a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

What to Expect at a Seder

Posted on: March 16, 2012

Disclaimer:  I am, in no way shape or form an expert on Judaism.  There are a wide variety of resources for Jewish thought, holidays, traditions.  I’m just one Jewish woman sharing my thoughts and reflections on my personal experiences.  This post does not reflect what you will find at the most traditional Pesach Seders.  If you are attending a traditional Passover Seder, I suggest skipping to the bottom of this post and click on the Chabad or Judaism 101 links for information about traditional Pesach Seders.

Over the past few weeks I’ve received a lot of questions about Passover:  I’ve heard that Passover Seders are long.  Exactly how long is long?  I’ve heard that you can’t eat at a Passover Seder-I thought it was supposed to be a big meal?  Are there really four glasses of wine? Do I have to drink them all?   What should I bring?  What do I wear?  What should I expect?  What are we eating?   What if I have to pee, can I leave the table?  Why do you open the door in the middle of the Seder, do you really expect Elijah to walk in the door?  What about Elijah’s cup?  Miriam’s cup?  Wait, how long is it again?

Congrats!  You’ve been invited to your first Seder and I’m sure that as you’re smiling and penciling the date into your calendar these questions and more have been floating around your mind.  Gd knows I asked most of them last year.  Since this year is only the second Seder that I will be hosting, I’m far from an expert.  That said, I thought I’d write a post to answer some of the questions I’ve received.

Exactly How Long is a Passover Seder?

Honestly? It’s pretty darn long, though I have seen some 30 minute Haggadot, and this video which explains Pesach in 3 minutes, though I don’t see the reason why people would want to rush through Passover.  Like all Jewish holidays, Passover is the story of Jewish history-arguably the most important of all Jewish stories, our Exodus from Egypt.  Passover tells the story of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery and while it can seem like a yawn and a stretch thinking about something that happened eons ago, if you think about it-many liberation stories since then can be mirrored in the Pesach Seder.  Black American’s liberation from slavery in the U.S. is an obvious connection.  The story of the survivors of the Shoah is another connection.  Still, we must remember that slavery still exists today.  The Passover story is an old one, but it’s by no means a story of something that only happened “once upon a time…”  Therefore, to tell the story takes time. 

Thankfully, many haggadot today are fun, interactive, and updated with stories, poems, readings and connections to topics and pieces of history that are relevant to Jews today, helping time go by faster.  In fact, I read in the haggadah I will be using again this year, that the Passover Seder should be so engaging and so interactive that one shouldn’t notice that time is passing by.  If it’s your first time at a Seder, don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions-it’s sort of the mantra of the evening.

Eating During the Seder

The Seder concludes with a festive meal and depending on the traditions of the house you’ll eat anything from matzoh ball soup and gefilte fish to beef kabobs with scented rice to stewed curries and fragrant beans to tamales in corn shells to jambalaya and peas and rice.  Food is crowning glory of the Seder and in most traditional households you’ll have to wait a pretty long while before you get to the eating part.  Not all homes run a seder in this way.  The first seder I attended encouraged nibbling and snacking during the seder before we got to the festive meal.  As a result, I also leave out snacks for people to nosh during the seder I host with my partner.  Still, most traditional homes do not do this.  I wouldn’t encourage you to ask your host what to expect, but rather to eat something before hand with the expectation that you’ll be waiting a while before eating.

Four Glasses of Wine? Yes Four.

Another reason that eating a little something before attending a seder is encouraged is because you’ll have consumed two glasses of wine before food hits your stomach, and even then it’ll just be some parsley and horseradish on matzah.  Last year after sipping on some amazing scotch plus two glasses of mandatory wine I was very {very} ready for a giant bowl of delicious matzoh ball soup.  In fact, I spilled the delicious and expensive scotch into my lap I was so loopy.  Thankfully only my partner and I {and now the world} knew at the time.

The four mandatory glasses of wine are actually fairly small pours, only about 3oz.  Traditionally you’re supposed to drink the entire glass of wine each time and refill your glass afterwards.  Of course if you cannot drink alcohol for whatever reason there will be grape juice available for you to drink instead.  Don’t worry about it being awful, I mean it could be awful, but there are a lot of surprisingly good kosher for passover wines out there.

But Why Four Cups?  Here’s a portion from the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah 7.1 (the Version I will be using this year)

Tonight we drink four cups of wine. Why four? Some say the cups represent our matriarchs—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah—whose virtue caused God to liberate us from slavery. Another interpretation is that the cups represent the Four Worlds: physicality, emotions, thought, and essence. Still a third interpretation is that the cups represent the four promises of liberation God makes in the Torah: I will bring you out, will deliver you, I will redeem you, I will take you to be my people (Exodus 6:6-7.) The four promises, in turn, have been interpreted as four stages on the path of liberation:becoming aware of oppression, opposing oppression, imagining alternatives, and accepting responsibility to act.

What Should I Bring?

I would check with the host/hostess.  I personally have Midwestern mindset and always want to bring a host/hostess gift, even when I’m told that nothing is required.  If you feel the same way bring a bottle of Kosher for Passover wine, flowers, a thank you card, whatever you want!  If you’re asked to bring a dish to share don’t forget to ask about any dietary restrictions the host/hostess has-most will, but some may not.  If you’re coming to my seder I charge an “admission fee” of one bottle of wine per person.  {Hey, there’s four glasses to fulfill the mitzvah!}

What Should I Wear?

I think this depends on the host/hostess.  My seder is comfortable, open, and informally-formal.  Last year some people came in dresses and others came in jeans and I was okay with that sort of flexibility.  I would expect that most traditional seders will be a bit more formal.  Passover dishes only come out once a year and they’re sometimes quite fancy.  Passover is the meal where attendees are expected to lean to the left casually and eat a large, lavish meal as though we are seated around a royal table.  It’s a fairly fancy affair, though I don’t think you’ll need to take out your tux and ball gown!  If you’re stuck I’d error on the side of “business casual”  If you’re coming to my seder-wear what’s comfortable!

What Should I Expect?

Expect to be a participant, rather than an observer-you could be called on to read passages, recite prayers or blessings, read poems, or share a reflection.  You are encouraged and expected to ask a questions.  My rule is that you cannot get up from the table if you’ve not asked a question.  Don’t be afraid to ask why something is read, why something is eaten, what something means.

There are songs, there are many readings, there are questions, there is afikomen searching, there’s more singing, and singing, and more reading and more questions and more songs.  Ideally there will be lively discussions and sharing and talking and reflecting and praying-whatever prayer means for you.

In some house holds the person leading the Seder will be the male head of household, in others it will not.  In some homes you can expect a lot of Hebrew with very little English, in others the opposite.  Some Haggadot will be traditional, others will be egalitarian, others will be compilations of several haggadot.  Expect the unexpected, but expect to have a really good time.

Expect to see a Seder Plate with 7 symbolic foods, a goblet of wine for the Prophet Elijah.  In some homes you will find a goblet of water for Miriam.

What are We Eating?

What your festive meal tastes like will depend on the traditions and culture of your host/hostess.  Every Passover table will have these mandatory foods, again from The Velveteen Rabbi Haggadah.  Because these foods serve as a symbols of oppression faced by the ancient Jews, you are expected to eat all of these foods unless you have an allergy.

*The Maror, bitter herb or horseradish, which represents the bitterness of slavery.
*The Haroset, a mixture of apples and nuts and wine in Ashkenazi tradition and dates and nuts in Sephardic tradition which represents the bricks and mortar we made in ancient times, and the new structures we are beginning to build in our lives today.
*The Lamb Shank (or: beet) which represents the sacrifices we have made to survive.  Before the tenth plague, our people slaughtered lambs and marked our doors with blood: because of this marking, the Angel of Death passed over our homes and our firstborn were spared.
*The Egg, which symbolizes creative power, our rebirth.
*The Parsley, which represents the new growth of spring, for we are earthy, rooted beings, connected to the Earth and nourished by our connection.
*Salt water of our tears, both then and now.
*Matzot of our unleavened hearts: may this Seder enable our spirits to rise.

Some more liberal homes will also have an orange to represent the need for Jewish spaces to be inclusive to women and people of all sexual orientations and an olive to represent peace in the Middle East, specifically in Israel/Palestine.

What If I have to Pee!?

Go to the bathroom!

Elijah’s Cup/Miriam’s Cup/Opening the Door

Truthfully, we didn’t get to this part of the seder last year.  It was hard to rally the troops after the festive meal but I’m determined to do it this year!  Once again, I turn to my haggadah for an explanation of this ritual:

Three thousand years ago, a farmer arose in the Middle East who challenged the ruling elite. In his passionate advocacy for common people, Elijah sparked a movement and created a legend which would inspire generations to come. Elijah declared that he would return once each generation in the guise of someone poor or oppressed, coming to people’s doors to see how he would be treated. Thus would he know whether or not humanity had become ready to participate in the dawn of the Messianic age. He is said to visit every seder, and sip there from his cup of wine.

Tonight we welcome two prophets: not only Elijah, but also Miriam, sister of Moses. Elijah is a symbol of messianic redemption at the end of time; Miriam, of redemption in our present lives. Miriam’s cup is filled with water, evoking her Well which followed the Israelites in the wilderness. After the crossing of the Red Sea, Miriam sang to the Israelites a song. The words in the Torah are only the beginning:
Sing to God, for God has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver, God has hurled into the sea.
So the Rabbis asked: Why is the Song of Miriam only partially stated in the Torah? And in midrash is found the answer: the song is incomplete so that future generations will finish it. That is our task.


Overall, Passover should be fun, interactive, informative and enjoyable.  Ideally you will walk away with many questions asked, full, and a teeny bit tipsy.  Enjoy your Pesach!
Other links I’ve found about What To Expect at a Seder:

College Candy-funny tips

From WikiHow

Judaism 101

Chabad-“What Is Passover?”


Want more?  Check out these “how to” videos:

How to Host a Passover Seder

Passover Seder with Four Sons

Learning About Passover with The Virtual Rabbi

And some Passover Songs:

Dayenu by the Fountainheads

The Best Seder in the USA


2 Responses to "What to Expect at a Seder"

I just had an Ofra Haza squee over the Prince of Egypt pics! We’re doing a charoset buffet this year. Hope you have a zissen Pesach!

Fantastic post! No two seders are the same, because the Seder is as much a product of the people around the table as it is of the haggadah. Wishing you a Pesach with laughter, insight, and lots of joy.

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