Friday, April 10, 2009

The Seder manual for ones unable to ask

1. Kaddesh: Sanctification
A blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.

The "kids" table has three open bottles of wine on it. No little ones here. Just adults of the older/younger, mature/immature variety, though not always in the combinations you assume. The leader opens the bursting binder -- her homemade haggadah -- and begins to remember.

2. Urechatz: Washing
A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the Karpas.

The kitchen sink and one set of hands suffices. The guests buzz. Stomachs growl. We follow along in our bound copies, entranced by the watercolor illustrations. Half at the table know these verses and prayer in two languages, know it by heart. The rest of us listen, lost and admiring.

3. Karpas: Vegetable
A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.

It tastes like summer garden -- pungent on the tongue. Some take handfuls, other a sprig. (In the modern age, and in America, lowly origins are self-selected, I suppose.) The Jewish people understand salt water heals, be it tears (check), sweat (check), or the Red Sea (double check).

4. Yachatz: Breaking
One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).

The leader points out the lack of young ones. Those of child-bearing age shift in their seats. So the afikomen is not hidden for later discovery, and instead stowed away beneath the chair. The unspoken promise is, we will act surprised anyway.

5. Maggid: The Story
A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the seder. The Four Questions are also known as Mah Nishtanah (Why is it different?), which are the first words of the Four Questions. This is often sung. See below.

The maggid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people: the wise one, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked one, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple one, who needs to know the basics; and the one who is unable to ask, who doesn't even know enough to know what he needs to know.

At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.


The re-memories are in full swing, memories of times, places, atrocities, triumphs never and always experienced. You taste the desert's sand and fear. You hear the soldiers' boots clicking at the ghetto doors. Every plague is personal and global. The frogs that rained down are now just funny toys scattered on our table, but the pain of not being allowed to be who you are is still real.

I am unable to ask where we are in our haggadahs. I am lost until I hear a familiar Old Testament phrase I know well from our pulpits. So many familiar words and phrases, but now in a different context, given new heft and significance. It jolts me from parrot to prophet.

Then our hostess asks, "Is that the sound of matzah?"

And we realize the dog has discovered the afikomen.

Now the steps accumulate, punctuated by chewing (from human and dog):

6. Rachtzah: Washing
A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.

Again, the kitchen sink, a new set of hands. Cleanliness by proxy.

7. Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products
The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.

The toy frogs fascinate the guests at one end of the table (we won't reveal which one). For no little ones, there's significant play.

8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.

Matzah crumbs everywhere. There's no elegant way to divvy up a sheet. So we pass and crack, pass and crack, until 2/3 is in our stomach and 1/3 is on the table. The flour does not seem to be missed.

9. Maror: Bitter Herbs
A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The maror is dipped in charoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery.

Note that there are two bitter herbs on the seder plate: one labeled Maror and one labeled Chazeret. The one labeled Maror should be used for Maror and the one labeled Chazeret should be used in the Korekh, below.


Everyone's sinuses clear. Those who took too large a spoonful think maybe their desert-wandering ancestors had the better deal.

10. Korekh: The Sandwich
Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich. In his honor, we eat some maror on a piece of matzah, with some charoset.

Hand-eye coordination falters. Historical significance is missed.

11. Shulchan Orekh: Dinner
A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal (except, of course, that chametz cannot be eaten). Among Ashkenazic Jews, gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are traditionally eaten at the beginning of the meal. Roast chicken or turkey are common as a main course, as is beef brisket.

The leader rewards our prayer with a feast. Books and bitterness set aside, we relish the only certainty left to a persecuted people -- the fleeting grace of here and now. It wasn't brisket in the past, and it might not be brisket in the future. But for now, the annual dish carries with it recipes, smells, tables, and the understanding that just as it vanishes from the plate, so too will this contentment.

This satisfaction.

This peace.

12. Tzafun: The Afikomen
The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as "desert," the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.

We act surprised. And try to forget that the dog got there first.

13. Barekh: Grace after Meals
The third cup of wine is poured, and birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any Shabbat. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Messiah, and is supposed to come on Pesach to do this. The door is opened for a while at this point (supposedly for Elijah...)

The dogs scurry to the screen door. For a moment, we are expectant. Can Elijah make his way to a cul de sac? Will he mind that some of us believe the Messiah already came? Will he shake his head and say it's impossible -- after all, where was he this whole time?

The cool night air leaks in. The street is quiet. We don't realize it, but we have held our collective breath.

No footfalls.

We exhale (sigh?) and continue. Maybe next year.

14. Hallel: Praises
Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.

The guests have lost track of the wine count. The leader compares song notes. The end of the table sings harmony, while the middle listens. I hum where I can and attempt pronunciation.

15. Nirtzah: Closing
A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come within the next year). This is followed by various hymns and stories.

May we all celebrate next year in this house, with this group, with this theology, with this mayhem. Yet as we push back our chairs and express our thanks, we know it will never quite be like this again.

The bitter herbs and matzah and salty tears and saltier history combine in my bloodstream. I feel tragic and hopeful for no reason. I want to stay at the table, shield myself in its sanctity, draw the other guests in and say out loud, "No! Don't go! Not until Elijah comes."

And I say in my heart: And if he doesn't come ... if I keep my family close ... if I keep eating ... if I keep tradition ... will I keep safe?

But these are questions I am unable to ask. It's time to go, anyway. Tomorrow is a work day, and that leaves no time for the bread to rise.

Seder order and explanation from Judaism 101

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