Minhagim are important at all times of the year, but on Pesach they are especially beloved. While we’ve all heard of the gebrochts/non-gebrochts and kitniyot/non-kitniyot debates, there are many minhagim that have nothing to do with the food we’ll be eating during the week of chag. Instead, they play a starring role during the Seder. So grab your Haggadah and see why this night is not only different from all other nights, but also different depending upon where your ancestors lived.
The house is clean. The last bit of chametz has been burned. What happens next?
In some Ethiopian families, the matriarch would destroy all of her earthenware dishes and make a new set. This symbolized making a true break from the past for the entire family.
While most Ashkenazi women light the same number of lights on Yom Tov as on Shabbos, on Leil Seder some Sephardim have a unique custom with roots in Kabbalah. As Leil Seder radiates an extremely powerful spiritual light, the women light seven candles to increase the light in our physical world.
Ashkenazi men who lead the Seder wear a white kittel, although there are different customs concerning a newly-married man. Some authorities say that during the first year of his marriage a man shouldn’t wear a kittel – which symbolizes both the white-clad angels and a person’s burial shroud – while others say he should. Most Sephardim and Chabad chassidim don’t have to worry about this issue because they don’t wear a kittel to the Seder.
After everyone comes home from shul, most of us close the front door and keep it closed until we open it for Eliyahu HaNavi later in the evening. But if you were from Yemen, you would leave your door open throughout the entire Seder. This way, if Mashiach arrived during the night, you could rush out the open door to greet him without wasting even a few seconds in fumbling to unlock the door.
The Seder Table
We all have a minhag to set the table with our finest china and crystal, but in Hungary they took the custom a step further and placed all their gold and silver jewelry on the Seder table as well. This was done to commemorate Shemos 12:35: “The Israelites did as Moshe instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing.”
If you lived in the Greek city Ioannina, you didn’t have a Seder. Instead, you had a Hova, which is the Hebrew word for “obligation.” Before making Kiddush, the entire family would place their hands on the table and recite in Hebrew: “This is the table before Hashem.”
The Seder Plate
If you should ever attend a Yemenite Seder, you might be surprised to see there is no Seder plate on the table. That’s because the entire table is turned into one big Seder plate. Each guest is provided with his or her own serving of the symbolic foods – except for the lettuce, which is spread out on the table.
There was no Seder plate in Tunisia either. Instead, Tunisian Jews put the symbolic foods into a reed basket, called a sistu, which was placed on the table. Before reciting “Ha Lachma,” the mother would go around the table and circle the basket over the head of each participant, while saying, “We quickly left Egypt.” The participants would answer, “Yesterday we were slaves. Today we are free. This year we are here. Next year we will be free people in Eretz Yisrael.”
Tunisian Jews weren’t the only ones to use their heads at the start of the Seder. Indeed, the custom seems to have originated in Spain. Before “Ha Lachma,” the leader would walk around the table and tap each participant’s head with the Seder plate. You can see an illustration of this minhag in the fourteenth-century Barcelona Haggadah. However, according to the Guadalajara Haggadah, which was printed in Spain, circa 1480, only the children got tapped.
After the Expulsion, the Jews took the minhag with them – although in time many variations developed. In Morocco, for instance, the Seder plate was brought into the room with much ceremony and singing. Before the leader placed the plate on the table, he passed it over the heads of all the participants.
There are many explanations for this minhag. Some say the head tapping is supposed to remind us of the oppression we experienced when we were slaves. Another opinion says this moment is a time of blessing – an opportune time to ask Hashem for whatever you need. Therefore, the mother might pray for good health for her family, a good shidduch for an unmarried child, or peace and prosperity for all Am Yisrael.
When we dip the karpas, what do we dip it in? If you’re Ashkenazi, you’ll dip your bit of parsley or potato into salt water, as a reminder of the tears shed by our ancestors in Egypt. Sephardim will usually dip in vinegar, although there is an older custom to dip the karpas in the charoset.
Of course, it’s the matzah that is the true star of the Seder, and so it’s not surprising that there are many minhagim involving it. Whether it occurs during Yachatz – when we break the middle matzah into two parts and put aside the large piece for the afikomen – or during Maggid and “Ha Lachma,” many Sephardic communities had the custom to dramatize the Exodus at this point.
In one variation the afikomen is wrapped in a large napkin and given to one of the children, who would sling the napkin over his shoulder. In Egypt, each person was given a chance to hold the wrapped afikomen. Although the text varied from country to country, it always included these two questions and answers:
Where are you from? the leader asks.
I’ve come from Egypt.
Where are you going to?
I’m going to Jerusalem.
The Jews of Iraq and Kurdistan would start their little play by having the child go outside and knock on the door. After he was invited inside and answered the questions above, he would recite the traditional Four Questions. In other places, such as in Turkey and Greece, it was the Seder leader who left the room and returned with the wrapped matzah slung over one shoulder and a walking stick in his other hand. In Yemen, the leader wouldn’t just answer the above questions; as he walked around the table, leaning on his cane, he would tell the group all about his life as a slave and the miracles he witnessed when he came out of Egypt.
While we might think this was only a Sephardi minhag, Rabbi Asher of Lunel wrote in his Sefer Minhagot, circa early thirteenth-century, about an interesting custom observed by the Ashkenazim of Germany: “I heard that in Allemagne, after eating karpas, they uproot the table and take the matzot and wrap them in coverings and bear them on their shoulders and walk to the corners of the house, and then they return to their places and recite the Haggadah.”
In Hungary the leader would wrap the afikoman in a scarf, which he put on his shoulder. He would then stand up and say to his family in Yiddish: Geimir, geimir! (“Let’s go! Let’s go!”). In Southern Germany, the Seder’s leader would take the matzot wrapped in the white matzah cover and sling that over his shoulder, while saying: So sind die Kinder Jisroel aus Mizraim gegangen, so war es. (“Thus did the Children of Israel leave Egypt, so it was.”)
The Ten Plagues
In Ashkenazi homes, everyone dips his or her pinkies into his or her glass of wine and spills out ten drops to symbolize the ten plagues. But in many Sephardi communities, the ten plagues are treated like… plagues. Iraqi Jews, for example, spread an additional tablecloth over the table at this point to protect the participants – or at least the other food on the table – from the plagues.
Some families from Turkey and the Balkan countries wouldn’t look at the wine that was spilled out from the cup, lest they be contaminated from the recitation. In other communities, only the leader would spill out the wine for the same reason. The leader would then wash his hands to symbolically clean them.
In Cochin, India, the leader used a special Pharaoh’s Cup for spilling out the wine. He too would wash his hands when he was done.
But in Libya the spilled wine was considered a segulah. The family’s single girls would wash their feet in the “plague waters” sitting in the basin, in the hope that the “plague” of being unmarried would be removed from them in the coming year.
Singing Dayenu is one of the highlights of the Seder. It’s also another opportunity to experience the harshness of oppression – and the miracle of being freed.
In Persia, there was a custom to hold bunches of celery, chives, leeks or scallions and lightly beat each other on the shoulders.
Jews from Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq would each have a turn at being the Egyptian taskmaster and beating the person sitting beside him with the “whip.” When he was done, he passed the bunch of green vegetables to the next person, who repeated the action. Meanwhile, the other guests would wish each other a green and fruitful year or a year of good fortune.
In Italy, long-stemmed green onions were used to represent the whip. During the chorus, everyone would pick up an onion and whip the wrist of the person sitting next to them.
The Four Cups of Wine
According to the Mishnah, even the poorest Jew must drink four cups of wine at the Seder. While red wine is preferred, there were times when many European communities used white wine instead. The reason was fear of the Blood Libel; Jews did not want to be accused of using Christian blood for ritual purposes during Pesach.
The Cup of Elijah
While Ashkenazim will place a special cup of wine on the table for the prophet Elijah, most Sephardim don’t have that custom. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t welcomed into Sephardi homes. In Morocco, for instance, the family would set up a special chair decorated with cushions and ornaments and leave it empty for the navi’s arrival.
When the door was opened in Germany for “Pour out your wrath,” someone in costume would run into the house, in imitation of Eliyahu’s arriving, to announce the coming of Mashiach.
For those who do have a Cup of Elijah, some have the custom to cover the cup after the Seder and leave the wine on the table overnight. The wine is then used for Kiddush the next morning. Others simply pour the wine back into the bottle after the Seder.
In many communities people hold on to a small piece of the afikomen, because it’s considered a segulah. In Afghanistan, Iran and Bukhara, the Jews kept a piece as protection against the Evil Eye. In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Tunisia, travelers would often take along a piece as protection against storms at sea and other dangers they might encounter while on the road. The Jews of Kurdistan would hide pieces in their rice, flour and salt as a segulah for having enough of these basic foodstuffs throughout the year.
Jews living in North Africa or Greece would keep a piece in their pockets or houses for good luck and plenty throughout the year. In Poland, they would hang the piece on the wall, for the same reason.
Other communities would make a print of a hamsa for protection against the Evil Eye after Yom Tov. In Morocco, they would dip their hand in the charoset to make the hamsa, but the Bene Israel Jews of India would dip their hand in the blood of a sheep or goat because of the pasuk: “And the blood will a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Shemos 12:13).
Next Year in Jerusalem
After the reading of the Haggadah was finished, the men of Syria, Morocco, Iraq, Kurdistan, Djerba and the Caucasus would put a stick with a bundle on their shoulder and quickly leave the house, saying: “So did our ancestors leave Egypt, ‘their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders’” (Shemos 12:34).
In Ashkenazi homes, many have the custom to linger at the Seder table and sing all the traditional piyyutim.
Despite our many different customs, we all end with the same hope: Next year in Yerushalayim!