Posted on 05 April 2012.
After celebrating my first Seder with my friends and coworkers Rachel Pyle (sr) and Molly Meyer (sr), I learned that I don’t know how to do tradition well. What was me trying to observe a Jewish holiday, turned into an unintentional mockery – not of the tradition, but of my attempts at the tradition. The three of us joked that Orthodox Jews everywhere would cringe to see us attempt Seder so poorly. (I know, because I’m Jewish and so is my family. Trust me – they’d laugh.)
OK, so the extent of my knowledge of Seder has come from the Christian encounter of the Last Supper. And … that’s it. I tried to observe the dinner with my church small group back in high school, but even then I didn’t even Google how to serve a correct Seder plate. I winged it.
Well, for The Sojourn, Rachel and I decided to throw our own Seder Dinner Fiesta. For those of you wanting to throw your own tonight, as Seder is the Thursday of Passover – think, this was Jesus’ last supper and tomorrow is Good Friday – here’s what you need to do:
1. Go to DIYSeder.com. Yes, I swear this exists. This site helped me personalize the Haggadah, which is kind of like a field guide to all things Seder.
2. Set the table. We set four places: one for Rachel, Molly, me, and Elijah. Yes, the prophet. I mean, he didn’t get a full meal or anything, just a glass of wine. (Ahem, grape juice, or “Wesleyan wine,” as I call it.) It’s tradition to set a place for the prophet at a Passover meal.
3. Fill 16 glasses with Wesleyan wine. Yes, four apiece. The Jewish people aren’t so strict with their drinking. Why? Well, Seder’s meant to be a relaxing holiday. Remember how Jesus reclined at the table with His disciples? The wine helped.
4. Bless the wine. We recited this Hebrew prayer, thanking God for the fruit of the vine: “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam borei pri hagafen.”
5. Break the bread. This was my favorite part. OK, so you have three pieces of bread in a stack. That represents the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The leader is supposed to take the middle piece of matzoh (OK, we used pita bread), and break it in half. The smaller half is put under a cushion, but still in sight. That’s the Afikomen, meaning “dessert.” We’ll eat this later.
6. Tell the story. Throughout dinner, in between blessings, hand washings and bites, the leader tells the story of the Exodus, how God led His people out of Egypt into the Promised Land. We’re called to reflect not only on the captivity and subsequent freedom of the Israelites, but of those in the present day who need to be freed.
7. Wash your hands. You do this a few times during the meal, actually. Luckily, the Haggadah gave me jokes to tell my dinner guests while they scrubbed. Here’s one: What do hard-working Karpas sellers hope to get every year? A celery increase. Ha?
8. Serve the food. Each plate gets four pieces: maror (bitter herbs), karpas (green vegetable, or potato), z’roa (meat with the bone), beitzah (a hard-boiled egg), charoset (a delicious sweet dish). On the table next to the plates are a bowl of salt water for each person and a stack of three pieces of matzoh.
9. Look at the food. So it turns out you don’t eat everything on the Seder plate. The chicken bone we had was meant to represent the lamb offered in the temple. And though I seasoned my chicken so beautifully, we didn’t get to eat it. That is, not until I gave us all a free pass to take it. (“God wouldn’t want us to be wasteful, would he? Would he, Elijah?”)
10. Dip. The next thing you do is dip the vegetable/potato in salt water, meant to represent the tears of the Jewish people when under Egyptian captivity. This is the first thing you eat at the supper.
11. Eat. You get to eat anything that’s not the chicken or the Afikomen (dessert matzoh). Each of the five pieces on the plate represents something. Other than the aforementioned potato and chicken, the pieces of the maror represent the bitter lives of the slaves. They’re dipped in charoset, which represent the bricks and mortar used to build the structures for the Egyptians. The egg represents mourning and, of course, fertility.
13. Sing. There are quite a few different songs to be sung at Seder, including dayenu. Apparently it has 12 verses, but only about four are sung. Phew. We didn’t sing any of them. (“That’s OK, right, Elijah?”)
14. Eat dessert! It turns out dessert comes in the form of a flaky cracker, hidden beneath a cushion. Yum. Bring out the Afikomen!
I’m not much of a traditions gal. I try to be, but my personal religious history hasn’t trained me in that way. So when I attempt tradition, I mess them up. I eat pita bread and drink juicy Wesleyan wine.
But this experience, though maybe not-so-orthodox in its praxis, has taught me that tradition is important. Traditions are there as reminders. Would I have thought about the Israelites’ plight, God’s mercy and man’s freedom if it hadn’t been for Seder? Probably not.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, Elijah never showed up. By the time we cleaned up after dinner, his wine glass was still full. So Molly drank it. You snooze, you lose, buddy!