Ask an expert what to do at a Passover seder

This year, 2 billion Christians celebrate Lent and Easter together—and millions of Jewish families observe Passover starting April 18, during what Christians call Holy Week. Christians teach that Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem was to observe Passover, forever linking the two sacred seasons. (Photo above: In an earlier year, Jewish Navy personnel on the USS Nimitz celebrated Passover while in the Arabian Gulf.)
ALL THIS WEEK AND NEXT, we will report on creative ideas, books, films and provocative voices to help you find new meaning in Passover and Holy Week.

TODAY, we’ve got help from an expert on an observance that defines Judaism: the Passover seder.


Biblical scholars disagree on whether Jesus’ Last Supper was an actual seder, but Christianized Seders are widespread at this time of year—and the practice appears to be growing among evangelicals. Sometimes called “baptized” or “Messianic” seders, the traditional Jewish ritual is changed to turn the meal into a remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper. Leaders of these adapted rituals use them to foster Christian conversion. However, most of the world’s Christians regard that as inappropriate.

The world’s largest Christian church, the Catholic church, forbids its parishes to Christianize the seder. Catholic leaders encourage their billion-plus followers to visit authentic seders—or to invite a rabbi to lead a model seder to demonstrate the ritual for Christians. Catholic bishops say clearly: Christianized seders “distort both traditions.” And the bishops say: “The primary reason why Christians may celebrate the festival of Passover should be to acknowledge common roots in the history of salvation. Any sense of restaging the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus should be avoided.” (The bishops have posted their instructions within a larger document: Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church.)

Many Jewish clergy and individual families invite non-Jews to model seders—or to their homes for the ritual meals that will be held on April 18 and 19. In the FriendshipAndFaith section of ReadTheSpirit, we are publishing stories about creative ways to enjoy diversity in the midst of the seder.


Earlier, we published a story recommending “Creating Lively Passover Seders,” published by Stuart Matlins and Jewish Lights Publishing.
This week, we welcome Stuart back for two more stories. Today, we are recommending Stuart Matlins’ best-selling reference work, “How to Be a Perfect Strranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook,” which has just been released in an updated 5th Edition. Come back later this week for an interview with Stuart about the many ways this book has helped to foster healthier communities around the world. Today, we’re sharing a sample from the popular book.

Q and A on Passover seder
for non-Jews
invited to the meal

Here are just some of the Questions and Answers included in the seder section of this big reference book …

What is its significance? Passover commemorates the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.

What is the proper greeting to the celebrants? “Happy Passover” or “Happy holiday,” which in Hebrew is “Chag samayach” (hahg sah-MAY-ahk).

Should one assume children are invited? No. Clarify this with your host.

If one can’t attend, what should one do? Express regrets. Send flowers or special Passover candy.

Appropriate attire—men: Ask your host about attire. Some may prefer jacket and tie; others may request more informal attire. A small head covering called a yarmulke (YAHR-mil-kah) or kippah (keep-AH) is required at all Orthodox and most Conservative and Reconstructionist seders and at some Reform seders. If required, your host will provide them for you. Do not openly wear symbols of other faiths, such as a cross.

Appropriate attire—women: Ask your host about attire. Some may prefer a dress or a skirt and blouse or pants suit. Open-toed shoes and modest jewelry are appropriate. Do not openly wear symbols of other faiths, such as a cross.

If one decides to give a gift, is a certain type of gift appropriate? Flowers for the seder table or special Passover candy are welcome.

The ceremony: The Passover seder (SAY-dihr) is a festive dinner at home at which the story of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, is told. Rituals precede and follow the meal. A seder is usually led by the head of the household, although everyone present participates. Seders (including the meal) may take from 90 minutes to more than three hours, depending upon the detail in wihch the story is told and family customs. It is cusotmary to arrive at the time called; this is a dinner, as well as a religious celebration.

What are the major ritual objects? A seder plate, on which are symbols of various aspects of the Passover story. Matzah (MAH-tzah) or flat, unleavened bread, similar to the bread made by the Jewish people as they fled Egypt.

What books are read? A Haggadah (hah-GAH-dah), a text in Hebrew and English that tells the Passover story and its meaning for each generation. There are hundreds of different versions of the Haggadah. Many focus on different elements of the holiday or interpret it from their own particular perspective, such as feminism or ecology, but all tell the basic story of the Exodus.

Will a guest who is not Jewish be expected to do anything other than sit? If asked to do so by the leader, they should read aloud English portions of the Haggadah.

Is it okay to take pictures? Probably; ask your host.

Is the meal part of the celebration? Yes. It is usually served after the first part of the ritual portion of the seder.

Will there be alcoholic beverages? Wine is an integral part of the seder. Other alcoholic beverages may be served prior to or after the seder, depending upon the family’s customs.

Would it be considered impolite not to eat? Yes, since the meal is central to the celebration.

Will there be music? Usually there is just singing. Guitar or piano may accompany the singing.

You can order this remarkable reference work, “How to Be a Perfect Strranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook,” which answers thousands of questions about all the world’s great religious traditions, from SkyLight Paths Publishing.

Care to read more about Passover?

Our Festivals and Holidays column reports further on the preparation for Passover and its timeless meaning for Jewish families, plus more helpful web links to Passover resources.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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