So picture this…
I am married for three years and had yet to make a Pesach Seder. Each year, we had been able to go to a relative or a hotel, where someone else did all the cooking and Passover prep. I was living in a fool’s paradise, but I didn’t know it.
But in year 4, we bought a house and all the usual Seder invitations just faded away. We had no willing relatives who would let us crash at their place: this one had made Aliyah; another will be visiting family in London; another was going on a Passover cruise to - was it Antarctica? Pretty sneaky of them, we thought, but there it was. We had been abandoned; and there was no budget for a mini-vacation in a K for P hotel.
The die was cast: It was our turn to grow up, create Pesach in our own kitchen, and even host a few guests. You can imagine the stress of being home for the Sedarim and cooking for Pesach for the first time in my life. Trying to stay calm, I made lists and lists. Then I made a list of my lists, in case I should lose any of them.
And I thought I was doing pretty well. We “turned over” the kitchen from crumby chometzdik to nice, clean Pesachdik about a week prior to the holiday. I was cooking every day and freezing stuff like a Pesach pro. I left only one special time-consuming task for the day of the Seder: making my great aunt Zahava’s Passover egg noodles.
So I’m sitting there erev Pesach, all relaxed, making the noodles and smiling to myself. Why does everyone make such a big deal about the Seder? This is a cinch!
And then it dawns on me, more like a sudden electrical surge than enlightenment: there’s more to the Seder than just the meal – there’s, well, the Seder! So I’m scampering around the kitchen, searching for a charoses recipe that I tucked away somewhere, and wondering if I even have all the ingredients. Next, I’m pondering how much salt to put in the salt water. Then I boil up my 10,000th potato. Gotta dip the potato, right? Or is it celery? So I grab a bunch of celery and start chopping and then I think, was it both? Is both ok? I’d better have both on hand, just in case. Oh gosh, the zroah! What do you use for a zroah and how do you roast the darn thing? And an egg too – how do you roast an egg without it exploding all over the place?
Well, I wound up getting the charoses recipe and its ingredients, plus some calm words of wisdom from a (highly amused) neighbor, G-d bless her. And by the time I breathlessly sat down to the Seder - more like sliding into home plate - I had everything in place, sort of.
That was several years ago. We’re staying home this year, as we’ve done for the past few years, and we’ll be hosting two guests of honor: my mother and my mother-in-law. If I can handle the convergence of Passover and two mothers, I can handle anything.
I know a lot of people who go to friends or family and manage to avoid making their own Seder for years on end. But maybe this year, your usual invitations evaporated, or you’re soon expecting a new baby, or you have a newborn and she’s your eighth, and you figure it’s easier to stay home than to pack up eight kids and shlep down to the in-laws.
So if you’re making your first Seder, I can do more than sympathize. I remember what my first Pesach was like and I can give you solid help. I would have given anything, even Aunt Zahava’s noodles, for a list like this. It goes in order of Seder use.
Seder Stuff Checklist:
You’ll need enough wine to provide each adult Seder participant with a minimum of four 3-ounce glassfuls. Ask your rabbi if 3-ounces is sufficient (opinions vary), and then do the math. If you use special cups, measure their volume capacity to see how much they hold, as you’re supposed to fill the cup to the top and drink it all. It could be considerably more than three ounces. How much and what you buy also depends on who is at your table. If you have a number of people who prefer less alcohol – and here, it’s not only female type people, but also males who want to stay awake – you might go for a “kal” or “kalil” variety, which is usually about 4% alcohol. Hardier souls may want the full 12% (and up) wine, but be careful not to have overly sweet stuff, as four cups of that it will hit the stomach pretty hard, not to mention the brain. Then there’s always grape juice. It’s considered preferable to have red wine, not white. (For more details on wine vs grape etc… ask your local rabbi)
✓ Karpas Veggie
Ok – here you have to ascertain (or establish) your family custom. This is where we dip the veggie in salt water, which symbolizes the tears shed in slavery. Some people use boiled potatoes, some use celery or parsley, and there are other customs too. You don’t need much, because each person is only supposed to have a little bit, actually less than a k’zayis – an Israeli olive, which is fairly large as olives go, but it’s still just an olive. (When you’re Jewish, you get used to measuring in olives.)
✓ Salt Water
Any kind of salt will do; and you don’t have to make the water taste like an ocean, just recognizably salty. Taste test before the Seder to avoid nasty experiences.
You’ll need a lot of this, so stock up. The person leading the Seder needs a minimum of three whole matzohs, but some rabbinic opinions involve supplementing the amounts for some of the Seder rituals. Usually, it in involves eating at least half a matzoh for the steps of Motzie Matzoh and Korech. So ask. It’s really important to know how much matzoh you’ll really need when the time comes. Every person at the Seder will eat the specified amount, so you need a few pounds of matzoh on hand.
Here’s a tip: Since the person (or people) with a Seder plate and three matzohs must start with shleimim – unbroken matzohs – it’s a good idea for someone to go through the matzoh boxes before Pesach, separating the shleimim from the broken or questionable matzohs. Put all the perfect ones in one box so you can find them easily when you need them.
✓ Marror/ Bitter Herb Veggie
Use Romaine lettuce, endives, fresh ground horseradish or whatever your family custom mandates. Granted, lettuce and endives are not really bitter, but a custom is a custom, and I won’t argue. The horseradish, on the other hand, is a real trip. It’s hard to calculate how much you’ll need, because these can be used in combination to satisfy the Marror requirement. You’ll need it for the sandwich (Korech) too. For a table of twelve, we use about two heads of Romaine and half of one good size grated horseradish per Seder. But I’m the first to admit that it’s anybody’s guess, and you could get stuck with leftover horseradish.
Another dip – this time it’s Marror into a combination of diced apples, cinnamon, nuts, ginger and wine (well at least that’s the popular Ashkenazi version). It’s supposed to look like the mortar used in building, another symbol of slavery. Don’t put the wine in before the Seder, as it is usually added just before the big dip. There are lots of recipes for charoses; you could probably try a new one every year for a few decades. You don’t need very much of the stuff, so one large apple is usually enough, along with proportionate amounts of the other ingredients.
You don’t eat this. It’s the broiled meat placed on the Seder plate, purely to symbolize the Korban Pesach, the Paschal Lamb, which was a sharp, in-your-face negation of Egyptian idolatry. Since the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, we do not do the Paschal Lamb, so this is just a reminder. Some people use a lamb shank bone, others use a chicken neck. One shortcut in the prep is to stick it in the oven to bake or roast with your other foods, then take it out and hold it in a pair of tongs over your stovetop fire for a few minutes to finish it off as broiled.
✓ Egg (Beitzah)
You don’t eat this either. It’s a symbol of the Korban Chagigah, the Festival Offering that used to be brought to the Temple. It, too, just sits on the Seder plate as reminder. Red alert: boil the egg first. Then hold it in tongs over a fire to “broil” or char it. If you try to broil a raw egg, it will explode. Trust me.
For some reason, kids are fascinated by the broiled zroah and beitzah, and they can’t wait to eat them. I’m not sure what’s so appetizing about charred, dry meat and eggs; it’s a kid thing. They can have them at a later Yom Tov meal.
Speaking of eggs, there’s an Ashkenazic custom of eating boiled eggs in salt water at the start of the Seder meal (Shulchan Orech). So if that’s your custom, make sure you have a peeled boiled egg on hand for each Seder participant. You’re allowed to use the salt water from the Seder; just pour a little over the egg before serving.