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Passover is certainly the richest Jewish holiday in terms of the amount of mitzvos. We have a plethora of mitzvos, from the Torah and from the Rabbis, both leading up to and during Passover. This is true even today, though we no longer have the Paschal Lamb. In temple times, the number of mitzvos was significantly larger, and the level of detail and undertaking was much greater. Nevertheless, preparing for Passover and keeping the mitzvos that we are still able to fulfill nowadays is no small task.

Table of Contents

Having the Correct Perspective on Seder Night

Sometimes there is so much preliminary attention paid to cleaning the house for Passover and getting rid of our chametz that people unwittingly forget how the seder is the pinnacle experience of the Passover festival. As we will see below, there are three Torah commandments and seven rabbinical injunctions that we fulfill at the Seder itself. If we don’t fulfill these mitzvos at the seder, we lose our opportunity to fulfill them until Passover of the next year. In this article we will briefly outline the main laws of the Seder and the ideas behind of each of these mitzvos.

Passover night requires us to both reach a very elevated state of consciousness and awareness, and also to share the beauty of our rich heritage with our children. These are once in a year opportunities which are so lofty that in order to get the most out of them we must prepare ourselves well in advance. Let us take a look into some of the basic details of each of the mitzvos of Seder night.

Torah Commandments

1) Eating Matzoh

The Source for this Mitzvah

There is a mitzvah from the Torah to eat matzohon the night of the Seder. The Torah says “On the fifteenth day of the first month at night you shall eat matzos…1)Exodus 12:18

What Can Matzos Be Made From?

One can only fulfill this mitzvah with matzoh made from the five grains: wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye.

Matzoh Shmurah

Unlike the other days of Passover it is obligatory to eat matzoh shmurah on the night of the seder. This means that ideally we should only use flour that has been guarded from leavening since the time of harvest. Furthermore from the point when the water and flour are mixed together there should be an active guarding from leavening, which is achieved by saying “l’shem matzos mitzvah” during the kneading, rolling, and baking of the matzos. The verse in the Torah, which is the source for this law says “And you shall guard the matzos…2) Exodus 12:17

Which of the Three Matzos Do We Need to Eat From?

We place three matzos on the seder table. We break one of them at “yachatz” (the fourth step in the seder) and put one of its pieces away as the afikoman. We hold the other piece and the two remaining whole matzos (which are used to fulfill the precept of lechem mishneh – two whole breads) for the blessing of “hamotzi”, and then we drop the bottom matzoh and make “al achilas matzoh” while holding the top and broken matzos only. There is a discussion as to which of the two matzos we should actually eat from, as a result the custom is to eat a little bit from both the top whole and middle broken matzoh to make up the requisite kezayis amount.

How Much Matzoh Do We Need to Eat?

Each person must eat at least one kezayis (olive-sized) piece of matzoh. Above, we saw that we make two brachos on the matzos. Within the halachos of that practice, there is a discussion as to which of the remaining two matzos are covered by the bracha of “al achilas matzoh.” Therefore, the Shulchan Aruch3)Orach Chaim 475:1, Mishneh Brurah 475:9, Biur Halacha 475:1 “Kazayis Mikol Echad” says that one should eat a kezayis from both the top (whole) and middle (broken) matzos – two kezeisim total. If there is not enough to have a kezayis from both of them, one may add extra matzoh from the side. Other poskim disagree with the assertion that it is necessary to eat two kezeisim. There is also a discussion about the size of a kezayis with regards to the law of eating matzoh. An average egg today is approximately 50cc in volume. An halachik olive-size is considered half the size of an egg or 25cc in volume. Another opinion says a kezayis is one-third the size of an egg or approximately 17cc in volume. The achronim raise a question as to whether our eggs today are still the same size as in the past or whether they are smaller; thus the size of a kezayis is still questioned in our times.

L’maaseh, there are two approaches to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzoh today. One is to take two of the smallest measurements for a kezayis (17cc) from the top and middle matzoh (or at least a small piece of each and the rest from the side) and eat both, fulfilling the Shulchan Aruch’s assertion that we must eat two kezeisim. This adds up to approximately 34cc, which is more than the larger size of a regular kezayis of today (i.e. 25cc). The other approach is to just take the size of one larger kezayis of today (25cc). People who are not well or elderly people may eat one smaller-sized kezayis (17cc). Many have a custom in their homes that the ba’al habayis (the one who leads the seder) will eat 34cc as above and the other adult guests will eat 25cc. The matzoh should be eaten in a reclining position, as we will see below.

The 25cc measurement when looking at our matzos adds up to approximately ⅓ of a normal round hand matzoh or ½ of a square machine matzoh.

How Much Time Do We Have in which to Eat the Kezayis?

The halachah is that we must eat the whole kezayis (or two kezeisim if that is your custom) within the time it takes to eat a “pras”, which is half the volume of a normal meal. There is a discussion amongst the poskim how much time that is. The prevailing custom is to eat the kezayis within four minutes. However for elders and people who are not well we can be lenient up to nine minutes.

2) The Haggadah – (Recounting the Exodus Story)

The Source for this Mitzvah

There is a mitzvah from the Torah to recount the Passover storyon seder night. The source for this mitzvah is from the verse “And you shall recount to your son on this day saying because of all of this the Almighty did for me when I went out of Egypt4) Exodus 13:8”. Our sages teach us that this verse refers specifically to recounting the story of the exodus from Egypt on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan at the Passover Seder, as it says “because of all of this” referring to the paschal lamb, the matzoh, and the maror sitting in front of us at that time.

The Proper Format of this Mitzvah

Ideally, this mitzvah should be accomplished in a format of the children asking questions and the father recounting the story based on their questions. In order to achieve this, our sages recommended making odd changes during the Seder in order to arouse the children’s curiosity to ask why this night is different than other nights. We now have embedded in the Passover Haggadah the section called “mah nishtanah,” to ensure that this format is adhered to. Our sages also added the section about the four sons into the Haggadah to remind us that each child is unique and that as their natures differ, so will their questions differ, and that our answers should be suitable to each of them in a way that it will be understood and received in turn. The custom is that the youngest child in the family who in able to recite the “mah nishtanah” does so. Even if there are no children present, the custom is that either the wife asks it or the ba’al habayis asks himself.

The changes that have become customary are to remove the seder plate from the table for no reason after reciting “ha lachma anyah”, to uncover and cover the matzos numerous times at key points to draw attention, to dip the karpas (green vegetable) in salt water, to fill the second cup of wine right after the first (raising suspicion over why we are drinking so much wine before the meal), to pick up the matzos when we say “matzoh zu”, to grab the afikoman and hide it, and to distribute nuts or treats to the children.

Our sages teach an additional point of formatting which is important when recounting the exodus. One should first start with points of disgrace like the fact that our forefather Avraham came from a people who were idol worshippers, or that we Jews were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Afterwards, one should continue to recount the events, ultimately finishing on points of praise to Hashem, like the fact that Hashem made the Jews into a great nation who serve the One God, or that he took us out of Egypt through great miracles and brought us to Mount Sinai to give us His Torah. All of these requirements are embedded in our Haggadah today. By using this tool, we will surely fulfill the spirit of the mitzvah.

What is the Minimum Requirement to Fulfill the Mitzvah of Haggadah?

The minimum requirement of recounting the exodus from Egypt is to mention and explain three elements. The first is Pesach. One must mention and explain the miracle of the Paschal Lamb in Egypt: how the Jews splattered the blood of the lamb on their doorposts and through this, merited to be saved from the wrath of Hashem as He wiped out the first-born of the Egyptians. The second is matzoh. One must mention and explain how the Jews in Egypt were redeemed very quickly when the time finally came and how they therefore didn’t have time to leaven their bread, so they ate matzoh. The matzoh is therefore the symbol of our redemption. The third element is maror (bitter herb). One must mention and explain the painful and difficult period of slavery in which the Jews suffered greatly at the hands of the Egyptians. This is what the maror symbolizes.

Additional Recounting

Our sages teach us that in addition to the minimum requirement of recounting the exodus story through the elements of Pesach, Matzoh, and Maror, we should also “darshan” – expound upon the exodus as much as we can. For this reason there is a section in the Haggadah where we expound on the Torah portion of “Arami oved avi…5)Deuteronomy 26:5” which details our nation’s checkered past, starting with Avraham coming from a family of idol worshippers and proceeding through all of the steps leading to our emergence as a nation: the exile in Egypt, the ten plagues, and our redemption, along with the splitting of the sea. As far as the Torah is concerned, we need not use the Haggadah to fulfill the precept of darshaning but we should keep in mind that that section does provide a very clear structure for all of the events and couches it in a theme of hakaras hatov – recognizing the amazing goodness that Hashem has bestowed upon us through all of this.

This aspect of darshaning is not obligatory, but it is praiseworthy. The Haggadah mentions that our sages stayed up all night recounting the story of the exodus in order to impose on us the beauty and importance of this mitzvah. It is important to note that because of the fact that there are many times other factors at play, like short attention span from young children, hunger, and the mitzvos of eating matzoh, maror, and afikoman (which should be done before chatzos it is preferable to move through the haggadah at a pace which takes that into consideration and leave the “darshanning” for later on in the night to those who are still up for it.

3) Experiencing Personal Freedom – “Cheirut

There is also a mitzvah to personally relive the exodus experience for ourselves and the freedom (cheirut) that we have as a result, as it says “And remember that you were slaves in Egypt and G-d your Lord took you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.6)Devarim 5:15” The goal is not just to speak about what happened and to recount the events to our children. Rather, we seek to put ourselves into the situation and realize that we went out of the ancient Mitzrayim with our forefathers, as well as that we are going out of our present Mitzrayim – the limitations and bonds that tie us from being great. We have parts of the Haggadah today that make mention of this mitzvah.

Rabbinical Injunctions

In order to aid in fulfilling the mitzvah of “cheirut” – experiencing freedom, the Rabbis instituted two additional mitzvos to do at the Seder table.

1) Drinking Four Cups of Wine

The Purpose of this Mitzvah

As we mentioned above, there is a Torah precept of experientially feeling the personal freedom of the exodus. Wine is the paradigm of intoxicating beverages. Through a mild but spiritually elevated intoxication, one can begin to focus on many of the more sublime realities of our world. This is the purpose of drinking the four cups of wine. Through this elevated state, our sages intended that we should be able to elevate beyond the mundane and really feel a tangible sense of redemption.

Why Four Cups?

When the Torah describes the redemption from Egypt, it mentions four different words referring to the different stages of the process. The verse in Exodus7)Exodus 6:6-7 says:

  1. And I will take you out from under the suffering of Egypt” – “vehotzeisi
  2. And I will save you from the servitude” – “vehitzalti
  3. And I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments” – “vega’alti
  4. And I will take you to be My nation and I will be your G-d” – “velakachti

The Netziv8)Ibid. explains that each one of the four cups we drink during the Seder corresponds to one of these stages of the redemption process. The first stage was when we went from suffering in servitude to being servants without suffering; this took place during the first four plagues. The second stage, taking place during the next three plagues (including hail), was when we stopped being servants at all. The third stage was our complete liberation from the hands of Egypt even though we were still living in Egypt, taking place during the final three plagues including the death of the first born. The final transformation took place when we actually left Egypt physically and were brought to Mount Sinai, there to have Hashem make a covenant with us to be His chosen nation. We drink four cups of wine during the Seder, trying to capture the essence of each stage of this transformation and reach the heightened awareness that the Jewish people reached through this process of redemption.

What is the Cup of Elijah For?

Many people know about the fifth cup of wine, that we pour and leave on the table towards the end of the seder, called the cup of Elijah. In fact, this fifth cup is alluded to in the same verse we mentioned above. When the Jewish people were brought to Mount Sinai, they became prophets there, on level of awareness entirely beyond the scope of normal consciousness. Prophecy is a transcendental experience beyond the parameters of our normative cognitive processes. This level of transformation is very lofty and so is not expected from all of us. Therefore, we pour this cup but don’t drink it. We call this the cup of Elijah because Elijah was a prophet who achieved the lofty state described here. Our sages teach that Elijah will come just before the future redemption to herald the coming of the messiah. Then, we Jews will finally reach the permanent fulfillment of our destiny as a nation, which is the reason Hashem took us out of Egypt in the first place.

At Which Point in the Seder Do We Drink Each Cup?

The placement of the four cups of wine in the Seder is as follows:

  1. Kadesh – When we are ready to start the Seder we pour the first cup of wine and say Kiddush over it. This is the traditional way of sanctifying the festival in an honorable fashion through making the blessing over a cup of wine.
  2. Maggid – Following UrchatzKarpas, and Yachatz we then move on to the Maggid section. At this point we recite the main aspects of the Haggadah and part of Hallel. Before starting Maggid, we pour the second cup of wine. Throughout the course of Maggid, which will raise the cup and drip drops from it. At the conclusion of the Maggid section and the first part of Hallel we drink the second cup of wine.
  3. Bareich – After Maggid we do RachtzahMotziMatzohMarorKorechShulchan Orech, and Tzafun. Then, we pour the third cup of wine, which we raise and pronounce the Birkat Hamazon over in the section of the seder called Bareich. Some have a custom to pour the cup of Elijah at the beginning of Maggid and others have a custom to pour it now after the drinking of the third cup.
  4. Hallel – After finishing Birkat Hamazon, we pour the fourth cup of wine and hold it aloft while reciting the remaining bulk of Hallel. At the conclusion of Hallel we drink this final cup.

Do We Make Before and After Blessings on Each Cup?

The Sephardim see the drinking of the four cups as separate mitzvos, but they do not see any “disruption” in intent to drink between the first and second cups or between the third and fourth cups. They therefore only make before blessings on the first and third cups. The Ashkenazim see the Maggid and Hallel sections as “disruptions” in the intention to drink and thus make separate blessings before each of the four cups. Both Sephardim and Ashkenazim agree that we only make an after-blessing at the end of the fourth cup. The Gra says that one should have in mind that this after blessing covers all four cups9)Rema to Orach Chaim 474:1 and Biur Hagra ibid “Aval Bracha”.

How Large Must the Cups Be and Do We Have to Drink the Whole Cup Each Time?

The cup must be large enough to hold a revi’is – one quarter of a lug measurement. There is a discussion as to the exact size of this measurement: the main opinions hold that it is 86cc or 150cc. Generally since the four cups are Rabbinical in nature it is customary to be lenient and have a cup that has at least 86cc. However, when the first night of Pesach falls out on Shabbos and thus the first cup is also used to fulfill the Torah precept of Friday night Kiddush, the custom is to use the larger sized cup.

We must fill the cup to the top and at least drink the majority of the contents of the cup however large it may be. It is for this reason that people try to find cups that are very close to the minimum size so that they don’t drink more wine than necessary. Ideally one would drink the entire cup.

How Much Time Do We Have to Drink Each Cup?

The ideal timeframe for drinking the cup is in numerous swallows with a brief pause in the middle without removing the cup from the mouth. However if this is not possible one can try to finish the cup or a majority of it within 4 minutes,or in a pinch 9 minutes.

What Kind of Wine May be Used?

Ideally, one should use red wine. This provides the additional factor of having the appearance of blood when dipped during the recounting of the plagues. If one can’t acquire red wine then white wine may be used. If it is possible to redden the white wine by dropping a few drops of red wine in it that is preferable.

What About Using Light Wine or Grape Juice?

In the event that it is not possible to drink four cups of wine, one may use light wine with lower alcohol content. In a pinch one can either mix water into regular wine provided it still has a taste of wine. Alternatively one may pour some wine into grape juice until the resulting cup has a “taste” of wine.

Can One Drink Other Cups of Wine During the Night?

Between the first and second cups and between the third and fourth cups this is forbidden. After the fourth cup this is also forbidden. Between the second and third cups i.e. during the festive meal it is permissible to drink more wine.

2) Sitting in a Reclining Position (Heseibah)

What is the Purpose of this Mitzvah?

Sitting in a reclining position was the symbol of freedom and aristocracy in the Classical Period, Therefore the Rabbis instituted that during the Seder we should sit in this fashion in order to remind ourselves that we are free, helping us achieve the state of “cheirut” we saw above.

Who Must Recline?

Technically, only men and boys of chinuch age must recline. There are differing customs as to whether women recline.

How Does One Recline Properly?

One must recline on their left side. There are two reasons for this: one is that leaning on the left side leaves the right hand free which is a greater sign of freedom as the right hand symbolizes greater power and importance. The second is that the human anatomy is such that leaning on the right side may lead to choking, as the food is more likely to enter the windpipe, which is not the case by leaning on the left.

Ideally one should recline on the armrest of a comfortable chair and have a pillow underneath as well to add to the comfort. If this is not possible one may lean on the table, another chair, a stack of pillows, or the like. One may not recline in mid-air.

At What Points Must One Recline?

One should recline during four sections of the seder:

  1. The drinking of the four cups of wine,
  2. While eating the first kezayis of matzoh,
  3. The koreich sandwich, and
  4. The afikomen.

If One Forgot to Recline During one of These Sections, Must He Repeat That Section?

If one forgot to recline during one of these sections, there is a difference in custom. Sephardim should repeat that section over again. Ashkenazim would not repeat any of the sections after the fact except for the first kezayis of matzoh and the second cup of wine. The rationale for this is that there is an opinion that holds that we no longer feel freedom and aristocracy when we recline, since we are no longer accustomed to leaning on a regular basis10)Egudah in Perek Arvei Pesachim based on the Ravyah . As a result, Ashkenazim rely on that opinion after the fact whenever they can.

With regards to the cups of wine, the Ashkenazic custom is not to drink wine between the first and second cups, between the third and fourth, and after the fourth cup. However after the second cup they are permitted to drink. Therefore the only time one could repeat the drinking if they didn’t recline is after the second cup. If one forgot to recline while drinking, he should repeat it then. With regards to the first kezayis of matzoh one would have to eat the kezayis again. In both of these cases (first kezayis and wine) the repetition should be done without a blessing, since the blessing is a Rabbinical and it is doubtful whether we have to repeat it.

3) Eating Maror

What is the Purpose of this Mitzvah?

The purpose of this mitzvah is to arouse us to think about the bitter suffering that we endured in Egypt.

Why is this Mitzvah Only Rabbinic?

In fact, the mitzvah of eating maror is mentioned in the Torah in the verse that says “Together with matzos and merorim you should eat the Paschal Lamb11)Numbers 9:11”. Our sages teach that since the verse mentions eating maror together with the Paschal Lamb, eating the maror is therefore only a Torah commandment when we have the actual Paschal Lamb. This would also be true of matzoh except there is an additional verse mentioning the eating of matzoh by itself.

Which Vegetables May Be Used for Maror?

There are a number of bitter vegetables mentioned in the Mishnah and Gemara that are suitable for this mitzvah12)Pesachim 2:6. We are accustomed to use two of them, horseradish and romaine lettuce. Some people only eat the lettuce, others only horseradish, and others eat a mixture of both. It is dangerous to eat chunks of horseradish; rather one should grate it (before Yom Tov). If it is still too bitter, one may use pickled horseradish.

How Much Maror Must One Eat?

We should eat a kezayis of maror. This represents a lettuce leaf about 1 by 6 inches (approx. 2.5cm by 15cm), or approximately 27cc in volume. We should eat this amount within 4 minutes.

Do We Make a Bracha of Borei Pri Ha’adamah on Maror?

There is a question about this since we are not eating the maror for satiation but rather for an auxiliary mitzvah purpose. As such, one should have in mind at the time of Karpas that his blessing of Borei Pri Ha’adamah will cover the maror as well.

Why Do We Dip the Maror in Charoset?

The Mishnah in tractate Pesachim says that we dip two times at the Seder. This is even reflected in the Haggadah in the mah nishtanah recited by the children. The first dipping of the Karpas in salt water is to arouse the children to ask. This second dipping is the bitter vegetables into the charoset in order to neutralize the bitterness and prevent being damaged by it (see section 5 below).

4) Saying Hallel

There is a Rabbinical mitzvah to say the complete hallel on yom tov rishon of Passover. We actually do this three times on this day. We are accustomed to say hallel in shul after the evening service, again during the seder, and a third time during the morning service. During the haggadah itself there is a discussion in the Gemara as to what praises to say to Hashem whether it should be Hallel or Nishmas (Birkas Hashir). We say both during the haggadah to fulfill both opinions.

5) Making / Eating Charoset

It is a mitzvah to make charoset for the Seder as a remembrance for the mortar that we were forced to make in Egypt. We use the charoset to dip the maror in to neutralize its bitterness. Some use charoset on the koreich sandwich. There are rishonim that say there is a mitzvah to eat a kezayis of charoset at the Seder. Although we don’t poskin like this opinion, who doesn’t crave to eat that charoset at the Seder table? Yum, dig in!!!!

6) Eating the Koreich Sandwich

We say in the haggadah that Hillel used to take matzoh and maror and make a sandwich out of them and say “this is a remembrance for the days when we had the Beis Hamikdash and were able to bring the Paschal Lamb sacrifice”. In those days, the proper way to fulfill these mitzvos was to eat the matzoh, maror, and meat from the lamb wrapped up together. We too must make the sandwich of Hillel to remember the Paschal Lamb and how different things will be when we have it again.

One must use a kezayis of matzoh and a kezayis of maror to fulfill this mitzvah properly. Ideally it should be eaten within 4 minutes as we saw above.

7) Eating the Afikoman

What is the Purpose of this Mitzvah?

After the meal, we eat a portion of matzoh as the last food for the rest of the night (excepting the final two glasses of wine) to remember that when we had the paschal lamb we could not eat any other food after we would eat our piece of meat from it so the taste would linger. In those days, one would eat the kezayis of meat together with matzoh and maror.

How Much Matzoh Should One Eat?

in the days of the Beis Hamikdash we would eat a kezayis of meat and another kezayis of matzoh together. Because the afikoman is in place of the paschal lamb, one should ideally eat two kezeisim: one for matzoh and another for the paschal lamb.

When is the Time for This Mitzvah?

In the haggadah, the eating of the afikoman is called “tzafun”, the Hebrew word for “hidden”. This refers to the custom to grab the broken piece of the original middle matzoh and hide it. Since the afikoman is in place of the Paschal Lamb, it should be eaten before halachik midnight as was required by the Paschal Lamb.

What if a Person is thirsty After the Afikoman?

If a person is very thirsty after the end of the Seder he may drink water.

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References   [ + ]

1. Exodus 12:18
2. Exodus 12:17
3. Orach Chaim 475:1, Mishneh Brurah 475:9, Biur Halacha 475:1 “Kazayis Mikol Echad”
4. Exodus 13:8
5. Deuteronomy 26:5
6. Devarim 5:15
7. Exodus 6:6-7
8. Ibid.
9. Rema to Orach Chaim 474:1 and Biur Hagra ibid “Aval Bracha”
10. Egudah in Perek Arvei Pesachim based on the Ravyah
11. Numbers 9:11
12. Pesachim 2:6