This time of year, there are always two significant holidays that people pay attention to: Easter and Passover. And if you aren't Jewish but have been invited to partake in Passover celebrations — whether through friends or perhaps a significant other — then that holiday is something that I’m sure you are going to be paying attention to more this year. However, this certainly won’t help you if you don’t know anything about the holiday, which is why I’m sure you need a step-by-step guide on how to observe Passover if you've never been to a Seder before.
First off, a primer: what is Passover? Passover is holiday that celebrates the freedom of slaves from Egypt during the time of Moses. In order to set the slaves free, the legend goes that God set 10 plagues on Egypt in order to prove his wrath to those who wouldn’t set his people free. The last plague was sending death to the doors of the civilians to kill the first-born of the families. However, it was instructed to His people to paint the door with the blood of a lamb so that death would passover those homes. After this last plague the Israelites were finally sent free.
It is a significant Jewish holiday every year that people celebrate. The festivities are about a week long (in 2017, starting on Apr. 10 and ending on Apr. 18) and it is kicked off with the Seder feast on the first night. During this feast, people would typically retell the story of Passover (which, if you are interested, can actually be found in the Bible in the book of Exodus 12:3-49), say prayers, sing songs, and ponder one’s service to God. Keep in mind that the way that a family celebrates Passover may look different than what is explained — this is just a general picture of what a typical Passover feast may look like.
So what will you be feasting on? First, get to know the types of food. At the center of the table you will probably see a ceremonial plate of food placed at the center of the table, along with a glass of wine. The plate is called a Seder plate, which will have six symbolic food items: A roasted egg (representing biblical times, as well as spring), a piece of lettuce (to represent the “bitter herbs” explained in Numbers 9:11), a shankbone (to represent the sacrificial lamb), horseradish (representing the bitterness of Egyptian slavery), parsley dipped in salt water (to represent the tears of the slaves), and a mix of apples, nuts, and spices (symbolizing the mortar the Hebrew slaves used to build Egyptian structures).
After a quick glance at the seder plate, you may wonder why there is an extra place setting (or an extra cup of wine) set at the table. This is to welcome the prophet Elijah to the table after the prayers are given. The door will be opened to let in the presence of Elijah, and some may even recite some of the Psalms while doing it. The reasoning long ago to bring in Elijah is to check that those attending are living by the “mitzah” of circumcision, i.e. living by the law of the Bible.
Now, for the actual feasting part. You will not be seeing lamb at the table, given that lambs were sacrificed in order to save the people of Israel. However, other meats such as chicken, beef, or turkey will be served. It’s also common to find smoked fish and egg dishes to go with the meal. One of the most important things to note, however, is the fact that no leavened bread is served at seder. Basically, any food that has wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt that have come in contact with water are forbidden — so, yes, that includes most brands of beer too. That is because these products, also known as “chametz,” represent how quickly the people had to leave Egypt after their freedom. Since they did not have time to let the bread rise to bring on their journey, the Jewish people eat matzah, or matzo — an unleavened bread — as a substitute. You’ll probably see a few matzo balls served throughout the meal as well. If you’re lucky, you may also see a few latkes on the table, and may be even some knishes (a baked or fried pocket filled with meat and vegetables).
Once you’ve given thanks, sang psalms or hymns, and potentially witnessed a wild goose chase looking for a hidden piece of matzo, it’s time to approach the rest of Passover with the full week ahead. A Seder is an important part of the Passover week, but it is only the beginning. The first two and last two days of Passover are actual holidays, where candles are lit and holiday meals take place. The reason for this division is to symbolize the parting of the red sea. Some families won’t do work of any sort on those days, refusing to even drive, write, or use electronics. The four days in between are called the Chol Hamoed, which are semi-festive “intermediate” days. Those who don’t work the first and last two days will probably engage in work during these four days.
There really is so many more traditions for Passover that could be looked at, but for now, these are the necessary things to understand when attending your first Seder.