There are lots of back seat drivers at the Seder. Your kezayit (portion) of matzah is not big enough, they chide. Red wine only; shmurah matzot or nothing; don’t start the Seder before nightfall; must finish the meal before midnight; don’t drink wine between the four cups; the Seder plate set in the wrong order. This article is intended as a defensible guide for the brave volunteer who leads the Seder (the ba’al haseder).
Let’s start with the Seder plate. According to the Ari and the Aruch Hashulchan, the following items are placed on top of the Seder plate in this order:
At the bottom of the top level, facing nearest to the ba’al haseder, lie the chazeret, lettuce or horseradish. Above the lettuce lies the charoset on the right and the karpas, parsely, alongside it on the left. In the middle level of the top level, facing the baal haseder, lies the marror. Above the marror on the top level, facing the baal haseder, lies the shank bone on the right and the egg alongside it on the left. Below the top level of the Seder plate lie the three matzot.
The charoset is made of fruits, wine and spices to form a thick mixture reminiscent of the mortar used by the Jews in their slave labor. Karpas, which is mostly parsley, celery or radish, may be any vegetable over which the blessing “Boreh peri ha’adamah” is recited, except vegetables such as lettuce, which qualify for marror. The purpose of karpas, not usually eaten before a meal, is to trigger the curiosity of the child to whom the story of the Exodus should be principally addressed. The word karpas consists of the Hebrew letters that spell out 600,000 Jews in slavery.
For marror, horseradish is most frequently used, even though the Mishnah enumerates five species of eligible marror. The horseradish should not be eaten whole but should be grated after one returns home from synagogue and kept covered until used in order to preserve its strength. The purpose of the marror is to remind us of the bitter times endured by the Jewish slaves. The Torah requires the marror to be eaten together with matzah and the Korban Pesach. Since this is no longer possible today, marror is a rabbinical, not a biblical, requirement. Accordingly, there is more room for leniency, and a sick person or one who would become sick from ground horseradish may instead eat the horseradish leaves, provided they are fresh enough to be eaten. The minimum amount of marror required to be eaten is a kezayit, approximately one fluid ounce, and it should be consumed within nine minutes.
The shank bone, like the Paschal Lamb it signifies, should be roasted before Pesach, but in the absence of the Temple it should not be eaten on Seder night. The roasted egg, which represents the korban chagigah, the regular festival offering, was chosen for this purpose because it symbolizes national mourning for the destruction of the Temple which has rendered both the korban Pesach and the korban chagigah inapplicable. Eating matzot on the first Seder night is a biblical requirement independent of the korban Pesach; accordingly, there is less leniency in its application.
The minimum amount of matzah the Torah requires a person to eat on the first Seder night is a kezayit, which according to the Chazon Ish is approximately one half of a machine-made matzah. The additional rabbinical requirements of eating matzah with maror and eating the afikoman require the consumption of at least an additional whole machine-made matzah, being a total of one and a half matzot in all. All who are required to abstain from eating chametz on Pesach are required by the Torah to eat matzah on the first Seder night; this includes men, women and children even as young as five or six who understand the Exodus story.
Matzah may only be made from flour and water, the same ingredients that if left together for more than 18 minutes would become chametz. Shmurah matzah is required for both Seder nights. According to some halachic opinions (Rif and Rambam), in order for matzah to qualify as shmurah, it is sufficient that it be guarded from becoming wet from the time the grain is ground into flour. According to this opinion, today’s machine-made matzot qualify as shmurah. According to a stricter opinion of the Rif, in order to qualify as shmurah, the wheat must be guarded from becoming wet from the time it is harvested. The matzot we refer to as shmurah matzot are those that comply with the stricter requirements of the Rif.