The Passover Seder: Practical Halacha

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17 Feb 2015


It is praiseworthy to tell the story of Passover even if you know all the details and interpretations (as did the great rabbis of the Talmud), because of the principle of “in order to remember” (lema’an tizkor): that we should remember everything God did for us when taking us out of Egypt.

The Three Discussion Points

The most important part of the seder is discussing:

These three segments should be read from the Passover hagada in the Hebrew. If anyone does not understand the Hebrew, these paragraphs and the concepts they express must be explained in whatever language he or she can understand.

Children at the Seder

Children are an integral part of the seder. We try to get children to ask questions and then we teach them the answers. The Torah says to do this!

Acknowledging God’s Miracles

We acknowledge God’s miracles in sending the plagues against the Egyptians and their gods and in taking the Children of Israel out of slavery and Egypt.

Telling Our History

We tell our history beginning with Jacob (Yaakov) and Laban (Lavan) and on to slavery and, finally, to achieving freedom.


Every male (13 years old and above) at the seder is required by halacha to lean to the left side while:

Ideally, lean onto something to your left, such as a chair or couch. A pillow is nice but optional.

Note: Women and girls are not required to lean at any time during the meal.


Here are some seder customs:

  1. Have someone else pour the water over your hands for washing before karpas.
  2. Have someone else pour your wine for you.

Seder Plate

Seder plate consists of five foods:

Shank Bone

Shank bone, meat, or a neck represents the Passover lamb offering.

Note: Any part of any kosher animal or bird may be used for this purpose except liver. You may even use roasted lamb, but you may not eat it.


Egg represents the holiday offering (chagiga).

Bitter Herbs

Bitter herbs (maror), such as romaine, horseradish, or endive, represent the bitterness of slavery.


Charoset (sweet mixture of nuts and fruits) reminds us of the mortar the Jews used to build the Egyptian storage cities.


Vegetable such as parsley or potato (karpas). The vegetable does not represent anything and is there to motivate the children to ask questions.

Three Matzas

The seder table also has a stack of three matzas (matzot), representing, among other meanings:

* Cohen-Levi-Yisrael: The three divisions of Jews

* Abraham-Isaac-Jacob: The three forefathers

These matzot are used later in the seder for the steps of Motzi and Matza (top and middle matzas); the middle matza becomes the “Afikoman.”

Seder: Steps

Kadeish: Making Kiddush

Passover, like all Jewish festivals, is differentiated from weekdays by saying kiddush.

At the Passover seder, all Jews above the age of bar mitzva or bat mitzva (including women–unlike on other Jewish festivals) must drink wine for kiddush and for the other three times in the seder when the borei pri ha’gafen blessing is said.

Note: On the other Jewish festivals, only one person needs to drink the wine when kiddush is said, and that will cover and fulfill everyone else’s requirement for that kiddush.

Note: Only children and people who will get sick if they drink alcohol are permitted to drink grape juice at seder.

You may dilute the seder wine to a minimum of 4% alcohol.

If you have equally good red wine and white wine, the red is preferred for the four cups at the seder. If your white wine is better or if you prefer white wine, use that.

You may drink more wine between the first and second cups, between the second and third cups, but not between the third and fourth cups.

Four Cups, Four Roles

Each of the four cups has a different role:

Four Cups, Four Expressions

The four cups of wine relate to the four expressions God used when telling what he would do to bring the Israelites out of Egypt:

Fifth Cup

The fifth cup of wine at seder, for Eliyahu (Elijah) the prophet, symbolizes v’heiveiti–“I will bring them.”

Reason: In the future, everyone will drink five cups of seder wine. (Some say the term v’heiveiti is not part of the redemption and some say it is a stage that has not happened yet.)

The cup of Eliyahu (which is not intended to be drunk by Eliyahu) should be used for kiddush the next morning. Various customs dictate when to fill Eliyahu’s cup; it may be filled anytime from the beginning of the seder.

How Much To Fill and Drink

Minimum wine to fulfill the seder mitzva:

For each blessing on the wine, you must drink at least 2 fl. oz. (59 ml) within 30 seconds of when you begin to drink each cup.

The seder is the only time in the year that you must drink most of your cup (rov kos) of kiddush wine. (For kiddush on Shabbat and Jewish festivals, you need drink only 2 fl. oz., or 59 ml). So if you have a cup larger than 4 fl. oz. (119 ml), you may have to drink a lot of wine–more than half of each cup for four cups!

Note: You may drink other liquids between the first and second cups of wine at the seder, but it is not recommended.

Leaning To Left

Every male at the seder is required to lean to the left side while drinking each cup of wine.

U’rchatz: Wash Hands (No blessing)

Wash hands from a cup of water but do not say a blessing on washing.

Reason: We are about to eat food that is wet and Jews may not eat wet food if their hands have spiritual impurity (tum’a).

Karpas: Eat the Vegetable

Dip the karpas in the salt water and say the blessing borei pri ha’adama; keep in mind that this blessing will also apply to the bitter herbs you will eat later in the seder.

Eating any amount of karpas fulfills the mitzva of eating karpas at seder, but you may not eat more than 0.6 fl. oz. (17 ml, or 1/12 cup).

Yachatz: Break the Matza

Break the middle of the three matzas and hide the larger part.

Reason: As with most of the actions we do at the seder, this is to evoke curiosity in children. It also represents the idea that poor people can’t afford a whole loaf of bread or might save some food for the next day.

Magid: Tell the Story

The Four Questions are actually only one question and that question is:

Why is this night different from all other nights?

The teachers in Bnai Brak were so engrossed in telling the Passover story that they did not notice that it was after sunrise.

Reason: They may have been in a windowless room since they were risking their lives by celebrating Passover, against Roman law.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya says he is “like 70 years old” because even though he was only 18 years old, his hair turned white overnight as if God approved his appointment as Sanhedrin head.

Only three of the Four Sons’ questions are mentioned in the Torah (which all related to the Passover sacrifice), since the fourth (smallest) child cannot ask questions. Regarding this child, the hagada says, “Aht p’tach lo” (in the feminine).

Reason: The mother is supposed to be a child’s primary teacher while the child is young.

There is a difference in attitude between the wise son and the evil son: The wise son says “Eloheinu” (OUR God); he is asking a question and seeking and answer. The evil son makes a statement (sort of a rhetorical question), instead of asking a question for which he seeks an answer. Yet, regardless of the sons’ level of observance, it is a commandment to teach them about going out of Egypt.

God told Avraham (Abraham) that his children would be living in “lands not their own” and would be enslaved for 400 years, yet the Torah states that the Israelites were in Egypt for 210 years. So we say God “calculated the end” (chisheiv et ha’keitz) of the enslavement: He started the counting from the birth of Avraham’s son, Yitzchak (Isaac), until the Exodus (a total of 400 years), as follows:

Time from Birth of Avraham’s Son to Going Down to Egypt

Yaakov (Jacob) was born when Yitzchak was 60 years old.

Yaakov told Par’o (Pharaoh) (when he and the rest of his family entered Egypt) that he was 130 years old.

60 + 130= 190 years before going down to Egypt

Time in Egypt

210 years in Egypt

Time from Birth of Avraham’s Son to Exodus

190 Before going down to Egypt

+ 210 In Egypt

= 400 years from Yitzchak’s birth to the Exodus.

Note: Yitzchak and Yaakov did not yet “own” Eretz Yisrael. Since the Israelites were not given Eretz Yisrael until after the Exodus, Avraham’s offspring were living in “lands not their own” for 400 years.

When we lift up our wine cups at v’hi she’amda and at lefichach, we cover the matza.

Reason: So the matza won’t feel “embarrassed,” since bread/matza is more important than wine.

Hava nitchakma (let us deal cleverly) was an attempt at a clever way to keep the Israelites as slaves.

Reason: The Egyptians were afraid the Israelites might join the Egyptians’ enemies in a war.

Each of the plagues was against one of the Egyptian gods, to show that they were actually powerless.

We spill 10 drops of wine when reading the list of plagues.

Reason: Wine symbolizes happiness and so we drink less wine to show that we are sad that the Egyptians suffered.

In “the plague of the first-borns” (makat bechorot), did the first-borns suffer by dying or did their families suffer more?

In Rabbi Yehuda’s abbreviations of the ten plagues, d’tzach-adash-b’achav, the abbreviation ends with the Hebrew letter “vet” for bechorot (first-borns), implying that it was the families who suffered, since if it ended with a “mem” for makat bechorot, it would have been the first-borns who suffered.

In dayenu, we say that at each level of what God did for us, it would have been enough. Since we didn’t get the Torah until one of the last stages, this seems incorrect, since of what value is money, wandering in the desert, and all of the other details if we don’t have the Torah?

The answer is that we need to be grateful to God for each miracle that we received, and that at each stage, we owe praise and thanks to God.

Also, in one sense, we already had the Torah (in some version, even though not in the form in which Moses/Moshe wrote it later).

Pesach, matza, and maror should be read and explained with special attention.

Reason: They are the main parts of the seder and of the commandment to have a seder.

Question: Why didn’t the Israelites bake bread (the Torah says that they did not have time for the dough to rise)? They knew 14 days ahead of time (on Rosh Chodesh Nisan) that they would be leaving, and they knew it would be middle of night (since God said that is when they would leave).

Answer: The Israelites did not do anything to prepare, except what God told them to do: the Passover offering and putting blood on their doorposts.

Rachtza: Wash Hands (With a blessing)

To wash hands for rachtza:

Fill the washing cup with at least 3.3 fl. oz. (99 ml) of water.

Pour enough water (may be as little as 1.3 fl. oz.–39 ml, or 1/6 cup) from the washing cup to completely cover your entire first hand (either hand may be first, but it is the custom to wash your right hand first).

Pour enough water to completely cover the second hand.

You do not need to pour more than once per hand and you do not need to break up the revi’it into more than one pour for each hand.

Say the blessing on washing hands, ending in al netilat yadayim.

Motzi Matza: Bless on/Eat Matza

Matza represents:

* Food of poor people, and

* The unleavened bread that the Israelites ate when leaving Egypt.

Note: A pun reflects this dual meaning of poor bread plus the story of leaving Egypt, since “lechem oni” may mean “bread of poor people” or “bread of (many) answers.”

Matza: What Kind

The only time you must use shmura matza is for the four commandments of motzi, matza, koreich, and afikoman.

Note: You may use any other kosher for Passover matza, even for the rest of seder. There is no need for using shmura matza for the other days of Passover.

Hand shmura matza has some advantage in that it was made with the intention of being for a mitzva, but machine shmura matza has the advantage of being less likely to become chametz since it is automated and not touched by human hands.

Matza: How Much

Motzi, Matza

For motzi and matza together, you must eat at least 1.9 fl. oz. (56 ml) of matza within a 4-minute period from when you begin eating.


For afikoman, you must eat another 1.9 fl. oz of matza; b’di’avad, at least 1.3 fl. oz. (39 ml, or 1/6 cup) is sufficient.

Note: This amount is about 1/2 of a machine shmura matza, or 1/3 of a hand shmura matza.

Note: If your mouth is too dry to eat that quickly, you may drink water with the matza.

Motzi/Matza: Blessings

We say two blessings over the matza: ha’motzi lechem min ha’aretz and al achilat matza.

Reason: The blessing on motzi is one of enjoyment (nehenin); the blessing on matza is a blessing on a commandment (mitzva).

The seder leader says the blessing “ha’motzi” while holding the three (which are now 2 1/2) shmura matzas, drops the bottom one, and says the next blessing, al achilat matza. Everyone takes a small piece from the two top matzas and eats it, along with enough additional shmura matza to fulfill the minimum requirement.

Maror: Eat Bitter Vegetable

The ideal bitter vegetable for maror at the Passover seder is horseradish. Horseradish for maror:

Note: Many people have the custom to use romaine lettuce for maror (be careful to check for bugs on the romaine).

The minimum amount to fulfill the mitzva of eating maror at seder is 0.65 fl. oz. (19 ml), or about the volume of 1/3 of an egg.

Note: If you choose to use romaine instead of horseradish for maror, the minimum amount is about 2-3 stems (depending on their size), or enough leaves if crushed to make up 0.65 fl. oz.

Note: It is even better to eat at least 1.3 fl. oz. (39 ml, or 1/6 cup).

Say the blessing “al achilat maror.”

Dip the maror into the charoset and shake off all but a little bit of the charoset.

Do not lean when eating the maror.

Note: The blessing for maror was included in the borei pri ha’adama blessing, which was said on the karpas earlier in the seder.

Korech: Eat the Sandwich

You need eat only 0.95 fl. oz. (28 ml) of matza within four minutes of beginning to eat it to fulfill the commandment of koreich.

For koreich, use the same amount of maror as for the maror commandment.

To eat the koreich:

* Put some bitter herbs on the matza.

* Lean to the left when eating the koreich.

Shulchan Orech: Eat the Festival Meal

Don’t eat roasted meat of any kind at the seder, including roasted poultry.

Reason: So it will not be confused with the Passover offering.

Note: You may eat lamb as long as it is not roasted.

Meat is not considered to be roasted if, when the baking began, there was at least 1/4″ of liquid in the cooking utensil with the meat.

Tzafun: Hidden (Afikoman)

You should ideally finish afikoman by midnight at the Passover seder, but you may eat it later than midnight if you have not finished (or even started!) your meal by then.

After eating the afikoman on Passover, you may not eat again until daybreak, but you will still drink two more cups of wine and you may drink water anytime through the night.

Bareich: Say Birkat HaMazon

If you said birkat ha’mazon at the seder but had forgotten to eat the afikoman, you must:

* Wash your hands,

* Say ha’motzi,

* Eat at least 1.3 fl. oz. (39 ml, or 1/6 cup) of matza,

* Say birkat ha’mazon again, and then

Drink the third cup of wine.

Open the door at this point.

Reason: To show our trust in God to protect us, since the first night of Passover is called a night of watching (leil shimurim), when God provides special protection for the Jewish people.

Note: You should open the door unless you are in an unsafe neighborhood. If the neighborhood is dangerous, it may be forbidden by Jewish law to live there at any time.

Hallel: Saying Hallel Psalms

At the seder, hallel is divided into two parts. The first two psalms, read before the meal, deal with the exodus from Egypt. The remaining psalms, read after the meal, concern other miracles and the future of the Jewish nation.

There are many opinions as to why we read hallel at night: most are related either to praising God for saving the Jewish people or to accompanying the Passover sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Nirtza: Accepted

We hope that God accepts our seder and all of the commandments that we have done on this night.

Copyright 2015 Richard B. Aiken. Halacha L’Maaseh appears courtesy of Visit their web site for more information.

This material is provided for informational purposes only – not a substitute for the consultation of a competent rabbi.