Basic Seder

A friend invited me to a Passover Seder and asked me to find a suitable Haggadah, or Order of Service, on the Internet. I didn’t find anything I liked, so I wrote this one instead. I kept the traditional elements in their traditional order, while being careful not to make excessive demands on unbelievers, of whom I am one myself.

The blessings and comments given below are examples only, to suggest the subject. Participants should feel free to speak in their own words rather than read these aloud.

This service has no leader – the parts are taken in order around the table, or as people please.

  1. Light candles. Someone will say a blessing, such as:

    We are grateful for light, for warmth, for fellowship, for ritual, and for our shared sense of history and nationhood.

  2. Why are we here? Someone will explain, saying something like this.

    This is the national festival of the Jewish people, celebrating our liberation from slavery in Egypt around 3400 years ago. It has become a symbol of the long and eventful history of the Jewish people, and also of the aspirations of all people everywhere for freedom from oppression.

  3. The first cup of wine. Someone pours a cup of wine, and says a blessing, such as:

    We are grateful for wine – for its taste, and its color, and its warmth. Wine symbolizes the joinder of body, mind and spirit. Body, because it comes from grapes that grow from earth and water and sunshine.  Mind, because wine has to be made from grapes by human art.  And spirit, because of its power to raise our spirits, ease our cares, make us merry, and help us enjoy life and company.

  4. Wine for everyone. A cup of wine is poured for everyone, and one for the Prophet Elijah. Someone explains the tradition of the cup for Elijah, saying for example:

    This cup is set aside to invite the Prophet Elijah to this gathering. This is a symbol of remaining consciously open to the entry of unexpected and perhaps even irrational blessing into our lives, and our gathering, and our two nations, the Jewish and the American, and the world.

    Then everyone drinks down the first cup of wine.

  5. More wine for everyone. A second cup is poured. Someone offers a toast, saying something like:

    This wine reminds us of the pleasure of life, and of all the things that bring us joy and satisfaction, and in particular the pleasures of tradition, and of festivity, and of nationhood, and of freedom.

  6. The parsley. Someone takes a piece of parsley from the seder plate and dips it in salt water, and explains, saying for example:

    This green vegetable symbolizes the renewal of the earth in the springtime, and the salt water recalls the tears we shed when we were slaves. Together they remind us that even in sorrow there is hope for the future, for us individually and as a nation, and for everyone.

    Everyone eats some.

  7. The bread of affliction. Someone breaks the middle matzo of three into two parts and wraps one part in a napkin, returning the other part to the plate, then raises the plate for everyone to see, explaining for example:

    This is the bread of affliction, which sustained our ancestors when they were slaves in Egypt. We remember it still, even though we are free now. The memory of slavery reminds us to value freedom, and to nourish it inside ourselves, and to long for it not only for ourselves but for everyone. Everyone who is hungry can come to eat with us.

    The wrapped-up part is the afikomen, which may (but need not)
    be hidden and later recovered. It is set aside to end the feast.

  8. The story of the Liberation. Someone begins the story and tells some of it, and then the next person tells some more of it, and the story passes from one to the other until it is done. Here are the main elements, although not the exact words, of the story people will tell.
    1. Thousands of years ago there was no food where the Jews lived, so they went down to Egypt where there was food.
    2. This went well at first, because the King of Egypt had put a Jew named Joseph in charge of the kingdom, and he gave the Jews food, and livelihood, and a place to live.
    3. But after a while Joseph died, and a new King arose in Egypt, and he made slaves of the Jews, and put them to work making bricks and building monuments, and the Jews were hungry and oppressed. This went on for hundreds of years, and things got worse all the time.
    4. Things got so bad that the King ordered all Jewish boys killed. One Jewish woman hid her son in a small boat on the River Nile; the King’s daughter found him and raised him as an Egyptian prince.
    5. But the prince, who became our leader Moses, killed an overseer who was mistreating a Jew, and had to flee into the desert. While he was there he had a vision. He said G-d told him to force the King to let the Jews leave Egypt.
    6. So Moses went back to Egypt and asked the King to let us leave. But the King refused. Moses warned the King that G-d would bring misfortunes on Egypt unless he let the Jews go, but the King was stubborn.
    7. So one by one these misfortunes fell upon Egypt. [A drop of wine on the fingertip for each one.]
      1. The Nile turned to blood, and the fish died, and the water became undrinkable.
      2. Suddenly there were frogs everywhere.
      3. Not only frogs, but lice, infesting people and animals.
      4. Not only frogs and lice, but wild animals too, especially biting flies.
      5. And the cattle died of a sudden illness, and the horses and donkeys and camels, and even the sheep and the goats.
      6. And then everyone, people and those animals who were left, got horrible, painful, suppurating boils.
      7. And then hail fell from the sky and injured people, and knocked down crops, and trees, and structures.
      8. And then locusts came to eat whatever was left after the hail.
      9. And then darkness came, and the sun was no longer seen.
    8. After each of these misfortunes Moses asked the King to let the Jews go, but the King got more stubborn each time. So finally there came a plague which killed every Egyptian firstborn son. By putting lamb’s blood on their doorposts the Jews avoided this plague – it seemed as if the Angel of Death passed over our houses, which is why our festival of freedom is called Passover. But the Egyptians could not avoid it.
    9. This was too much for the King, and he let us go. The Jews left as fast as they could – there was not even time for the bread to rise that they took with them on the journey. They baked unleavened bread, which is why we eat matzos during our festival, and don’t even allow ordinary bread in our houses.
    10. The King changed his mind and pursued the Jews, but the waters of the Red Sea parted to let us through, and then closed over the Egyptian army sent after us. And then Moses and the Jews were out of Egypt and into Sinai.
    11. Lots of other things happened after that, but that is another story for another festival. Eventually, though, the Jews made it back to where they started, and created a great kingdom of their own, and more things happened, and the Jews were enslaved again, and freed again, more than once, and things are still happening, and our story is not over even yet, although the empires of those who oppressed us, from Pharaoh to Stalin, have all vanished.
  9. Eating the matzo. Someone takes a piece of matzo and breaks off a bite-sized piece, and says a blessing, for example:

    We are grateful for bread, which is a symbol of all the good things that grow in the earth to sustain us. We are grateful to have bread to eat, and the other things we need to live a life free from want, and to live in a free land where we can provide for ourselves. And we are grateful not only for material things, but for the other things we need and can find in this land, bread for the mind, and bread for the spirit, for as one of our greatest rabbis taught, we do not live by bread alone. And as for this intangible bread of mind and spirit, here also everyone who is hungry can come to eat with us.

    Everyone takes a piece of matzo and eats it with salt.

  10. The bitter herbs. Someone takes a piece of the bitter herb, called maror, from the seder plate and dips it into the charoset made of nuts and apples, and explains:

    The charoset reminds us of the bricks and mortar we had to make and build with in Egypt, and the maror reminds us how we suffered while we did it, and how bitter was slavery, for hundreds of years. But we got out!

    Everyone eats a bit of maror and charoset,
    and then makes a maror and charoset sandwich on matzo,
    and eats that too.

  11. The four questions, traditionally but not necessarily asked by the youngest person present.
    • On other nights we eat leavened bread, croissants and sourdough and angel food cake for example, but tonight only matzos. Why?

    [Because it reminds us of the flight from Egypt, and reminds us of when we were hungry, not only in Egypt, and reminds us of all those in the world who are hungry tonight.]

    • On other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, zucchini and shiitake mushrooms and eggplant parmigiana for example, but tonight we eat bitter herbs. Why?

    [Because things were really awful in Egypt, and we don’t want to forget it. Haven’t we been talking all evening about how miserable we were in Egypt? Also, even though we got out, other people are still trapped in places and situations of great bitterness, and we need to think of them too.]

    • On other nights we dip only once, for example chips into guacamole, but tonight we dip twice. Why?

    [We dip parsley into salt water to remind us that renewal can come even after sorrow, as happened when we escaped from Egypt, and we dip a bitter herbs into the charoset because it reminds us of the bricks we had to make in Egypt, oy what an awful place that was!]

    • On other nights we sit up to eat, but tonight we recline. Why?

    [It’s because we’re free now, and we can recline if we want to, and even though we don’t want to because it’s messy to eat that way and we’re not set up for it like the ancients were, we could, and no one could stop us.]

  12. The other items on the seder plate. So what’s with the bone, and the egg? Someone explains:

    The bone stands for the Temple offerings, which we don’t do any more, and the egg is a mourning dish, commemorating the destruction of our second Temple thousands of years ago.

  13. The feast.

    Ess, ess! The feast begins with the egg
    and ends with the afikomen.
    And there’s lots in between.
    Go ahead, eat a little something!
    It wouldn’t hurt!

  14. The third cup of wine. Someone gives thanks for the meal, and thanks the cooks.
  15. The fourth cup of wine. Unscripted improvisation. Full and frank discussion. Hilarity punctuated by moments of profound insight. Open the door for the Prophet Elijah.

    Next year in Jerusalem!

  16. Optional psalms.

    As it is traditional to read a psalm after the meal, and we have not talked much about G-d, Psalm 104 seems like a good one to read if we want to read one (we don’t have to), without taking any position on its theology, in order to celebrate the magnificent achievements of the Jewish people, whose ancient literature still stands among the foundations of the world civilization. The text (from the King James Bible) is attached. It echoes many of the themes we have discussed.

    The traditional African-American hymn Go Down, Moses is an example of how the story of our Liberation inspired other peoples to imagine freedom, and draw strength from our experience, and eventually achieve their own Liberation. No one has to sing – we could read it, or skip it (it’s the thought that counts), or listen to Louis Armstrong sing it. He sings only a few verses – the full text is attached. If we want to sing it, we could use this simple accompaniment.

Psalm 104

1Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.

2Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:

3Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:

4Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:

5Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.

6Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.

7At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.

8They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.

9Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.

10He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.

11They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst.

12By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.

13He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.

14He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth;

15And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart.

16The trees of the LORD are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted;

17Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.

18The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies.

19He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down.

20Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.

21The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.

22The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.

23Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.

24O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.

25So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.

26There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.

27These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.

28That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.

29Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.

30Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.

31The glory of the LORD shall endure for ever: the LORD shall rejoice in his works.

32He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth: he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.

33I will sing unto the LORD as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.

34My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the LORD.

35Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the LORD, O my soul. Praise ye the LORD.

Go Down Moses

When Israel was in Egypt’s Land,
Let my people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go.


Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s Land.
Tell ol’ Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

Thus saith the Lord, bold Moses said,
Let my people go,
If not, I’ll smite your first-born dead,
Let my people go.


No more shall they in bondage toil,
Let my people go,
Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil,
Let my people go.


The Lord told Moses what to do,
Let my people go,
To lead the Hebrew children through,
Let my people go.


O come along Moses, you’ll not get lost,
Let my people go,
Stretch out your rod and come across,
Let my people go.


As Israel stood by the waterside,
Let my people go,
At God’s command it did divide,
Let my people go.


When they reached the other shore,
Let my people go,
They sang a song of triumph o’er,
Let my people go.


Pharaoh said he’d go across,
Let my people go,
But Pharaoh and his host were lost,
Let my people go.


Jordan shall stand up like a wall,
Let my people go,
And the walls of Jericho shall fall,
Let my people go.


Your foes shall not before you stand,
Let my people go,
And you’ll possess fair Canaan’s land,
Let my people go.


O let us all from bondage flee,
Let my people go,
And let us all in truth be free,
Let my people go.

We need not always weep and mourn,
Let my people go,
And wear these slavery chains forlorn,
Let my people go.


Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s Land.
Tell ol’ Pharaoh,
Let my people go.