Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Celebrating the Passover

In this blog entry I will be publishing an older essay I wrote some years ago as an introduction to our family haggadah explaining the Passover celebration that will be happening this Friday. I worry my blogging is coming apart as competing priorities have taken precedence over writing. This year a convergence of deaths in the family, real estate purchases, and Passover/Easter/General Conference combined with the ordinary hectic life of a family of 6 have made for a shortage of spare time. Perhaps I will soon have a quite moment to catch up. Please enjoy the following. Chag Semeach.
Seder Plate


What is Passover?

Passover is an annual celebration held on the 15th of Nisan (late March/early April) commemorating the deliverance of the house of Israel from Egyptian slavery by the mighty hand and outstretched arm of the Redeemer of Israel. It is celebrated with a festival meal called a seder with traditional items and foods, symbolic acts, and a retelling of the story in prose and song. As the Jewish calendar measures days from sunset to sunset, the meal in the evening actually opens the first day of Passover which continues on until sunset the next day. The entire holiday extends for seven days. This type of a celebration is substantially different from what many people have experienced at a holiday celebration and can seem odd. Many things are done specifically to evoke questions and provide opportunities to explain the symbolic meaning of the ceremony.

Passover is a temple holiday and was tied closely to the temple ordinance of animal sacrifice. It is also a teaching holiday and is focused heavily on teaching children the fundamental truths of the story. The overall theme is one of joy, new life and freedom. It is the tale of slaves, told by the children of slaves, who renew their commitment to not be slaves again.

The original

The first passover was done at the instruction of Moses some time close to 1600 BC in the land of Egypt. The tribes of Israel had left their native lands due to famine and taken refuge in Egypt. The Egyptians enslaved them and held them there for four hundred years. The story of Passover tells of how Moses restored the true religion that had been lost and was given power from God to stand before Pharaoh and demand the release of his people. When Pharaoh refused, Moses called upon the mighty power of God to smite them with plagues, the greatest of which was the slaying of all the firstborn. Those who believed Moses' message were spared by observing the Passover meal. This meal involved sacrificing a pure lamb and marking their doors and windows with its blood. They consumed the roasted flesh of the animal with unleavened bread and bitter herbs while standing with their feet shod, their loins girded and their staff in their hand. In the aftermath of destruction, Pharaoh agreed to release them but soon changed his mind and pursued them into the desert with his armies. A miraculous battle ensued where the presence of God barred the way of Pharaoh with a pillar of fire. A powerful wind opened the Red Sea and the Israelites escaped to the other shore. When Pharaoh pursued, his armies were drowned in the sea.

The story of the Israelites continues to detail the process of making covenants, receiving laws and ordinances at Mount Sinai, being chastened for disobedience, establishing a portable temple, and eventually being given a land of inheritance completing the journey from slaves to sovereigns.

The fulfillment

The holiday of Passover is closely tied to the life and mission of Jesus Christ. Latter day revelation informs us that it was on or close to this season that Christ was born. Throughout his life he celebrated the feast including a regular pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. It was during one such Passover trip that we find him getting lost from his parents and being found in the temple, the first recorded account of him teaching. In subsequent Passover seasons he took opportunity to go with his disciples to Jerusalem and engage in more teaching and occasional confrontations with the great religious personalities of his time. At the conclusion of his ministry, his final meal with his disciples was a Passover seder. There he freely improvised on the established ceremonial acts to teach new doctrines to his followers. Notably he took the already existing elements of the unleavened bread and wine and used them to form a new ordinance that would replace the sacrificial lamb. He explained the bread and wine were to represent his blood and body and were to be eaten by his followers just as they had formerly eaten the passover lamb which also represented his body. After completing the singing of hymns with his disciples, Jesus retired to an olive grove opposite the Temple called Gethsemane. There about midnight under the light from the full moon that always attends Passover, he undertook the great atonement with his suffering, arrest, trial, and execution that completed shortly before sunset the next day which concluded the first day of Passover.

Apostles and prophets would explain that the Passover sacrifice and indeed the entire Passover story was a symbolic foreshadow of this even greater work. It was to be on Passover that the completion of the mission of Christ took place. Just as the central element of Passover, the sacrificed lamb, represented Christ to the generations before, it was from the other elements of Passover, the bread and wine, that future generations would recall this event.

In later centuries the Christians would assimilate many other ideas and traditions with Passover and form a separate holiday of Easter eventually disjoining its observance with the Jewish calendar.

In every generation

Beyond the primary interpretation of the Passover foreshadowing the mission of the Messiah, the Passover story has an incredible flexibility to represent the recurring struggle that the children of God face in life. Many groups in both scripture and history have drawn upon its symbols to bring meaning to their circumstances. It was a favorite story of Nephi who retold it as he and his brothers faced the vastly superior army of Laban, again as he faced the task of building a ship and crossing the sea, and several times as he talked about their departure from Jerusalem. King Limhi would use the story to inspire his captive people on the eve of their deliverance. Alma the Younger would bring a deeply personal aspect as he compared the story to his personal bondage and deliverance from sin and darkness. The Jews in Babylon would see in it the promise of freedom and return to their homeland. Again the Jews in Czarist Russia would use its imagery to relate their forced expulsion and resettlement in Israel. The Pioneers would see their journey crossing the frozen Mississippi and through the wilderness as a direct parallel. Joseph Smith would use it in the images he prophesied of the future redemption of Zion. African American slaves would be inspired by the story as they struggled for freedom and their children would again call on it as they fought for civil rights. Notable figures from scientists such as Albert Einstein, mathematicians such as Adi Shamir, and political leaders such as Barak Obama have celebrated it.

The symbols are universal and profound. Each of us finds ourselves at times in our own personal Egypt, bound by chains we have no power to break, fallen from our heritage and groping in darkness. We find ourselves in need of a redeemer. A Mighty God who can fight the battle we cannot hope to win. All of us must face that reality that our only hope relies on the innocent lamb, unjustly losing its life so that ours may be spared. All of us hope for the cleansing and sanctification process that once we cross the wilderness will give us a new start, a return to our former inheritance and our freedom.

A Mormon Hagaddah

A hagaddah is basically an instruction book for celebrating the holiday. It literally means "what is told." The traditional hagaddah probably started to take shape around second or third centuries AD. It's purpose was partly to codify what was actually done during a Passover seder but also to fix the text due to a belief that the average father was not up to the task of telling the story himself. The traditional text has some passages that are particularly labyrinthine as famous Rabbis have competed over the centuries to form ever more complex exegesis of the basic text.

Over my lifetime I have participated in and led a variety of seders from completely orthodox to very inauthentic. Some, during times of poverty, involved only the most humble outline of the tradition, while others have been quite elaborate. One memorable one was as I was serving as a missionary, having a very simple service with close friends on the mission where we explored the deep power of the symbols involved. In recent years I have swung the pendulum toward the very traditional, adding more Hebrew and including more parts of the traditional text. While this was enjoyable, I found that by doing so I was subscribing to the false idea that I was not capable of telling the story myself and resigning the seder to a static presentation that was too similar to a dead religion.

As a Latter-Day Saint I have at my disposal tremendous volumes of additional commentary and scripture. it would be a disservice not to use these references to bring light and meaning to the traditional service. Likewise there have been many songs that are equal in power and beauty to the old traditional melodies that deserve to be sung to bring the story to life.

Thus in this Hagaddah I hope to achieve a blending of the most important aspects of the traditional service with a vibrant, scriptural retelling of the story cutting through the overgrowth of rabbinic commentary. I hope to incorporate teachings from prophets and apostles as they applied the truths of the Passover in their teaching. I also hope to make this a hagaddah that can be shared with others and that can be handed down in my family, always as a living document, that can help them find ways to remember the captivity of our fathers and celebrate our redemption.

What Holidays should we celebrate?

The question has been posed to me several times and by many people "Is it appropriate to celebrate Passover?" As I have done it most of my life I must admit I have never worried very much about it. Passover is celebrated by many Latter-day Saints and I have attended seders held at BYU (I was not impressed) and several general authorities have participated in the celebration. At this moment I find announcements of Passover seders being held at Institute of Religion meetings on the official Church website. Obviously there is no church opposition to it.

I think it should be pointed out that there is no commandment to celebrate Christmas or Easter and observance of these holidays is largely due to cultural norms. Both these holidays have significant pagan influence in them. However the Prophets have taught us that these are great opportunities to focus on the religious events they represent, even if many of the traditions are more distracting than symbolic. We remain however one of the few Christian churches that has no liturgical acknowledgment of these days. Other than a First Presidency's devotional there is nothing to mark them. There are no special services, sermons or even Sunday school lessons. For that matter there is no command to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, Halloween or Martin Luther King Day. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with celebrating a deeply scriptural holiday.

If I were to compile the holidays that we actually have been instructed to celebrate, top of the list, right after the Sabbath, would be April 6 when we hold a General Conference and gather to the temple to be taught by prophets, as well as its counterpart October 6. There are some strong parallels to this and passover and they occur often at the same time. Among our minor feasts would be the establishment of the Relief Society, the restoration of the Priesthood, and Pioneer day. In this sense we are not far from the ancient Hebrews. We design our holidays to be times of teaching and gathering. They are to commemorate important spiritual events. They often involve symbolic acts such as camping out together, gathering for a feast, or symbolic re-enactment. Passover has more of a home amongst us than many realize.

To the common objection "but wasn't this all fulfilled" I will add my voice with a resounding "Yes!" That's the whole point. Certainly, I would not suggest you actually sacrifice a lamb. That has been done away. I would point out the Jews do not do this either but for a different reason. They do not because they acknowledge they lack priesthood and a temple. The rest of the seder is a remembrance and that we most certainly are commanded to do.

How to hold a Passover Seder


Passover is a spring festival. Decorations should reflect this with floral themes and bright colors being common. Traditionally, the entire house is cleaned and all leavened bread is removed and burned or given away. Often this searching for leaven is used as a game for children and may be the source for Easter egg hunts.

A table is set sometimes with small plates as it can be a while before you actually eat anything of consequence.

One plate has three pieces of square matza each turned 45 degrees so as to form an eight pointed star. Additional matza is often stacked on another plate. Matza is covered with cloth.

A seder plate is arranged with 5 or 6 items (depending on differing traditions): Zroa, a lamb shank bone (usually fake a dog chew toy can work adequately, some use a chicken bone); maror (horseradish pulp); some also include chazeret, romaine lettuce (for people too wimpy to eat maror); Karpas, a green vegetable such as parsley or celery; Charoset, take honey, nuts, fruit, and wine and make a chunky paste (its hard to go wrong); and Beitzah a roasted or hard boiled egg.

Also a dish of very salty water or vinegar is on the table.

Everyone has a filled wine glass. Enough wine is needed for all to have four small cups. For a special occasion like this it is important to choose a good vintage that will complement the meal properly. I find Welches does quite well but Hansen’s is also quite suitable. If you insist on authenticity then Kedem has a great product. Nehi is right out.

It should be noted that while in English we frequently use the word "wine" the Hebrew text uses the phrase דם פרי חגפן "blood of the fruit of the grape" throughout. The Hebrew word for wine (יין) is not used in the text. This is a poetical way to refer to wine but grape juice is an adequate substitute even by the most kosher interpretation.

An additional wine glass is set empty, usually distinct in style from the other glasses on a saucer in a prominent location on the table. Sometimes the glass is marked in Hebrew with the name אליהו Elijahu.

Candles, often four of them, are present usually lit by the lady of the house immediately before the seder.

All seats have cushions.

Head of the house has a few extra cloth napkins.

There is a pitcher of water and a basin and towel.

The parts of the Seder

There are 15 parts to the seder:

  1. Kadeish קדש - recital of Kiddush blessing and drinking of the first cup of wine
  2. Urchatz ורחץ - the washing of the hands - without blessing
  3. Karpas כרפס - dipping of the karpas in salt water
  4. Yachatz יחץ - breaking the middle matza; the larger piece becomes the afikoman which is eaten later during the ritual of Tzafun
  5. Maggid מגיד - retelling the Passover story, including the recital of "the four questions" and drinking of the second cup of wine
  6. Rachtzah רחצה - second washing of the hands - with blessing
  7. Motzi מוציא - traditional blessing before eating bread products
  8. Matza מצה - blessing before eating matza
  9. Maror מרור - eating of the maror
  10. Koreich כורך - eating of a sandwich made of matza and maror
  11. Shulchan oreich שולחן עורך - lit. "set table"—the serving of the holiday meal
  12. Tzafun צפון - eating of the afikoman
  13. Bareich ברך - blessing after the meal and drinking of the third cup of wine
  14. Hallel הלל - recital of the Hallel, traditionally recited on festivals; drinking of the fourth cup of wine
  15. Nirtzah נירצה - conclusion

Don’t worry most of them go really fast. The long one is the fifth one, Maggid. Although you can spend some time on the Bareich and the Hallel as well.


The seder is focused on children and is a time of joy. It is important it never become boring or overly solemn. The telling of the story and the songs should be animated and fun. Humor is a good thing. The length of the Maggid necessitates a rapid pace that if done well will keep everyones attention.

The most important part of the holiday is the teaching opportunities it involves. Focus on teaching more than completion or decorum.

Passover Symbolism

The following are some supplemental ideas reflecting on several of the symbols used in the passover.

Lamb - The lamb was to be without blemish and was taken into the family home from the 10th of Nisan and remained there until the 14th of Nisan when it was slaughtered. The point was the animal was to live with the family and allow members of the family to become attached emotionally. It was then to die to save them. During its sacrifice no bones where broken from the animal.

The lamb represents the mission and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His death at the hands of his own covenant people was a necessary yet shockingly unjust act required for salvation. During his crucifixion Jesus did not have any bones broken, although the others executed that day did.

After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, the Jewish people discontinued the practice of animal sacrifice including the passover offering. They acknowledged that there was a need for a temple and proper priesthood authority to perform the sacrifice. To remember its presence in ancient times the symbols of the lamb shank bone and the roasted egg were added to the service. The shank bone represents the unbroken bones of the offering and is also associated with the mighty outstretched or raised right arm mentioned in the scriptures as the the symbol of the Lord’s redeeming power. The egg represented the flesh of the offering.

  • Elijah - From an early day Elijah and Elijah’s return, presaging the coming of the Messiah, has been associated with the feast of passover. Traditionally a cup is set on the table for him. Towards the close of passover the cup is filled with wine and a door is symbolically opened to invite him in to share in the closing hymns of passover. On April 3, 1836, during the Passover season, Elijah did return to the Kirtland Temple where the congregation was participating in the sacrament which included the presence of wine and hymns similar to the Passover tradition.
  • Afikomen - The afikomen (a word that indicates desert) was a final piece of unleavened bread eaten at the close of the meal. The afikomen comes from a stack of three matzah. The middle is taken and broken in two. Half of it is returned to the other two matzot and half is wrapped in a napkin and hidden. Throughout the evening the children try to locate this piece of bread and the father must redeem it from the child who finds it, usually with a small prize. Once redeemed the piece of matzah is reunited with its other half and then is broken for all to consume as the final part of the meal.
  • There are significant parallels to the doctrine of the Godhead, and the mission, death and resurrection of Christ. It is possible this symbol may have been the one used by the savior as he instituted the sacrament with his disciples.
  • Unleavened Bread (Matza) - Matza is given several meanings. It is referred to as a bread made in haste because there was inadequate time for preparations for leavened bread. It is also mentioned as the bread of affliction and symbolizes the poverty of bondage in Egypt. Additionally it is noted as a bread of purity as it does not spoil like leavened bread. The removal of leavening from the home prior to the holiday was symbolic of cleansing the soul from corruption.
  • Bitter Herbs (Maror) - Bitter Herbs were eaten as part of the original Passover. They represent the bitterness of bondage. Their pungent taste leaves a lasting impression that can bring a hard man to tears if you use the good stuff. If holding the seder with people with weak constitutions air sick bags may be appropriate (yes it has happened). One has not truly observed Passover until consuming this particular item.
  • Salt Water - Added sometime later in the passover ceremony, the dipping of a green vegetable in salt water has often been associated with the passage of Israel through the Red Sea. The presence of green vegetables also reflects the holiday status as a spring holiday and the symbolism of rebirth and new life is implied.
  • Charoseth - Added sometime later in the tradition of Passover, the sweet and fruity mixture has been said to recall the mortar used by the slaves. The fruit also nods to the spring nature of the holiday and with the honey and nuts reflects the bounty of the promised land.
  • Eating Reclining - In stark contrast to the original Passover, later passovers were eaten reclining. This indicated the fulfilled status of arrival in the promised land and the status of freemen. It is also handy if you feel a need for a nap during a long seder.
  • The number four - The number four is associated with Passover throughout the seder. The matzah commonly has four sides, there are often four candles, there are four cups of wine (maybe that has something to do with why the disciples could not stay awake at Gethsemane), the four sons, four questions, etc. Passover is celebration closely tied to the Temple. Modern Temple ordinances employ the number four in several locations as well. There also traditions involving the number four with its companion sacred numbers, 3, 7, and 12. Tradition has it that the Israelites would use a 12 cubit length of rope laid east to west and place stakes at the 4th cubit and then 3 cubits further at the 7th cubit. The two loose ends would then be pulled together to form a perfect right triangle. This would then be used to lay out the tabernacle.


I hope this has proven a useful introduction to the Passover Seder. What follows is a heavily edited Hagaddah drawn from traditional sources, some of which have been published on the internet, combined with scriptures, and my own translations and thoughts. I make no effort to assign sources to any of it. I also edit scriptures for brevity and occasionally for simplicity for young listeners without noting the changes. I do not believe I have borrowed anything anyone would object to, and invite anyone interested to borrow anything from the following Haggadah themselves.


Please note that while I have shared this family Haggadah with many close friends, I have not yet published it online with the exception of this introduction. I may do so in the future if I feel I have reached a satisfactory point in its editing.




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