with eggs (and many dip them into salt-water), as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple (eggs are a sign of mourning) or as a reminder of the Chagiga offering in the Temple. One should not overeat, so as not to feel aversion to eating the afikoman.

 

Tzafun – eating the Afikoman

 

            At the end of the meal, one eats the matza that had been set aside for the afikoman, while reclining. Ideally, this matza should also be matza shemura. If possible, one should eat an olive-sized portion, and those who are meticulous eat two olive-sized portions (one as a reminder of the Paschal sacrifice and the other as a reminder of the matza that was eaten along with that offering). Therefore, if possible, one should eat three quarters of a machine matza (about 50 cubic centimeters), but if this is difficult, one can eat half a matza (30 cubic centimeters) or even a third of a matza (about 19 cubic centimeters.

 

            One should try to eat the afikoman by halakhic midnight.

 

            One should not eat anything after the afikoman, but one may drink water or other light (non-alcoholic) beverages, such as weak tea or coffee, so as not to counteract the taste of the matza.

 

Barekh – Grace after the Meal

 

            Each of the participants pours a cup of wine for Birkat ha-Mazon, which is the third cup. The one who recites the zimmun raises his cup (the others need not do so, though there is a custom that the others grasp their cups without raising them). It is customary that at the seder the head of the household recites the zimmun (but if he wishes to honor someone else, he may do so). It is preferable that there be three people at this meal and for zimmun, so that Hallel can be recited afterwards in the best possible manner (one person saying "Hodu," and the other two responding to him). It is customary that at the seder someone else fills the cup of the person reciting the zimmun, as a symbol of freedom. One does not recline while reciting Birkat ha-Mazon. Birkat ha-Mazon should be recited with joy and gratitude to God for all the good that He has bestowed upon us.

 

Hallel

 

Two chapters of Hallel were already recited before the meal. Now we continue to say Hallel (without a blessing). Hallel is a central component of the evening, to thank and praise God for all the miracles that He performed for us. The sections of "Hodu" and "Ana" are recited responsively, one person saying: "Hodu," and the others answering in kind, and similarly with the other verses (as is the practice with the Hallel recited in the synagogue). It is recommended that these verses be sung.

 

Reclining

 

            Reclining on the night of the seder symbolizes freedom, the freedom gained upon our exodus from Egypt. The objective of this freedom is that we should remember that a man is free when he makes himself subservient to God. One must recline to the left when eating matza, drinking the four cups, and eating the afikoman. It is recommended that one use a pillow for added comfort and to enable one to recline in the manner of freedom. If there is no pillow, one can recline on one's left side or on another person. One should also recline for korekh, but not when eating maror, because maror symbolizes bondage and not freedom. (For karpas, one is permitted to recline, but one need not do so.) If one did not recline, one must repeat the first eating of matza, the drinking of the second cup (and Sefardim must repeat all four cups) and the eating of the afikoman (if this is not too difficult, and one remembered before Birkat ha-Mazon). Ashkenazi women are not obligated to recline, but they are permitted to do so (and it is praiseworthy if they do). Sefardi women are accustomed to recline.