My First Passover Seder Meal

On Monday, I partook in the Passover Seder Meal. I walked away extremely full - physically, mentally and spiritually. Perhaps you, like Rabbi Matsuof are thinking, "Why are you so interested? What brings you here?" After all, I am a cradle Catholic, active in my parish and in my hometown one whenever I visit. I grew up in a small town comprised of Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons. No Jewish peoples. Naturally, at least for me, I'm curious and I want to learn.

I have been curious since university, only to get frustrated because Religious Studies 1000 - An Introduction to World Religions never seemed to fit into my timetable. I've been interested since 1993 when my boss at the time shared some matzo (or "matzah") with me and listened patiently to my questions about Judaism (e.g. "Why can't you work on certain days during Passover?" and "Why can you only eat matzo and not normal bread during Passover?"). That just heightened during my piano lessons with one of my piano teachers (her husband makes fantastic latkes during Hanukkah).

However, it's not enough for me to just read about Passover in a book. Or to watch The Ten Commandments on TV (again). For me to get a deeper sense of this ancient tradition, I need to experience it. This year, I was delighted to learn that Passover coincided with Spring Break. Finally, I could attend.

My companion for the evening was my father. He wants to visit the Holy Land someday, so I knew he'd be up for sharing the experience. I also learned that one of my piano classmates would also be attending.

We attended the 23rd Annual Community Seder hosted by the Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta. This year, things were a little different. The Seder usually takes place at nightfall. However, it's spring and nightfall didn't come until around 8 pm. It's a lengthy mitzvah (6:00 - 10:50 PM), so to ensure that everything was done properly, yet without us passing out, we were offered a "light" meal to start the evening.

I put "light" in quotations because it was a large, scrumptious meal. The first course was a delicate chicken soup with egg noodles and carrots. This was followed by roast chicken in orange and ginger sauce, accompanied by roasted vegetables, grilled potatoes and mushroom blintzes. The blintze was dry but everything else was flavourful.

Our dinner companions were an interesting mix. One gentleman was a cradle Catholic-turned-Protestant-converting to Judaism.  His partner was Russian, so I'll presume that she's Russian Orthodox since she said she wasn't Jewish. There was a quiet man with his 17-year old son. Their family emigrated from Latvia. Then there was a Hungarian Levite who brought two co-workers (one Catholic, the other one seemed a little bored). I suspect on the promise of good food and lots of alcohol.

The other woman at my table and I soon learned that Levites don't speak to women, which immediately resulted in me asking the gentleman in the process of converting, "How does he work in an office if he can't talk to women?" (and to quote Chitanda from Hyouka: "Watsahi, kininarimasu!").

After dinner, the men left the room to pray, while the women lit the candles and prayed to welcome Pesach (AKA, Passover). We said this beautiful prayer (well, the other ladies said it, I listened and followed their hand gestures).

The seder plate before we filled it with all of our challenges. Photo by R-M Arca.

Next, we were to set the Seder Plate. Well, the Levi gentleman at our table took over that task. Here's what the plate looks like before anything was placed on it:

Rabbi explained what each item signified. Rabbi Matsuof summed up that the plate represents mourning, bitterness, tears, what we can't have, charoset to represent mortar (used in the work of slaves). You'd think, "Who would want that if everything on the plate signifies something negative?"

"Freedom and slavery is what we make of it," he continued. The Seder plate represents the challenges we face now in the hopes of facing a better tomorrow. "Despite all that is in front of my face, I am free. I am true to myself. Tomorrow will be better," he added.

Next, it was time to recite the Haggadah, "The Telling". Even though I read up on it before attending, I was thankful that books were placed at each table (in English, Yiddish and Russian) for everyone to follow. The children sang the four questions at an impressive speed. Here are the four questions with a bit of an explanation:

Prayers are recited and songs of thanksgiving and praise to G-d are sung and the Hebrew's exodus from Egypt is retold as the Story of the Four Sons. That's the short version of what happens. Now, a bit more detail. There are fourteen parts to the Seder:

  • Kaddesh: Sanctification and prayer, followed by drinking the first glass of wine while leaning to the left (signifying freedom)
  • Urechatz: Ritual Washing
  • Karpas: Eating the vegetable dipped in salt water
  • Yachatz: Breaking of the middle matzo. Rabbi didn't trust us enough to not eat the matzo until the appointed time (probably learned from experience). He kept the three matzo at his table.
  • Maggid: The Passover Story as told by four sons asking four questions, after which, the second cup of wine is drunk.
  • Rachtzah: Ritual Washing in silence
  • Motzi Matzah: At this time, the matzo for all tables came out. After the blessing, we all ate our pieces in silence.
  • Maror: Bitter Herbs (horseradish)
  • Korech: a matzo sandwich of lettuce, horseradish and charoset are eaten
  • Shulchan Orech: Dinner and drinks

Our meal after eating our Hillel's Sandwich. Photo by R-M Arca.

  • Tzafun: The hidden piece of matzo - the afrikomen - is eaten (leaning over)
  • Barech: Blessing after the Meal. The third cup of wine is drunk after the blessing.
  • Hallel: Songs. The fourth cup of wine is drunk.
  • Nirtzah: Closing. The opening of the door, the chair for Elijah and the recitation of "Next year in Jerusalem!"

The four glasses of wine symbolize G-d's four promises to the Hebrews (Exodus 6:6-7):

  1. I will take you out of Egypt.
  2. I will deliver you from Egyptian slavery.
  3. I will redeem you with a demonstration of my power.
  4. I will acquire you as a nation.

This is only a very brief explanation. This ancient tradition is rich in ritual and text. Please refer to this English translation of the Haggadah for a more complete picture.

People from every table had an opportunity to recite the Haggadah. Throughout, Rabbi would interpret the Passover, highlighting the lessons that are relevant today. These are some of the words of wisdom that I managed to scribble down:

"We need to make ourselves go out of our own Egypt. We are our own worst enemy."

"To be free in freedom - that is the challenge."

"True and honest sweetness is not what is sweet now, but what is sweet tomorrow."

"Bitter today, sweet tomorrow."

"Don't give up. Stand up for your rights."

"We are all united - in freedom - for a better tomorrow. We need to celebrate freedom. We need to celebrate the freedom in freedom."

Passover - a celebration of liberation - has lessons that anyone can take in.

To close, here's my favourite song that we sung at the Seder:

Happy Passover!

To learn more about Judaism, visit the Chabad website or check out some of the outreach programmes offered by your neighbourhood synagogue.