The Passover seder meal: horseradish, wine, and unleavened bread

CNNSeder means “order” in Hebrew, and that should be the first clue that this traditional Passover meal has very special significance.

Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is an annual holiday marking the story from the Book of Exodus when the Jews, led by Moses, fled captivity in Egypt.

The holiday itself lasts for seven days (in Israel) or eight days (everywhere else). While every family and community has its own special way of practicing the holiday, there are a few things you should see at just about any celebration.

When do you have a seder?

Passover begins on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. In 2024, that’s April 22; in 2025, it will be April 12. Days are marked from sundown to sundown, meaning the holiday officially begins at sunset on the previous day.

The most important tradition of Passover is the Seder meal.

As Rachel Scheinerman, the editor of, explains, it’s common to have two Seders.

“The Jewish calendar is lunar-solar, which means that a new month starts when there’s a new moon. A new moon is when the moon after having been completely obscured, begins to reappear in the sky, the first time you see a tiny crescent of a new moon.”

In ancient times, once the people working at the temple in Jerusalem saw the new moon, it officially became a new month. But they had to get the message out to other communities, which they did by sending messengers on horseback or by lighting a fire at the top of a hill that could be seen for miles around.

Now, thanks to phone apps, any Jew anywhere in the world can know exactly what day and time it is. But because of this old tradition, many Jews in the diaspora (living outside of Israel) like to do two seders – one on the first night, another on the second.

In some communities, that can be a fun way to change things up – for example, the first night’s Seder is for family only, while the second is spent with friends or a synagogue community.

“The Seder is a way of rehearsing history, but is also a way of turning history into a shared memory,” says Scheinerman.


What goes on a seder plate?

There are six items present on a seder plate. They are:

• Karpas (a green vegetable, often parsley)
• Charoset (a sweet paste of fruits, honey, and/or nuts that represents mortar)
• Maror (something bitter, usually horseradish)
• Zaroa (a shank bone, which symbolizes the ancient practice of sacrificing a lamb)
• Chazeret (a second green, such as lettuce)
• An egg (typically hard boiled)

Yes, a Seder is a meal, which means everybody gets a plate of food. But the Seder plate is a specific one just for Passover. It has special spots for each of the six foods listed above, plus some Hebrew writing, colorful painted designs or other decorations. This one will be held up and shown to everyone at the meal throughout the night.


Can you put other foods on the seder plate?

There is an apocryphal story that a male rabbi once said that women belong on the bimah (altar in a synagogue, which is where rabbis speak from) as much as an orange belongs on a seder plate.

There’s no specific evidence that this story existed, but many progressive Jews have latched on to the metaphor and adapted it for their own celebrations.

Now, many Jews place an orange on their Seder plate as a way to show they are thinking of and including marginalized communities in Judaism, from LGBT individuals to undocumented immigrants.

Berlin-based Rabbi Avigayil Halpern tells CNN that she has seen some communities plan to add an olive to their Seder plate this year to show solidarity with Palestinians and call for peace. She also knows groups who add a tomato to represent farmworkers’ rights and sunflower seeds representing those fleeing the war in Ukraine. She notes, though, that sunflower seeds are kitnyiot, a word that refers to products other than grains that some people eschew during Passover.

There can also be changes or substitutions to some Seder items based on allergies and dietary practices.

For example, Scheinerman’s family is vegetarian, so they use a beet in place of a shank bone.


Why don’t you eat the food that’s on the Seder plate?

The foods on a Seder plate are all symbolic. Each one represents a different element or theme of the Passover story. As a result, the foods are for showing off and talking about more than for noshing. (Plus, sometimes the plate is prepped in advance, so the food has been sitting out a while. No thanks.)

Don’t worry, though – you definitely won’t starve at a Seder. There is a proper meal, which can feature all kinds of Jewish classic foods like beef brisket and matzo ball soup.

There’s one thing you won’t see, though – bread or any leavened products, like pasta, beer, or cookies. In the Passover story, the Jews fled Egypt in such a hurry that they didn’t have time for their breads to rise, so observant Jews will spend the entire Passover holiday eschewing leavened products.

Matzo, an unleavened bread that looks like a cracker, is a staple of Jewish households during this period. It can be mixed with eggs for an omelet-esque breakfast dish called matzo brei or coated with toffee and chocolate to make a sweet treat.

But matzo isn’t just a snack. It’s a critical element of the Seder table. In many families, a piece of matzo called the afikomen is wrapped in a cloth and hidden somewhere for the children to look for, with the winner getting some kind of reward.

Matzo is also used during the Seder to talk about the Exodus story and eaten as part of the meal. One Seder component is the hillel sandwich, where maror and charoset are put between two pieces of matzo and eaten sandwich-style, representing life’s mix of bitterness and sweetness.

Okay, so that’s the food covered. What about drinking?

It’s traditional to drink four cups of wine during the Seder. And, just like the foods, these drinks are symbolic too.

“There’s a lot of features of the Seder that are basically the rabbis saying, ‘Well, if we want to have a fancy Roman dinner, what does it look like?’” says Halpern, the rabbi.

“My favorite interpretation is that [the four cups] correspond with the four foremothers. There’s an idea that there’s three matzos on the Seder table and those correspond with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And the four cups of wine are for Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah. It brings all kinds of different ancestors into the Seder.”

Beyond the four cups of wine, though, most beverages are welcome at the Seder – although not grain alcohols or beer. Kids will often be given grape juice in place of wine.

Ultimately, though, there’s no single way to observe Passover or to enjoy the Seder.

“I think there’s so much richness in the traditional Seder text and in the traditional Seder foods,” says Halpern. “And I think that creativity and allowing things to grow and bringing our full selves to the Seder are really important.”