Your Ultimate Guide to the Passover Seder

Updated: May 04, 2024

What happens during a Passover Seder? From food on the Seder plate to the traditional holiday menu, here's what to expect.

If you’ve never been to a Passover Seder before, it can be hard to know how to prepare. This ritual meal is the centerpiece of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which marks the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt in ancient times.

Whether you’re attending a Passover Seder as a guest or hosting your inaugural Seder, this guide will help orient you to the Jewish foods, symbols and rituals that are part of the spring holiday. It helps to have a few Jewish cookbooks handy, too.

What is a Passover Seder?

The word Seder means “order.” It takes place at a table and involves dozens of traditions that represent different aspects of the Passover story. A typical Seder includes songs, readings in Hebrew and English, and rituals relating to the Seder plate. Then there’s a traditional Seder dinner, followed by more prayers and other activities.

However, not all Seders are alike. Some are more formal and organized, while others are laid-back—here’s how Jewish food influencer Jake Cohen celebrates Passover. Every family’s Passover traditions vary, especially in different countries around the world. The dress code will also depend on the type of Seder you’re attending. If you’ll be a guest, check with your host to see if you should dress up.

In 2024, Passover starts on April 22 and runs through April 30. The Seder is generally held on the first night, but some families hold Seders on both the first and second nights.

The traditional Hebrew Passover greeting is chag sameach, which means “happy holiday!”

The Passover Seder Plate

A Passover seder plate that includes an orange, which is a feminist and LGBTQ-friendly Passover tradition.Stephanie Howard/Getty Images

The Seder plate is a key component of the Passover celebration. It has five or six (depending on the host’s custom) ceremonial foods that represent different themes in the Passover story.

Some families have one decorative Seder plate in the center of the table as well as individual Seder plates at each place setting. This is especially helpful for large Seders because it allows each participant to partake in the Seder plate items without having to pass the large plate around.

Zeroa (Shankbone)

The shankbone represents the lamb that ancient Jews sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Beitzah (Egg)

The egg represents the pre-holiday offering traditionally brought into the Holy Temple. Many families use a hard-boiled egg that you can eat during the Seder. Some people also say the roundness of the egg represents the circle of life.

Charoset

Your Ultimate Guide To The Passover Seder Th153341d11 12 7bth153341d11 12 7b MseditTMB Studio

This sweet mixture represents the brick and mortar that the Jews used to build structures for the pharaoh when they were slaves in Egypt. There are many variations of charoset around the word. Our charoset recipe contains apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon.

Maror (Bitter Herbs)

Maror, or bitter herbs, is a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. You can use various vegetables as maror, but many people use horseradish or romaine lettuce. Some families use both.

At a certain point in the Seder, you dip the maror in the charoset and eat it. Later, you eat maror sandwiched between two small pieces of matzo.

Karpas (Vegetable)

The karpas is a green vegetable that represents hope and rebirth. Many people use parsley, but you can use other greens.

It’s customary to serve the karpas alongside a small bowl of salt water. During the Seder, you dip the karpas into the salt water to remember the Jewish people’s tears when they were slaves in Egypt.

In addition to these traditional items, some families place an orange on the Seder plate to represent gender equality or an olive (calling to mind an olive branch) to symbolize peace.

The 15 Steps of a Passover Seder

Avoid showing up to a Seder with a completely empty stomach. There will be a big meal later on, but the before-dinner rituals can take some time (and a few of them involve drinking wine!).

Each step of a Passover Seder has a name in Hebrew. People spend a varying amount of time on each step, depending on their traditions.

Risa Lichtman, a Jewish chef and writer, shares the steps of the Passover Seder as followed by her family:

Step 1: Kadesh – Sanctify

As with many Jewish rituals, the first step to the Seder is the blessing over the wine. This is the first of four glasses of wine in the Passover Seder.

Step 2: Urchatz – Washing of the hands

This initial ritual washing of the hands is almost a pre-washing and is done without the usual blessing.

Step 3: Karpas – Spring vegetable

Here we say a blessing over the vegetables, then eat a green vegetable—such as parsley or leafy greens—dipped in salt water. The salt water represents the tears of the Jewish people during their years of enslavement in Egypt.

Step 4: Yachatz – Breaking the middle matzo

A modern Jewish American family celebrates Passover together. The Seder leader breaks the middle matzohalbergman/Getty Images

Matzo, a type of unleavened bread, is one of the central Passover foods. According to the traditional Passover story, it’s flat and unleavened because the Jewish people didn’t have enough time to let bread rise before escaping from Egypt.

The three covered pieces of matzo on the Passover table represent the three groups of Jews: Israelites, Levites and Priests. The leader of the Seder takes the middle of three matzos from the table and breaks it in into two pieces. The larger piece is wrapped in a cloth and set aside for the leader to later hide as the afikomen.

Step 5: Maggid – Telling the story

This long section includes telling the Passover story, drinking the second glass of wine, asking the Four Questions, talking about the 10 plagues and singing everyone’s favorite Passover song, “Dayenu.”

Step 6: Rachtzah – Washing of the hands

This second ritual hand-washing is the more official washing, in preparation for the main meal. For this hand-washing, the traditional blessing is recited.

Step 7: Motzi – Blessing over bread

The traditional blessing over bread is said, as well as a second blessing specific to matzo.

Step 8: Matzah – Eating the matzo

Man take and break off a piece matzo and read a bookVera Bracha/getty images

Then you have a bite of matzo, the first Passover Seder food!

Step 9: Maror – Bitter herb

We eat bitter herbs as a reminder of the harsh and bitter years of enslavement we endured in Egypt. Usually the bitter herb is a horseradish spread that you eat on a piece of matzo.

Step 10: Korech – Hillel sandwich

Add charoset to your horseradish and matzo sandwich, and you’ll get the Hillel sandwich. The sweet of the charoset balances out the bitter of the horseradish.

Step 11: Shulchan orech – Dinner

And finally, it’s time for dinner. My family generally starts with a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water, followed by traditional Passover recipes like matzo ball soup and brisket.

Step 12: Tzafun – Eating the afikomen

This is a favorite part of the Seder, when the children look for the hidden piece of matzo, called the afikomen. Whoever finds it wins a prize, then everyone eats a bite of the afikomen as the very last bite of the meal.

Step 13: Barech – Blessing after the meal

Woman serving red wine in a wineryalvarez/Getty Images

The traditional grace after meals is said and the third glass of wine is consumed. This is also where we open the door for Elijah and leave a glass of wine for him and a glass of water for Miriam.

Step 14: Hallel – Songs of praise

The door is closed and the Passover songs are sung.

Step 15: Nirtzah – Conclusion

This is the conclusion of the Seder. Some families end the Seder by saying “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Other Seder Traditions

Man reads in the Haggadah book during Passover Seder dinner.chameleonseye/Getty Images

While the Seder plate and matzo are two of the most well-known Passover traditions, there are other elements of a traditional Seder:

  • Haggadah: This is the Passover text that’s read aloud during the Seder. There are multiple versions of it, and some families create their own.
  • Wine: Traditionally, the Seder involves drinking four cups of kosher wine. You’ll also see a cup of wine set out for the prophet Elijah, who is said to visit every Jewish home on Passover.
  • 10 plagues: Part of the Seder ritual involves remembering the 10 plagues that forced the Egyptian pharaoh to free the Jews from slavery. Some families use games or Passover decorations and props to represent the plagues, which include frogs and locusts. It’s customary to spill 10 drops of wine into the salt water or onto your plate to represent each plague.

These are just some Passover traditions—the Seder is full of them! Every family has their own customs, and there are different Passover traditions around the world.

The Passover Seder Meal

Matzo Ball Soup served in a bowlTMB Studio

The food at your Seder will vary depending on whether your host adheres to the general kosher cooking rules as well as the extra set of kosher for Passover restrictions. If your host asks you to bring a dish, ask about dietary guidelines.

Passover Starters and Sides

gefilte fish recipeJamie Thrower for Taste of Home

It’s common to begin the Seder meal with matzo ball soup, gefilte fish and maybe a salad. Some people top their soup with farfel, or crushed matzo.

Alongside the main course, there will likely be vegetables as well as matzo recipes like Passover popovers or one of these other Passover side dishes.

Since Passover dietary rules restrict most grains, you won’t see bread or pasta. Historically, Sephardic Jews would eat rice and legumes on Passover while Ashkenazi Jews did not, though that’s changed in recent years.

Passover Main Course

Passover Roasted Lamb preparedTMB Studio

When it comes to the entree, it’s completely up to the host. You may see Jewish-style brisket, Passover chicken recipes, lamb recipes, fish or vegetarian dishes.

Passover Desserts

Chocolate Covered Matzo on a white plateTMB Studio

Kosher treats like macaroons, flourless chocolate cake and chocolate-covered matzo commonly close out the traditional Passover meal. If you need inspiration, check out our Passover dessert recipes.

Must-Try Passover Recipes
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