Passover 101: What you need to know

/ Source: The Associated Press

The first time Abigail Auer attended a Passover Seder she was eager to make a good impression and asked the hostess — also her future mother-in-law — to suggest a dish she could bring.

Auer, who lives in Atlanta and is Roman Catholic, spent hours chopping and pureeing squash for a casserole.

As she spread on the bread crumb topping, she asked her future husband and his roommate, both Jewish, "How come you can have bread crumbs, but not bread?"

"Their faces just said, 'Oh no,'" recalled Auer. Her mother-in-law, who had provided the recipe, had forgotten it included a bread crumb topping, which the family had always left off in adherence with kosher-for-Passover laws.

And when her attempts to scrape off the bread crumbs failed, Auer left the casserole at home and brought flowers.

For Passover novices, an invitation to a Seder can be exciting, and a bit intimidating.

The most widely celebrated Jewish festival, Passover (which begins at sundown April 19), also known by its Hebrew name Pesach, commemorates the ancient Israelites' liberation from Egyptian slavery.

At a Passover Seder, a celebratory meal, the story of the exodus is retold through readings, rituals and symbolic foods.

While some foods, such as matzo and bitter herbs, are required eating, others (including bread) are forbidden. Traditional Jews can't even store the taboo items in their homes or eat from dishes or cutlery that have touched them.

To a newcomer, the numerous rules and traditions can be overwhelming. Even veteran Seder-goers can find them confusing, particularly since the diversity of American Jews results in many different ways of celebrating.

Here's what you need to know:

The basics

All Seders include a few basic elements, such as kosher wine, matzo (unleavened bread), a Seder plate (a special plate that displays symbolic foods) and a reading of a Haggadah, the book that serves as a guide to the ceremony.

Beyond that, family traditions generally dictate.

Some families will dress formally and spend hours before the meal reading the Haggadah in Hebrew. Others are decidedly more casual, zip through the rituals in English and make the food the main event.

Many families create their own Haggadah, incorporating contemporary readings. Those who use published Haggadahs have hundreds to choose from, including books that embrace vegetarianism, feminism and other causes.

Some families conclude with dessert, while others continue into the night with singing, readings and prayers.

The 'Four Questions'

Early in the Seder the youngest participant typically will ask "The Four Questions." These are:

  • Why one eats matzo (to remember their ancestors, who fled Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise before the journey).
  • Why one eats bitter herbs (a reminder for the bitterness of slavery).
  • Why one dips parsley in salt water (a symbol for the tears shed by slaves) and bitter herbs in charoseth, a sweet fruit paste (the texture evokes the mortar slaves used when making bricks).
  • Why one leans on a pillow or reclines during the meal (to symbolize the comforts of freedom).

The food

Passover lasts eight days and begins with two nights of Seders. Traditions vary greatly depending on a family's background. While many Ashkenazi Jews won't eat legumes, corn, rice, most other grains or products made from them, Sephardic Jews are more lenient.

Most Jews eschew the "the five species of grains" — wheat, rye, oats, barley and spelt, all of which contain gluten.

The exception is matzo, which is made from wheat, but has not been allowed to ferment. Matzo must be baked within 18 minutes of the flour being combined with water.

Legumes also are forbidden, though Sephardic and Conservative Jews consume rice and legumes.

So what is allowed? Fruit is always a safe bet, as are potatoes and other root vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, eggs, fish, dairy and meat (although, in accordance with kosher laws, meat and dairy must be served separately).

If, like most American Jews, your hosts are of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) descent, you are likely to start the meal with chicken-matzo ball soup, as well as gefilte fish (ground fish mixed with matzo meal, eggs and seasonings).

Other Passover favorites include brisket, roast lamb and a variety of side dishes, such as potato kugel, tzimmes (sweet potatoes and carrots) and assorted casseroles bound together with eggs and matzo meal.

For dessert, expect macaroons, fruit compote, candy and cakes and tortes made with ground nuts or other kosher-for-Passover flours. Beer and most liquor is not allowed, but wine generally flows freely throughout the Seder.

The rituals

The Seder consists of 15 rituals, most of which occur before the meal is served. They include lighting candles, blessing wine, washing hands, breaking the matzo, dipping vegetables and telling the story of the exodus from Egypt.

Usually, one of the hosts serves as the leader, but guests take turns reading sections from the Haggadah.

Interspersed are various traditional songs. Many Seders also feature contemporary readings on the themes of slavery and liberation.

Other tips

  • Don't show up ravenous. "You're going to have to wait a while until the real food gets served," says Micah Sachs, online managing editor of, a Web magazine for interfaith families exploring Jewish life. "If you're lucky, and the hosts are compassionate, they'll include some finger foods for you to nibble on, but don't count on it."

  • Don't touch the food on the Seder plate, a large dish that holds a shank bone, parsley, bitter herbs, a hard-boiled egg, charoseth and matzo. "Some of it is symbolic and is never eaten," says Sachs. "Some of it is eaten, but only at proscribed times during the Seder. Follow your host's lead."

  • If you bring wine or prepared food, make sure it is labeled "Kosher for Passover" or that your host approves it in advance. "You can't go wrong with fresh fruit or kosher wine or kosher-for-Passover candy," suggests Gil Marks, author of numerous Jewish cookbooks and a forthcoming encyclopedia of Jewish food.

  • If you want to bring a gift but want to avoid the quest for kosher-for-Passover food, consider bringing flowers or a book of Jewish interest instead, says Stuart Matlins, co-author of "How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook."

  • Watch your alcohol. During the Seder, participants traditionally drink four cups of wine. Use your judgment as to how full your cup should be each time, whether to substitute grape juice and how much, if any, additional wine to drink during the meal.