Learning About the Seder Meal: A teaching service on the Jewish festival of Passover
The Passover Seder is a celebration observed in Jewish homes with relatives and friends. It is led by an elder member of the family, but all who attend are active participants. The celebration tells the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt three hundred years ago. It includes special activities to hold the interest of children.
The Haggadah is a guide for the celebration (like the bulletin is the guide for our worship service). The Haggadah tells us the proper order of the Seder and the story taking us from the bitterness of slavery to the hope and struggle for liberation. Even today, it is important for us to acknowledge the problems and injustices of our times, but we must have hope that things are not inalterable.
On the table are cups for each person and the symbols to be used:
- a roasted shankbone—representing the ancient Passover sacrifice
- parsley—symbolizing the beginning of springtime, of hope and renewal
- a radish—reminding us of the bitterness of slavery of our ancestors in Egypt and all who are enslaved
- charoses—a combination of apples, nuts, cinnamon and a little wine—representing the mortar used in Pharaoh’s work
- a roasted egg—standing for the festival offering brought to the temple in ancient days and also a symbol of life and hope
- two matzohs in a folded napkin—representing the loaves of bread that did not have time to rise when the Jews made their hasty departure from Egypt
Each cup is filled with enough juice for three drinks—symbolizing God’s promises to the chosen people.
Jesus and the disciples went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Seder together in the upper room. When it was time for the traditional fourth drink of wine, Jesus instituted a new tradition—the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Gathering at the Tables
[The congregation is seated at tables in the fellowship hall, leaving one empty chair at each table.]
Lighting of the Festival Candles
Elder: Now in the presence of loved ones and friends, we gather to learn about the Passover.
All: You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this day I brought you out of Egypt. You shall observe this day throughout the generations for all times (Ex. 12:17).
Elder: We gather to fulfill the Mitzvah.
[As a woman at each table lights the candles, all say:]
All: We praise you, God, Lord of all life, as we light the candles of Passover.
Kiddush—The First Cup
Elder: Our story tells us that in diverse ways with different words, God gave promises of freedom to our people. With cups of juice we recall each of God’s promises. Let us say the first promise together.
All: I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians.
[Elder picks up cup of juice.]
Elder: We take the Kiddush cup and proclaim the holiness of this Day of Deliverance!
[All pick up their cup of juice.]
All: We praise you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.
[All drink one swallow from cup.]
Urchatz—Washing of the Hands
Elder: We wash our hands as a symbol of purification and preparation for this religious service.
[A child offers the towel to each person around the table.]
Karpas—Rebirth and Renewal
Elder: Passover brings the message of spring and new life. The parsley reminds us that our ancestors were tillers of the soil who were grateful for the earth’s bounty. The salt water reminds us that they suffered in slavery. Listen to a reading from the Song of Songs (2:10-12; 7:12).
[At the end of the reading, all take a sprig of parsley and dip it in salt water.]
All: Praise to you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who causes fruit to grow from the earth.
[All eat the parsley.]
Yachatz—A Bond Formed by Sharing
Elder: Among people everywhere the sharing of bread forms a bond of fellowship. The story of freedom begins when we join together with all the needy and oppressed. Our redemption is bound up with the deliverance from bondage of people everywhere. When the Jews fled from slavery in Egypt, they had no time to let their bread rise. They quickly mixed flour and water and baked flat loaves in the sun. So we eat matzoh on Passover.
Now I will break the middle matzoh and hide half as the afikomen. At the end of the meal the children will get a chance to look for it and trade it back to us.
[Elder breaks the middle matzoh in half and hides half of it. Elder then breaks the remaining half and all eat.]
All: This is the bread of poverty, which our fathers and mothers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are needy come to the Passover feast. Now we are all still slaves. Next year may all be free.
The Passover Story—The Four Questions
Elder: Long ago our ancestors worshiped idols, but now the Lord is our God. The Bible tells us that God called Abraham and Sarah and took them to the land of Canaan. God gave them a son named Isaac and to Isaac God gave two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob and his children went down into Egypt when there was a famine in their land. There they became a nation, mighty and numerous. And the Egyptians began to fear them. The Pharaoh made slaves of the Israelites and treated them harshly. He put them in labor gangs and forced them to carry heavy loads and build temples and pyramids. But the Israelites continued to multiply and grow strong. So the Pharaoh hit upon a new and more terrible plan; he commanded that every baby boy born to the Israelites be tossed into the river Nile and drowned. The Jews cried to God for help, and God knew it was time to liberate the chosen people.
God called Moses to be their leader and sent him to the Pharaoh to demand that the people be released. But the Pharaoh was obstinate and would not obey God. So God sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians.
[Each person recites one of the ten plagues from a card at his/her place.]
Elder: Even though the suffering was great, the Pharaoh remained obstinate. When the tenth plague came—the death of all the firstborn sons of Egyptians—the Pharaoh finally set the Israelites free. Tonight we are celebrating their escape.
Children: Why do we eat matzoh tonight?
Elder: We eat matzoh to remember that when our ancestors left Egypt they could not wait for the breads to rise so they took with them a flat bread called matzoh.
Children: Why do we eat bitter herbs on Passover night?
Elder: We eat bitter herbs to remind us of how bitter life is for people caught in slavery.
Children: Why do we dip the herbs twice tonight?
Elder: We dip the parsley in salt water to replace tears with gratefulness, and we eat radishes with sweet apples to sweeten bitterness and suffering.
Children: Why is this meal different from all other meals?
Elder: Tonight we celebrate freedom. We are grateful for God’s mighty acts: splitting the Red Sea for us, sustaining us in the wilderness, giving us the Ten Commandments, and bringing us to Israel.
Motzi, Matzoh, Maror—Unleavened Bread and Bitter Herbs
Elder: The three most important symbols of the Passover Seder are the Paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs.
[Elder holds up the shank bone and says:]
Elder: This bone reminds us that the Lord passed over our homes marked with the blood of a lamb when God killed the firstborn sons of the Egyptians.
[Elder holds up the matzoh and says:]
Elder: This is the flat, unleavened bread that our ancestors ate during their departure from Egypt, for in their haste they could not wait for the dough to rise.
[Elder distributes the top matzoh around the table, two pieces to each person. Then, holding up a radish, says:]
Elder: This maror, or bitter herb, reminds us that the lives of our ancestors in Egypt were made bitter with slavery and hard service.
[Elder distributes a radish to all.]
Elder: The bitterness of slavery was sweetened by God’s redemption of the chosen people. Charoses is a mixture of sweet apples and nuts to remind of the hope given us by God.
All: Together they shall be the matzoh of freedom, the maror of slavery and the charoses of redemption. Praise to You, O Lord God, King of the universe.
[According to ancient tradition, the people put the radish and the charoses between two pieces of matzoh and eat like a sandwich.]
Kos G’ulah—the Cup of Redemption
Elder: With the second drink of juice, we recall God’s second promise. Listen to a reading from the book of Exodus (6:6).
All: Remembering with gratitude, we praise you, O God, Redeemer of Israel! We praise you, Lord of all, who creates the fruit of the vine.
[All take a second drink from the cup. At this point in a traditional Seder, a meal would be eaten.]
Tzofun—The Search for the Hidden
[The smallest child at the table should look for the hidden half of the matzoh and hand it to the elder, who gives each child a piece of chocolate candy in exchange. Everyone now eats some of this hidden afikomen so that it is all eaten. Then a blessing is spoken.]
Elder: Friends, let us say Grace. The name of the Eternal be blessed from now to eternity.
All: Let us praise God of whose bounty we have partaken. Through the Lord’s kindness, mercy, and compassion all life is sustained. God is faithful forever. God’s bounty is there for all. None need ever lack, no being ever want for food. We praise our God, the One, sustaining all.
Boraych—The Third Cup of Wine
Elders: Together we take up the cup of juice, now recalling the third promise from God. As it is written: “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”
All: Praised are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who created the fruit of the vine.
[All drink the third drink from the cup, draining it.]
Kos Eliyahu—The Cup of Elijah
Elder: At each table there is an empty chair, an extra cup of juice, and one remaining piece of matzoh. Jewish history tells of a beloved prophet by the name of Elijah, who appears in times of trouble to bring promise of relief, to lift downcast spirits, and to plant hope in the hearts of the downtrodden. The injustice of this world still brings to mind Elijah who, in defense of justice, challenged power.
[An elder opens the sanctuary door.]
Elder: The door is opened, reminding us to be open to the hope for a better world—to hold on to the dream that we may live in a world without hunger, slavery, or any kind of injustice. We invite Elijah to come to our Seder.
All: May the all merciful send us Elijah the prophet to comfort us with tidings of deliverance. Let us open the door for Elijah!
[One child from each table is sent to the door to look for Elijah.]
GUIDELINES FOR THE CHRISTIAN USE OF THE SEDER: A CHALLENGE NOT TO COMBINE SEDER AND COMMUNION
Many churches have begun to combine the Seder meal with the Lord’s Supper, particularly during Holy Week. In the following article, John Grabner, a priest in the Episcopal diocese of Spokane, Washington, argues that the two should be kept separate. He also makes a good case for relating a Seder service not to Lent but to Easter, since the intent is to celebrate our deliverance. RW welcomes your feedback on this issue; write us at email@example.com.
The Christian use of the Jewish Passover Seder is as much an interreligious (affecting relationships between Christianity and other world religions) as a liturgical concern. Improving Jewish-Christian relations in the post-Holocaust era requires that Christians be especially sensitive to Jewish difficulties with the uncritical Christian use of the Seder, and with the Christianizing of any of its elements in particular.
The Seder (order) or Pesach (Passover), celebrated according to the traditional Haggadah (telling), is the key rite of Judaism’s central festival. Although the biblical account of Passover (Ex. 12:1-28) is part of the heritage common to Jews and Christians, the Seder Haggadah, while based on the biblical account, evolved into its basic form between the destruction of the temple in 70 of the Common Era (a.d.) and the thirteenth century. Thus, the traditional Haggadah belongs to the Jews; it is not the common property of Jews and Christians. Christians are not free to use or adapt the Haggadah without regard for its Jewish origins. “Good ecumenical (interreligious) relations require respect for the religious heritage of others and the integrity of their rituals” (Alfred Tegels, “Seder Meals and Passion Plays,” Worship 60 , 74).
The Seder Haggadah used by the Jewish community today cannot accurately be represented to Christians as “what Jesus did” or as the “roots” of the Lord’s Supper (Communion). The basic text of the Haggadah did not reach its present form until the thirteenth century c.e. While its primary elements (the Passover story, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, cups of wine) are undeniably from the time of Jesus or before, the Haggadah contains much material that was added after the time of Jesus (including the placing of the questions before instead of after the meal; the sequence and content of the question; the use of the ceremonial Seder tray and its arrangement; the addition of the haroset to the menu of symbolic foods; the ritual recitation of the plagues as drops of wine are spilled from the second cup of wine; the cup, chair and opening of the door for Elijah; “next year in Jerusalem,” and the final songs, including “Dayenu”). None of these elements would have been familiar to Jesus (nor would the terms “Seder” or “Haggadah” been known to Jesus in connection with the Passover meal.
Because so many elements were added to the Seder Haggadah after the time of Jesus, it is obviously inappropriate to substitute the Seder for the Lord’s Supper on Holy (Maundy) Thursday.
It is also misleading (as well as insensitive to Jewish-Christian relations) to conclude a Seder with an abbreviated form of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, as though the thirteenth century c.e. Haggadah somehow represents “what Jesus did” at the Last Supper. The order of the Passover meal followed by Jesus was much less elaborate. After a brief introduction, the meal was eaten with its symbolic foods (Ex. 12:8: lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs) and a cup or cups of wine were blessed and shared. The meal was followed by suggestive rather than prescriptive questions and answers concerning the meaning of the foods, and may have concluded with a form of Grace after Meals (the common Jewish table prayer) and the singing of a Psalm or Psalms. The narratives of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26; Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20) mention only bread and wine; the customary word for unleavened bread is not used, nor are lamb and bitter herbs mentioned. The use of lamb at the Seder was discontinued by most Jews after the sacrificial system came to an end with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70 c.e.; it has not been reintroduced.
Because the Christian Passover (Pascha) is a comprehensive three-day (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Day) liturgy of Christ’s “passing over” from death to life, the Christian equivalent of the Seder is not the Lord’s Supper of Holy Thursday, but the Eucharist of Easter day, preferably at the climax of the Paschal Vigil. The Christian equivalent of the Seder Haggadah is not the medieval Jewish Haggadah celebrated on Holy Thursday, but the Great Paschal Vigil of the Resurrection celebrated late on Easter eve or early on Easter day (see Handbook of the Christian Year [Nashville: Abingdon, 1986], 191-209). As the historic and distinctive “telling” of the Christian Passover, the Paschal Vigil begins with the Paschal Proclamation of Christ’s Passover Victory (exulted) during the introductory Service of Light. The Service of the Word consists of Old Testament prophetic readings that rehearse God’s saving deeds in history (always including the Exodus) in anticipation of their fulfillment in Christian baptism. New Christians are initiated during the Service of the Water, and the Vigil concludes with the Service of the Bread and Cup, which is the Christian Passover meal par excellence. As the Seder Haggadah directs its participants to regard themselves as if they too had come forth out of Egypt, so the Paschal Proclamation at the beginning the Paschal Vigil involves Christians in the events of their liberation with its repeated reminder, “This is the night . . .”
The Jewish Seder is best experienced by Christians not as background to the institution of the Lord’s Supper in Holy Week, but as an exercise in interreligious understanding. The Seder Haggadah is not primarily a lesson in Christian origins, so much as it is the Jewish understanding of Passover as it evolved in reaction to Christianity and to persecution during the Common (Christian) Era. The questions and answers, for example, originally came in natural sequence after the meal, but between 70 and 200 c.e., they were moved to their present position before the meal, probably to avoid any possible confusion with the new significance being attached to bread and wine during the Passover meal observed by Jewish Christians. The opening of the door for Elijah—unknown to Jesus, but introduced between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries c.e.—may have originally served a purely utilitarian function: it was opened during the Seder to demonstrate to a suspicious and hostile Christian community that the Jews had nothing to hide.
As an exercise in Jewish-Christian understanding, the Seder experienced by Christians should be as authentic as possible. Because the Seder is a ritual of home and family around the dinner table, often of several hours’ duration, it is most authentically experienced by Christians as the invited guests of a Jewish household where such arrangements can be made.
Where it is not possible for Christians to be the guests of a Jewish family for the Seder, a rabbi or other informed Jew should be invited to lead a Seder for the congregation (or to participate actively in the planning of a Seder if such leadership is not possible). The Haggadah should be followed without abbreviation, including the service of the full meal (without lamb).
Care should be taken to preserve as much of the Seder’s essential family intimacy and informality as possible.
The Seder is experienced most authentically by Christians with a Jewish family on the first or second night of the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover); regardless of the dates of the Christian Holy Week, the Seder should not be scheduled for Holy Thursday.
Where the custom of the Christian use of the Seder in Holy Week persists, despite the interreligious, historical, theological, and liturgical problems it raises, it would be less susceptible to misinterpretation and offense if it were held on Wednesday of Holy Week or earlier, rather than on Holy (Maundy) Thursday.
—John D. Grabner. Reprinted by permission from The Services of the Christian Year, Vol. V of the Complete Library of Christian Worship,, Robert Webber, editor. Available from Hendrickson Publishing, 137 Summit St., P.O. Box 3473; Peabody, MA 01961; (978) 532-6546.
Singing has always been a part of the Seder celebration. You may wish to sing some songs before or after this presentation. Here are some suggestions:
“In the Presence of Your People” PsH 160; SFL 25
“I Will Sing unto the Lord” PsH 152; SFL 105
“I Will Exalt My God, My King” PsH 186; SFL 26