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Laws of the Seder

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

A practical guide to the Seder night.

Seder Plate

The items on the Seder plate are placed in a very specific order. Starting from the bottom, and going clockwise, the order is: Chazeret (lettuce), Karpas (vegetable), Beitzah (roasted egg), Zero'ah (roasted bone), Charoset (nuts and dates). And in the center is Marror (bitter herbs).

If this diagram does not match the plate you have, that is because opinions vary slightly ― but this is how it is stated in the Code of Jewish Law.

The reason for this order? The Talmud states a concept of Ain ma'avrin al hamitzvot ― we shouldn't "pass over" any mitzvah that is in front of us. For this reason, the Seder plate is arranged to follow the order of the Haggadah, so that whatever you need next will be located closest to you, to avoid having to "skip over" any other item.

The Seder plate should be located to the right of the leader.

A bowl of salt water should be placed on the table, near the Seder plate. The salt water should be prepared prior to the start of the holiday.

In fact, since the Seder cannot begin before nightfall, and since it can be rather long, it is important to have everything ready ahead of time so that one can start as soon as synagogue services are completed.

Additionally, three matzot should be placed on the table ― either under or in front of the Seder plate. They should be covered and separated from each other by a napkin or cloth.

For the Seder, it is traditional to use round, handmade shmurah matzah. This type of matzah has been carefully guarded against any contact with water from the time of reaping, grinding, kneading and baking. The source for using shmurah matzah at the Seder comes from the Torah verse, Ush'martem et hamatzot ― "And you shall guard the matzot."

"Seder" literally means "order." The activities and mitzvot of Pesach night were codified into a specific order, because otherwise we could get confused and forget!

There are actually seven different mitzvot that we perform at the Seder. Two are from the Torah:

  1. telling the Exodus story
  2. eating matzah

The other mitzvot are rabbinical:

  1. eating Marror (bitter herbs)
  2. eating the Afikomen (an extra piece of matzah for dessert as a reminder of the Passover offering)
  3. saying Hallel (Psalms of praise)
  4. drinking the Four Cups of wine
  5. demonstrating acts of freedom and aristocracy ― e.g. sitting with a pillow cushion and leaning as we eat and drink, and beginning the meal "with a dip."

The 15 steps of our Seder were composed in the 11th century by Talmudic commentators, either Rashi or Tosfot.

Laws of the Four Cups of Wine

At the Seder, every Jew should drink four cups of wine corresponding to the four expressions of freedom mentioned in the Torah (Exodus 6: 6-7).

Since we are free people this evening, nobody should pour their own wine, but rather each person should pour for another ― as if we are royalty who have servants.

It is best to use red wine, since this alludes to the blood spilled by Pharaoh, the blood as part of the Ten Plagues, and the blood the Jews put on their doorposts.

Someone who has difficulty drinking wine may use grape juice, but should add a little wine so that the taste of alcohol is detectable.

Everyone should have their own wine cup, which holds a Revi'it ― i.e. a minimum of 98cc (3.3 oz.) according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, or 150cc (5.1 oz.) according to the Chazon Ish. When Passover falls on Shabbat, the minimum amount for the first cup is 4.42 oz., even according to Rabbi Feinstein.

It is preferable to drink the entire cup of wine for each of the Four Cups. Otherwise, you should at least drink a majority of the cup.

Jewish law defines an act of "drinking" as two swallows without pausing. This is the preferable way to consume the Four Cups. Otherwise, you should at least consume the wine within four minutes.

As an expression of freedom, the Sages enacted leaning to the side while drinking the Four Cups of wine. Everyone should lean to the left and back!

The Blessings

Kiddush should be recited while seated. You should have in mind to fulfill two mitzvot:

  1. the mitzvah of Kiddush that we say on every Shabbat and Yom Tov
  2. plus the special mitzvah to drink Four Cups of wine at the Seder

When saying the Shehechianu blessing, you should have in mind that it applies to all the various mitzvot of Seder night.

When the Seder falls on Saturday night, you should also make the Havdallah blessings as listed in the text, using the Yom Tov candles as your Havdallah candle.


Everyone at the Seder now washes their hands in the manner of washing for bread ― pouring water from a cup, covering each hand up to the wrist.This is done WITHOUT a blessing.

We do this because any detached food that has become wet with certain liquids (water, wine, blood, dew, milk, olive oil and honey) makes the food susceptible to spiritual uncleanliness and requires washing of hands if the food will be eaten with the hands. Therefore, if the food will be eaten with a fork, then no washing is necessary. In that case, at least the leader should wash his hands, and then dip all the pieces.


Take the Karpas vegetable and dip it in salt water.

This must be a vegetable whose bracha is Borei Pri Ha-Adamah when eaten raw, but that is not useable for Marror. Options include celery, parsley, or potato.

During preparation, it is important to check the vegetable carefully, since leafy vegetables in particular can contain tiny insects, which are obviously not kosher to eat.

One should eat LESS than the size of a kezayit (15 grams), to avoid having to say an after-blessing.

You should have in mind that the blessing will also cover the blessing on the Marror ― thus linking the Karpas to the meal, and fulfilling your after-blessing obligation with Grace After Meals.

If you inadvertently ate more than a kezayit, post facto you need not say an after-blessing.


The leader of the Seder breaks the middle matzah in two. The smaller piece is put back in between the other two matzot, to be eaten later at Hamotzi. The larger piece is wrapped up and becomes the Afikomen.

The Talmud states that children should try to "steal" the Afikomen in order that they will be encouraged to remain awake during the Seder.

Notice that the two mitzvot of eating matzah at the Seder will be from the same piece.


As we begin the main part of the Seder ― the telling of the Exodus ― it is important to have a good translation of the Haggadah so you can understand what you are saying. This first paragraph of the Haggadah is written not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic, which was the common language of the time.

Many have the custom of saying aloud, "I hereby am about to fulfill the mitzvah of telling the Exodus story."

We uncover the matzot, then keep the broken matzah raised for all to see, until the start of the Four Questions.

Four Questions

Remove the Seder plate from the table until it is time to eat. We do this in order to prompt questions, and also to show that we're not going to eat until we've told the story!

It is customary for the youngest person at the Seder to recite the Four Questions.

At this time, we also pour the Second Cup of wine.

Avadim Hayeenu

The three matzot should be left uncovered for the duration of telling the Exodus story.

The Mishnah Brura says that this declaration, "We were slaves in Egypt," is the essential answer to the Four Questions, and that after this point it is permitted for young children to go to sleep.

Vi-Hee She-Amda

In an expression of joy, the matzot are covered and the wine glasses are raised while reciting this paragraph.

Ten Plagues

Every time one of the plagues is mentioned, we dip our finger in the wine and spill a drop. This reminds us that our cup of joy is not complete because people had to die for our salvation. Thus it is considered insensitive ― after completing the drops ― to lick one's finger!

Rather than your "pinky" finger, you should use your "pointer finger" (Etzba in Hebrew), which corresponds to the declaration in the Torah that the plagues were Etzba Elohim ― "the finger of God" (Exodus 8:15).

You should spill a total of 16 drops ― three for "blood, fire and pillars of smoke," 10 more for the plagues, and another three for Rabbi Yehudah's abbreviation.

After all the drops have been spilled, the cup should be refilled.


Cover the matzot, raise the cup of wine, and recite the paragraph aloud and joyfully.

Second Cup

When you drink the wine, don't forget to lean. So important is this expression of freedom, that if one forgets to lean while drinking the Second Cup, the law states you have to drink it again!

If we already made the blessing over wine on the First Cup, why do we make a new blessing here again? Because of the significant time-lapse between the two cups.


Since we already washed our hands previously before the Karpas, you should intentionally make your hands dirty, so that the blessing on the washing here should not be in vain. This can be accomplished by touching your shoe or scratching your head.

How do we wash our hands? First, fill a large cup with water. Remove any rings from your fingers. Pour half the water - two times - over your right hand, up to the wrist. Then pour the remaining water - two times - over your left hand. Then say the blessing and dry your hands. (See instructional video.)

From this point onward, be careful not to talk until you've eaten the matzah. This is to avoid any "mental interruptions" between the washing and the eating.

Better yet, try not to get involved in any side-talk until after you've finished eating also the Marror (bitter herbs) and the Korech sandwich. In this way, the blessings of "Motzi, Matzah and Marror" will also carry over to the sandwich.


It is a Torah mitzvah to eat matzah on Seder night.

Jewish law defines an act of "eating" as swallowing a kezayit within two to four minutes (kiday achilat pras). If this is difficult, you may sip some water while eating. At the very least, the matzah must be consumed within nine minutes.

The time begins not with the first bite, but with the first swallow. Therefore, you can gain some extra time by chewing up some matzah before taking the first swallow.

A kezayit is approximately 45-50 cc, which is roughly two thirds of a square matzah, or one half of the hand-made round matzah. (According to the Chazon Ish, the amount is about 25 percent bigger.)

Unlike when we make "Hamotzi" on Shabbat, on Passover we do not dip the matzah in salt. This is because it is a special mitzvah to taste the matzah itself.

There is a custom as well to kiss the matzah before eating it, in accordance with the verse, "Serve God with joy" (Psalms 100:2).

Before the leader recites the blessing, everyone should have prepared in front of them enough matzah to fulfill the mitzvah properly.

Don't forget to eat the matzah while leaning to the left.


We recite a second blessing over matzah as the special mitzvah of Seder night.

After reciting the blessing, the leader should break both matzot together, so there is minimal interruption between the blessings and the eating.

Since there is probably not enough from the top and middle matzah to fulfill everyone's minimum volume of 45-50 cc, everyone should eat at least a small piece of both these two matzot, supplementing it with other matzot from the table.

The Vilna Gaon says that a Jew fulfills a mitzvah every time he eats a kezayit of matzah during the entire week of Passover.


Take an amount of Marror equivalent to the size of a kezayit. Even though many have the custom of using horseradish, the Talmud nevertheless includes Chasa ― Romaine lettuce - as one vegetable which may be used as Marror.

If Romaine lettuce is used, the leaves should total eight-by-ten inches, or about 25-29 cc. Extreme care should be taken to check the lettuce since frequently there are small bugs in the leaves.

If horseradish is used, it should be compacted into 1.1 fluid ounce ― an amount equivalent to one half of a typical egg.

Horseradish in jars bought from the stores should not be used, since sweeteners are added to make them less bitter. Particularly problematic is "red horseradish" which is actually a mixture of beets and horseradish.

If you use pure horseradish, it should be ground up before Yom Tov begins.

Before making the blessing, the Marror should be dipped into the Charoset, and then shaken off. The Talmud says a bit of Charoset serves as an "antiseptic" to dilute the harsh effects of the Marror. When reciting the blessing, have in mind that the Marror will be eaten in the "Korech sandwich" as well.

You should not lean while eating the Marror.

It must be consumed within two to four minutes of the first swallow.


Take the bottom matzah (remaining from the original three) and make a sandwich with the Marror.

For this mitzvah, it is okay to use smaller amounts. The amount of matzah should be approximately 23-25 cc ― roughly one-third of a square matzah, or one-fourth of a round matzah. (According to the Chazon Ish, the amount is about 25 percent bigger.)

The amount of Marror needed is 8 X 10 in. for leaves and 3 X 5 for stalks of Romaine lettuce, or one compacted fluid ounce of horseradish.

Dip the sandwich into the Charoset and then shake it off.

Say the paragraph of "Remembrance of the Temple." There is no blessing.

Eat the sandwich while leaning to the left.

It must be consumed within two to four minutes of the first swallow.

Shulchan Orech

Eat a festive meal. It is traditional to begin the meal with an egg, which symbolizes the Chagigah offering. This way, everyone starts the Seder meal with the same thing ― as in Temple times when everyone ate the Chagigah offering.

The meal should preferably end before midnight, in order to eat the Afikomen by that time. It is important not to eat so much that you will be too full to eat the Afikomen.

The meal should not include any roasted meat, in order to distinguish our meal from that of Temple times, when the "Pascal lamb" was eaten roasted. (Dry-pan roasting is a problem; the juices produced are not sufficient to be considered "cooking.")

The meal is actually an extension of the "Hallel" praises, so one should continue to speak about the Exodus throughout the meal. As well, the entire meal should ideally be eaten while leaning to the left.


The Afikomen should preferably be eaten before the middle of the night. (This exact time will vary depending on geographic location; check with your local rabbi.) If eating the Afikomen by that time will mean rushing through the Seder, then it may be eaten later.

The Afikomen should be eaten while you are "full" ― yet with some room still left in your stomach. If you are full to the point of "stuffed," eating the Afikomen might not halachically be considered an act of "eating."

The amount of matzah that everyone should eat for the Afikomen is a kezayit. This equals approximately 45-50 cc, which is roughly two thirds of a square matzah, or one half of the hand-made round matzot. (According to the Chazon Ish, the amount is about 25 percent bigger.) If an individual finds eating this amount difficult, then he may eat half that amount.

Be sure to give each person at least one small piece from the Afikomen, and then make up the remaining volume from other matzot.

After the Afikomen, nothing else should be eaten for the remainder of the night ― except for the drinking of water, tea, and the remaining two cups of wine.

The Afikomen is eaten while leaning to the left.

It must be consumed within two to four minutes of the first swallow.


Everyone should rinse their wine cup clean, and then fill it for the Third Cup, which will be drunk at the conclusion of "Grace After Meals."

It is customary for the master of the house to lead the "Grace After Meals" on the night of Passover.

On various occasions during the year, the leader will say "Grace After Meals" while holding a cup of wine. At the Seder, everyone may do so!

Third Cup / Hallel

The Hallel prayers (praises of God) are completed while holding the Third Cup of Wine. It is preferable to drink the entire cup of wine. Otherwise, you should at least drink a majority of the cup.

It is preferable to "drink" the cup in two swallows without pausing. Otherwise, you should at least consume the wine within four minutes.

Don't forget to lean to the left while drinking.

Open Door for Elijah

Pour the Fourth Cup, and also the extra cup for Elijah.

It is customary to use the "leftovers" from Elijah's cup for Kiddush the next day.

Fourth Cup

It is preferable to drink the entire cup of wine. Otherwise, you should at least drink a majority of the cup.

It is preferable to "drink" the cup in two swallows without pausing. Otherwise, you should at least consume the wine within four minutes.

Don't forget to lean to the left while drinking.

The after-blessing for wine should then be recited.

Chad Gadya

Although the Seder has officially ended, it is praiseworthy to continue speaking about the Exodus until sleep overtakes you. Many have the custom of reciting "Song of Songs" at this time.


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