12 Things to Know About Your First Passover Seder

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Shany Muchnik)

Getting invited to your middle school friend’s bat mitzvah is a lot different than getting invited to a Passover Seder. For one, you got to wear a frilly dress and dance around on bubble wrap with an inflatable guitar. A Seder is, well, centered around a lot more rules and rituals.

Headed to your first Seder? You’ll have fun: It’s a ceremonial event marked with storytelling, food, songs, and prayers. Here’s what you should know before you go.

1. It’s probably not going to be as formal as you think.

Seders sound very buttoned-up and formal, but most are not all that serious. Seders are meant to be celebrations (there will be songs!) and to help people ponder the questions of freedom. If you have a question during the meal, you can probably ask it! It’s also tradition to recline during the Seder (how’s that for not stuffy?) to celebrate being free.

2. Your homemade baked goods might not go over too well.

Take your instinct to make a from-scratch dessert as a hostess gift and forget it. For starters, it would have to be Kosher for Passover. And even if you followed all those rules, some Jews choose not to eat foods made in a non-kosher kitchen. If you really want to bring something, consider Kosher-for-Passover wine or store-bought Passover treats.

If you settle on wine, skip the Manischewitz, which is very sweet on its own, and opt for one of the many popular Israeli wines that have been hitting the U.S. market. Check your local wine shop for a Syrah from Galil, or if you really want to impress, try the Grand Vin from Castel.

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3. People will keep saying the same two things to you.

There are two phrases you will probably hear a lot as you meet people: chag sameach (translating to happy festival) and gut yontif (which means good holy day). Smile and say it back. Simple!

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

4. There will be a Seder plate.

You certainly won’t be expected to lead the Seder, but you may as well have a general idea of what’s on the Seder plate and what everything means. A basic knowledge will make things more interesting for you, and your hostess might be touched that you took the time learn about her traditions.

5. You might be asked to wash your hands.

Not all Seders include the ritual hand washings. If it’s happening at your Seder, follow everyone’s lead. There will be a pitcher and a bowl. Pour water over your right hand, and then your left.

6. You’re gonna drink a decent amount.

Four cups of wine are traditionally drunk throughout the Seder. (The cups remind the Jews of the four promises of redemption.) Make sure you eat earlier in the day and hydrate with water.

7. But there’s one glass you shouldn’t drink from.

There will be a cup of wine in the middle of the table. Do not drink that. It is not for you. It is for Elijah the prophet, who visits every Jewish home on Passover to witness the celebration. (The front door will also be left slightly open for him. You might think you’re being a good guest by closing it, but just leave it be.)

8. You’re going to put your fingers in your wine.

Traditionally, Jews dip a finger into the wine and transfer 10 drops (one for each of the 10 plagues in Egypt) from the glass onto the plate. Why? There are several beliefs. Some families say the wine represents the tears of G-d; some say it’s because the wine absorbs the plagues as you discuss and so, by removing the drops, you will not ingest them; and others say doing so reminds us that our cup of joy is not complete because people had to die for our salvation. Also, do not lick your finger after dipping it into the wine — just wipe it off on your napkin.

9. You might be served some weird looking fish.

Many Ashkenazi Seders aren’t complete without a gefilte fish appetizer course. Of course, there is no fish species known as gefilte. Rather, gefilte fish is an appetizer made by grinding together several types of fish, like carp, whitefish, or pike. It is an acquired taste (and smell). Try it but do not feel obligated to finish it.

(Image credit: Christine Curran)

10. You might have to do some reading.

If you are the youngest person at the table, you might be required to do some reading. Out loud. The haggadah (the book you’ll all be reading from) should have the Hebrew, phonetic translation, and the English translation, so there’s no reason to worry. It’s just four questions and, usually, very small children do it. If this is a Seder with, say, just friends and you’re the youngest, this could fall on you. You’ve got this.

11. There might be a little treasure hunt.

A piece of matzo gets broken and hidden before the seder beings. It’s known as the Afikoman and the kids are often sent to look for it. (Sometimes, the finder gets a prize or money!) Finding the Afikoman symbolizes a move from brokenness toward healing.

12. It’s going to take a while.

A full-out Seder — with all the bells and whistles — can take up to three hours. Of course, less traditional ones can only take 30 minutes! Your host will probably give you a heads up ahead of time, but be prepared just in case. Also note that some Seders don’t start until sundown.

Are you going to a Seder this year? What are you most excited about?