What is a Seder?
Jews and Christians alike are familiar with the biblical story of the Exodus, which chronicles the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt. Though this pivotal event in the history of the Jewish people occurred millennia ago, it is still remembered today in the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Passover has been perhaps the most important observance of the Jewish people ever since — including Jesus. At the heart of the Passover celebration is the seder meal, which allows us to internalize the message of the biblical Exodus.
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The Passover Seder
Why is Passover the most widely observed holiday on the Jewish calendar? The answer is because Passover commemorates one of the most important events in Jewish history. The holiday focuses on the story of the Exodus, and recalls the birth of the Jewish nation, Israel. In addition, from the lessons learned and themes woven into this timeless story are drawn the most basic and fundamental principles found in Judaism — faith, prayer, deliverance, freedom, and service to God.
It is one of the foundational stories in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians know as the Old Testament) – Moses leading God’s people out of Egypt away from Pharaoh and out of slavery. The suffering of the children of Israel and their deliverance from slavery reaffirms our faith that God protects, provides for, and deeply loves His people and that He hears our prayers.
Once a year, Jews devote an entire week to recalling the events of the Exodus and internalizing their messages and growing in their faith. One way they do this is through the ritual Passover meal known as the seder, which is the heart of the Passover celebration. At the seder meal, the Haggadah is read. This is the text that has been used for all of these generations to guide the seder, saying: “For God did not redeem our ancestors alone, but us, as well.”
The Seder Plate
Of course the most visible part of the seder dinner is the plate of food eaten by those in attendance. The foods eaten at the seder all symbolize different parts of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt.
One of the first steps Jews take to begin the seder, after the opening blessing and ritual hand-washing, is to dip vegetables into saltwater. Any vegetable can be used for this symbol known as , but it is customary to choose something green such as parsley, celery, or a cucumber. The saltwater recalls the Israelites’ sweat and tears shed in slavery under Egyptian oppression. But the karpas symbolizes spring, which is when God redeemed the children of Israel and when Passover is celebrated.
Zeroah is a piece of roasted lamb meat that reminds Jews of the lamb God told the Israelites to prepare the night before they were freed from slavery. It also reminds Jews that during the plague of the firstborn, God passed over the houses of the Israelites who had placed the blood of a slaughtered lamb on their doorposts. Finally, the roasted bone encourages Jews to remember that just as God saved the Israelites thousands of years ago, He can do the same for us today.
The beitza, or egg, which is boiled and then roasted, represents a second offering that was brought during Temple times. Along with the Passover offering of the lamb, Jews would also bring a holiday sacrifice to the Temple on all festivals mentioned in the Bible.
In Judaism, an egg symbolizes mourning and is the traditional food of mourners. On Passover night we remember that we still mourn the loss of the Holy Temple and that we yearn for the time when the Third Temple will be built. And while an egg recalls mourning, we cannot ignore the fact that an egg is also a symbol of birth, another theme of Passover. It is through the slavery in Egypt and the subsequent redemption that the nation of Israel was born.
Maror (bitter herbs) and hazeret (bitter vegetables), which can be substituted with horseradish and romaine lettuce, remind Jews of the Israelites’ bitter lives as Pharaoh’s slaves.
On this night when Jews celebrate their physical and spiritual freedom, they remember that the things people usually become enslaved to – such as temptations, addictions, or other vices – often start off innocuously before becoming enslaving and self-defeating. They remember how bitter slavery is – whether physical, emotional, or spiritual – and thank God for helping them achieve full freedom.
Haroset — a mixture of apples, nuts, and grape juice — reminds Jews of the mixture that the Israelite slaves used to make bricks for Pharaoh, and of the hard work the slaves were forced to do. However, even though the haroset recalls the bitterness of slavery, it tastes sweet, showing that even in bitter times, we can always find something sweet in our lives, and that bitter times are eventually followed by the sweetness of redemption.
The Seder Meal in the New Testament
In the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples partook in a Passover meal now known as the Last Supper. And just as we’ve learned how the seder meal holds symbolic significance for the Jewish people, the Last Supper does the same for Christians. With the items on the plate holding deep meaning and promising deliverance and salvation, just as God did for the Israelites, there is a direct connection between the two.
And beyond the connection between the seder of the Jewish people and the communion of Christians, beyond our two faiths’ shared promise of deliverance, the seder can also remind Christians of the Exodus still going on, that of biblical prophecy being fulfilled. God promised in Isaiah that He would “assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (11:12 KJV). And even today, with the help of Christians around the world, God’s people — the Jewish people — are making an exodus. They are returning to their biblical and historic homeland, just as they did as they escaped Egypt, making aliyah (immigrating) to Israel, the only Jewish state.
This is how my kitchen looked last week, on the day before Passover: Oven racks were scattered on the counter, covered with anti-grease spray; the refrigerator had been taken apart, scrubbed, then put back together through reverse engineering; the dining room table and chairs were scattered in the . .…