Like a piece of matzah, all the details and minutiae of Passover can be difficult to digest. If you’ve never been to a traditional Passover seder, your suddenly kippah-covered head might be full of questions. What’s that strange kiddie-like dividing plate in the center? Why is there an already full cupe of wine at your Passover table setting? Why is everyone leaning back in their seats as they try to slurp down soup? Can you get in on this prize thing?
Calm your little goy head. As long as you’re invited to the Passover celebration, you’re obviously welcome. Just don’t close the door behind you on your way in! (We’ll explain later.) If the extent of your exposure to Judaism is Seinfeld and pastrami, this quick Passover traditions guide will help. Here’s what you need to know before you plotz yourself at the seder table.
Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?
In short, Passover is a holiday that marks the Israelites’ flight from Egypt and freedom from slavery. But of course, that doesn’t explain the origin of the name. Picture The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston but IRL and with even more drama. When was the last time you witnessed an apocalyptic thunderstorm of hail and fire? Exactly.
For generations, the Jewish people were slaves under the hand of Pharaoh. G-d sent Moses, who demanded the freedom of his people, but Pharaoh refused. In response, G-d sent ten plagues upon Egypt, including the final one which killed the male firstborn children of the land. However, the Israelites were told to mark their doorways, so the G-d would “pass over” and spare them. This was the straw that broke the um… Pharaoh’s back. The Israelites fled and took with them quickly-baked bread – the story goes that it didn’t have time to rise. You know the rest of the story from the movie... the Jews reached the sea, G-d separated the waters allowing them to pass through to Sinai, G-d closed the waters and drowned the Egyptians. Much joy ensues.
Ok, but what about that weird plate?
That OCD-looking plate on the seder table that everyone seems to be fussing over? That is the seder plate, or ke’ara, which holds the symbolic food items of Passover. The items include a roasted egg (beitzah) to represent new beginnings, a bitter herb such as romaine or endive (chazeret) to represent the bitterness of slavery, a roasted lamb shank (z'rosh) to represent the aforementioned 10th plague, charoset (a mix of apple, dried fruits, nuts, and spices) to symbolize the mortar the slaves used, parsley (karpas) which ushers in spring, and bitter herbs or horseradish (maror) which will definitely make your mouth feel enslaved. Matzo is also part of the Passover symbols, but it sits in a stack of three on a separate plate. Don’t worry about what to do with each—your host will lead you through specifics. But if you want to impress bubbe (aka grandma), read up on the Passover meanings here.
What’s served for the Passover dinner?
First, there will be matza. Matzah and more matzah. You will eat it throughout the story of the Exodus. You will eat it with the charoset and the maror. You will notice someone sneaking off to hide it in a napkin. You will eat it in matzah ball soup. You might find it used as stuffing. There will be chocolate-covered matzah. Your hosts will be eating it for 8 days, as they are giving up all chametz (or leavening) during the holiday.
The table will start to fill up with several traditional Passover foods. Some seem not unlike what your Mom is going to serve for Easter dinner. Some sound entirely made-up. Gefilte-what? Well, it’s real, and it’s not spectacular. Gefilte fish is a poached mix of whitefish and matzah flour and other secret ingredients, and we recognize that it’s not for everyone. But follow our lead and put a healthy heap of horseradish on top—the acidity and sinus-clearing spiciness will balance the fishiness.
Just try it. And if you’re lucky enough to be at a seder where the gefilte fish has been made from scratch from Grandma’s wine-stained index card, we promise you’ll be asking for seconds.
Another food you’ll recognize is brisket, and hopefully, you’ll get a healthy portion before Uncle Herb gets his hands on it. He’s so bitter, that Herb.
You may also come across kugel, a casserole that’s usually made with noodles but during chametz-free Passover, can be made with potatoes.
As for traditional Passover desserts, the most common are macaroons, and chances are that Great-Aunt Rose brought fruit jellies, a welcome reward for braving the gefilte. To earn some mentsh points, you may want to bring our Passover in a Box to add to this dessert spread. (Though we should note, not all of these treats are Kosher for Passover.)
And the empty cup at the table?
No, you didn’t miscount. And no, nobody last-minute ducked out of the Passover dinner to go to a Knicks game (although Uncle Herb has been known to try). The wine is reserved for the prophet Elijah, so be sure to keep the teenagers away from it, or the family yente will be talking about it for years to come. And the front door we told you not to close? It has to be left open for his arrival.
How long should this all take?
Hey, we don’t keep time during your Thanksgiving feast as you’re going back for your third helping of stuffing, do we? Just kidding—we didn’t mean to get defensive. Like most family holiday gatherings, the Passover meal will usually last between 2-3 hours, depending on the family Passover traditions... And if Aunt Rose wants to belt an extra verse of Dayenu.
Do I need to know Hebrew or Yiddish?
Don’t worry. You’re not required to learn a foreign language to eat. What are you, meshugener? But these common phrases will help get you through your time at the Passover seder table:
- Pesach (Passover)
- Haggadah (the book read during the seder meal)
- Chag sameach (Happy Festival)
- Dayenu! (It would have been enough!)
- Goy (that’s you)
Incorporate a few of those into your shtick, and your baleboosta host will be sure to invite you back next year. You know, next year, in Jerusalem.