The Seder Service has been celebrated at the beginning of Passover for nearly 2000 years. Prior to that the festival was marked by animal sacrifices but this was no longer possible after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
The service takes place in the home and is one of the focal points of the Jewish Calendar when friends and family gather together.
Ostensibly, it is a saga relating and commemorating the release of the tribe of Israelites after more than four hundred years of slavery in Egypt.
To the student of Kabbalah, however, the items used in the performance of the ritual and the sequence in which the steps are made point to a much more universal message. It may a reasonable assumption that this was the intention of those who devised the service.
The performance of the Seder Service enables the participants to recognise the various levels of existence and to connect with them to whatever degree he or she chooses.
The table is set prior to the Seder Service
The view has been put forward that the Last Supper, celebrated by Jesus and his disciples before his crucifixion was a Seder Service, but given that Jesus died nearly 40 years before the destruction of the Second Temple, this seems doubtful.
The table for the Seder service is prepared with the following items of which e) – k) correspond to different levels of consciousness on the Tree of Life as can be seen in the diagram below:
a) A white table cloth
This symbolises the purity of the occasion. In traditional Jewish households this would always be unstarched as starch constitutes leaven which must be removed from the house for the duration of the festival.
b) Two white candles
These are lit at the beginning of the festival (sundown at the beginning of the 15th. day of the Hebrew month of Nisan) with the usual blessing. The two candles represent the two outer columns of the Tree of Life which are lit by human consciousness forming the central pillar of the Tree.
c) One glass of wine for each person.
This is refilled three times so that each person drinks four cups of wine during the evening – one of a number of “fours” which draw our attention to the four worlds described in Kabbalah. Grape juice may be used as an alternative to wine Traditionally the wine in western countries has been of the sweet red variety symbolising the sweetness of freedom after slavery.
d) A cup of wine placed on the centre of the table
This is “Elijah’s cup” in order to encourage the presence of Elijah to join the proceedings. In some families it is drunk by the youngest person present at the end of the meal in order to help them sleep. Some people only fill this cup at the point in the service where Elijah is specifically invited.
e) Three Matzot (singular Matzah)
Matzah, or unleavened bread, is made of wheat which is baked before it has time to rise symbolising the fact that Israelites did not have time to let the dough rise before they had to leave Egypt.
These are placed on top of each other, separated by white cloths or napkins. Kabbalistically this is the “bread of life” and the three matzot represent the three columns of the Tree of Life - active, passive and consciousness.
Some students of Kabbalah suggest that refraining from eating yeast or risen products during Passover symbolises the removal of pride. My own interpretation is
Each of the items which is part of the Seder Service represents an aspect of the Kabbalistic Diagram of the Tree of Life.
This can turn a ceremony which is recited by rote into an active meditation for the participant who is awake to the inner meaning of the ritual.
that ordinary – or leavened - bread is a complete food symbolically since it contains the four worlds; the wheat of Assiyah, the water of Yetzirah and the yeast (which causes the bread to rise) of Beriah are unified in the oven by the fire of Atzilut.
Contrast this with the unleavened bread prepared in Egypt which is incomplete since it contains no yeast. Symbolically, this shows our lack of wholeness as individuals when we are in a state of slavery; we eat matzah to remember this state from which we hopefully are continuing to evolve. We can, of course, be slaves to our emotions, habits or desires just as much to the Egyptian taksmasters who enslaved the Israelites.
At the end of the service a prayer is offered that we may celebrate the Seder “next year in Jerusalem” – i.e. when we have lifted our consciousness from Yesod to Tiferet, from the lesser to the greater state rather than physically.
The following items are all placed on a large plate which in turn is placed on the table next to the matzot.
A Seder Plate – clockwise from top – horseradish, egg, shank bone, spring onion, charoset, parsley
f) Roasted Shank Bone (Lamb)
The shank bone can be bought from a butcher and is roasted in the oven before the service far enough in advance so that it is cold. It commemorates that lamb which the Israelites were instructed to roast and eat at one sitting. Modern non-meat variations include a piece of ginger or a mushroom.
This should be roasted in the oven for about twenty minutes at a medium heat and allowed to cool before being placed on the plate so that it resembles the sacrifice which it commemorates. The egg represents birds which are a higher level of existence than the grains
and vegetables but below the mammal symbolised by the shank bone. The egg also indicates the cyclical nature of life – its beginning and end.
This requires preparation beforehand and there are innumerable recipes of varying complexity. It is essentially a sweetened paste signifying the cement which the Israelites used to join together the bricks that formed the treasure cities of Pithom and Raamses they were ordered to build. Coming from an Ashkenazi background, I use a mixture of chopped apple, ground almonds, cinnamon and sweet red wine to make charoset. Other variations from Sefardi or Mizrachi traditions might include such items as orange, orange juice, and dates.
Most people use parsley as the green vegetable but any spring vegetable such as spring onion or chervil can also be used. The important point is that it should grow above the ground in which it is planted.
j) Bitter Herbs
A root of horseradish is commonly used - creamed horseradish can be used as a substitute if a root is not available. The bitter taste of the horseradish symbolises the bitterness of the enslaved Children of Israel. Horseradish is not native to the Middle East and any bitter herb can be used – it is possible that lettuce was the original vegetable since the centre of the lettuce is bitter. Some families use two different types of herb – the illustration above shows a spring onion as well as horseradish.
k) Salt water
Self-explanatory – a small bowl with salt dissolved in cold water symbolising the tears which were shed by the Children of Israel when they were in slavery.
There is (inevitably) debate about exactly what is put on a Seder plate – a good and accessible discussion of this can be found here
The Fourteen Steps of the Seder Service
Seder means “order” and the Seder service is so called because everything proceeds in a set order.
The fourteen steps are as follows:
1. Blessing over Wine
2. Celebrant washing hands without making a blessing
3. Eating the green vegetable dipped in salt water
4. Breaking the middle matzah
5. Narration of the Exodus
6. Everyone washing hands and making the blessing
7. Eating matzah
8. Eating bitter herbs dipped in charoset
9. Eating bitter herbs and matzah
11. Eating the afikoman
12. Grace after meals
13. Recitation of Hallel – psalms
From a Kabbalistic perspective these fourteen steps represent an ascent of the Tree from the physical to the spiritual level as shown in the diagram at the beginning of this section.
1. Malkut - Blessing the Wine
This is the usual blessing that it is made over wine at the commencement of Sabbath or a Festival. It is the first stage of the journey and the whole journey is therefore sanctified by the blessing
2. Feeling Triad (Hod-Netzach-Yesod) – Washing the Hands without a Blessing
The first part of the evening takes place below the liminal line of Hod-Netzach. As such, we are in the ordinary world governed by thoughts, actions and feelings. Feelings being watery, the celebrant washes his hands and indicates his willingness to proceed but everyone is alerted that all is not in the usual pattern since no blessing is said after washing the hands as would normally be the case.
3. Action Triad (Netzach-Yesod-Malkut) – Eating the Green Vegetable.The physicality associated with the action triad is symbolised by a physical act – that of eating the green vegetable. Although it is not the lowest form of food on the table those above it have their own place later in the evening. The green vegetable is rooted in the earth but grows above it and shows the possibility which human beings are
The fourteen steps of the Seder Service show an ascent of the levels of consciousness embedded in the diagram of the Tree of Life.
offered of reaching higher levels of consciousness by dedicated effort.
4. Yesod - Breaking the Middle Matzah.
The three matzot, as already stated, represent the three pillars of the Tree of Life. Breaking the Middle Pillar symbolises the breaking of the connection between the worlds of Yetsirah and Assiyah which is the essence of removing oneself from bondage or slavery to the physical world.
The ten plagues were sent to Egypt so that Pharaoh – or our internal Pharaoh - could release the Children of Israel/our real selves from (self-inflicted slavery).
Half of the middle matzah is hidden by the youngest person prese2nt.
This symbolises the two levels of knowledge – the exoteric is what we are given and remains on the table, the matzah that is hidden is the esoteric knowledge that we have to find out for ourselves.
See more about this in step 11.
5. Thinking Triad (Hod-Yesod-Malkut) – Narrative.
After the action of eating the green vegetable and the Yesodic breaking of the matzah our attention moves to the passive side of the Tree. Speech and contemplation, which are the hallmarks of the thinking triad are embodied in the narrative of the departure from Egypt.
The narrative is prompted by the youngest present asking the four questions – “Ma Nishtana Ha’La’ye-la Ha’zer Mi’col Ha’lay’lot” – “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
In many households turns are taken to narrate the story of the Exodus.
6. Liminal Line (Hod-Netzach) Washing the Hands with Blessing.
Once the story has been told we come to the more ceremonial and central part of the evening. Firstly, everyone washes their hands and makes the appropriate blessing indicating entry to a new level – an initiation - such events being associated with the Awakening Triad into which we are about to enter.
7. Awakening Triad (Hod-Netzach-Tiferet) – eating Matzah.
This is a major difference from other days of the year – instead of eating risen bread as usual - we eat unleavened bread after the appropriate blessing.
8. a) Negative Emotional Triad (Tiferet-Gevurah-Hod) – the bitter herbs
Bitter Herbs symbolise the oppression of the Children of Israel by the Egyptians are eaten after the appropriate blessing.
8. b) Positive Emotional Triad (Tiferet-Hesed-Netzach)
Just as the symbol of the Tao has the black spot within the white and the white spot within the black so there is the hope for sweetness in the darkest oppression and the seeds of misery exist in our most joyous hour. The bitter herb is dipped in the charoset to show how these two emotions are inextricably linked.
9. Tiferet - Hillel’s Sandwich.
Bitter Herbs are eaten with matzah. We read just before this point of the obligation to make mention of Pesach, Matzah and Maror - Unleavened Bread, Bitter Herbs and the Sacrificed Lamb – these are the essence of the Seder Service. Rabbi Hillel, in the first century CE (“In the days when the Temple stood”) would eat the bitter herbs and the matzah with the sacrificed lamb but since animal sacrifices are no longer carried out the eating of the bitter herbs with matzah suffices. Some families also include charoset in the Hillel sandwich.
10. Soul Triad (Hesed-Gevurah-Tiferet) – the Meal.
Eating – or breaking bread together - symbolises the essence of companionship and spiritual fellowship. It is the central feature and the sweetest part of the evening thus symbolising our very soul.
11. Da’at – the Afikoman
The half of the middle matzah which was hidden in step 4 is now retrieved. The two halves of the middle matzah represent exoteric and esoteric knowledge (the middle pillar).
The half of the matzah which is left on the table is the knowledge which we are given - or traditional religion. It is up to each of us to seek out the knowledge which lies hidden beneath the surface – the esoteric tradition - which may be in the form of any religious tradition but which is actually the same whichever route is taken.
The breaking of the matzah at Yesod and its recovery at Da’at also shows the link between the worlds. On the Jacob’s Ladder the Da’at of Assiyah corresponds to the Yesod of Yetsirah while the Da’at of Yetsirah corresponds to the Yesod of Beriah.
12. Binah – Grace after Meals
Once the afikoman has been eaten the rest of the service is concerned with the world of spirit rather than the world of physicality. Each of the first eleven steps involved a physical substance – steps twelve, thirteen and fourteen do not.
On the Tree, the second part of the service symbolises the upper face (Keter-Hochmah-Tiferet-Binah) while the first part symbolised the lower face (Tiferet-Nesach-Malkut-Hod).
The Grace after Meals is a formal prayer and therefore placed at Binah.
13. Hochmah – Hallel
As a complement to the prayer of gratitude which is symbolised by the Grace after Meals so Hochmah is represented by the psalms of praise which constitute the Hallel - a collection of psalms praising God which are sung in the synagogue services on festivals.
14. Keter – Prayer for Acceptance
The last step of the Seder is to state that everything has been carried out in accordance with the prescription and to petition for a state of redemption – the metaphorical Zion. This also unifies the last three steps which show the form of Jewish Prayer – thanks (left pillar), praise (right pillar) and petition (central pillar).
© Jonathon Clark 2005-2020