Passover is on the horizon and one of my greatest joys is when friends of other faiths invite me to participate in their traditions. Religious holidays are filled with customs and traditions, which can seem intimidating for the uninitiated. Sharon Schweitzer, international etiquette and modern manners expert, and founder of Access to Culture, offers these helpful tips if you’re planning to attend, or host, a Passover seder.
Being a Gracious Passover Guest
Kosher Hostess Gift: Always bring a small gift to express appreciation for the hospitality. However, make sure you bring something that is “Kosher for Passover.” There’s a difference between just kosher and kosher for Passover. Make sure to avoid offering any gift with yeast or wheat or any food prepared in dishes or with utensils used for unleavened food. A fruit tray, kosher wine, pre-arranged flowers or a Passover book are culturally appropriate.
Before Arriving: Have a small bite of protein before you arrive, as Seder kicks off with a litany of prayers and blessings before the main dishes are served. It may be awhile before dining actually begins. Noshing on a protein bar or a small chicken breast at home or work before departing for the Seder will tide you over so you may enjoy the holiday traditions without impatience and hunger cravings.
Avoid Touching the Seder Plate: The Seder plate is a special dish that sits in the middle of the table and holds some very symbolic items from more than 2,000 years ago such as parsley, bitter herbs, a shank bone, a hard-boiled egg, matzah and charoset. At times, the person leading the Seder may distribute certain items from the Seder plate, but avoid taking on your own from the Seder plate unless instructed to do so.
Read from the Haggadah if Requested: The Haggadah, a Jewish booklet that describes the order of the Seder, is filled with food descriptions, songs, fifteen specific rituals and the Exodus story of how the Jewish people fled Egypt. Guests may be asked to read passages from the Haggadah. If you don’t speak Hebrew, don’t worry; there’s usually an English translation which is appropriate to read as well.
Limit Alcohol as Wine is a Seder Tradition: Throughout the course of the Seder, you will be given four glasses of wine. Each glass is symbolic of the Jew’s freedom from four exiles: The Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek exiles and current exile. If you are taking medication, under the age of 21 or prefer not to drink alcohol, grape juice can be substituted.
Being a Gracious Passover Host
Be Familiar with the Seder and Haggadah: As the host and leader of the Seder, it is your responsibility to set the course for the evening which means being familiar with the order of the Seder, preparing for the fifteen rituals, reviewing the Haggadah ahead of time, preparing the Seder plate according to Jewish tradition and preparing a kosher Passover dinner for your guests.
Know that Matzah is more than Just a Substitute for Bread: There are three ceremonial pieces of matzah that are used during the Seder. They are kept in a special matzah holder that sits on the table. The middle one is called the afikomen, and is hidden at some point during the Seder. At the end of dinner, the children must try and find the hidden matzah. The child who finds it usually receives a small reward. The Jewish people use this as symbolization of the redemption from suffering.
Prepare a Traditional Passover Dinner: Passover dinner usually includes matzo ball soup, brisket or chicken, macaroons, matzah and other specialty dishes. If you are buying any special foods or desserts from the grocery store, ensure they are labeled as “kosher for Passover.” It is certainly appropriate to ask each guest to bring a dish as well.
Focus on the Details to Make it a Memorable Evening: Make sure your Seder table is set with candles and recite the blessing over the candles as the Seder begins. Put a pillow on each guest’s chair to encourage comfort. This is also symbolic of freedom. The Seder leader uses a special kiddush cup, and make sure and leave a glass of wine on the table for Elijah the Prophet. Make sure you have enough Haggadah’s on hand for all of your guests. Select the youngest child to read the four questions.
Be flexible and Accommodate Your Guest’s Desires: While there are some standards that are pretty much set in how a Seder plays out, the reality is that every family does things a little differently and has their own traditions. As the host, you are leading the Seder based on how your family does things. At some point in the evening, ask your guests if any of them have any special Passover traditions they would like to share.