This Monday is the first night of Pesach, or Passover. In the days when the Temple was standing, every Jew was required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple and make an offering there. Around the world and on six continents, Jews still follow the same structure for a Passover seder, as outlined in the Haggadah nearly two thousand years ago. But Jews are not monolithic: each community adds its own variations and customs to the mix.
There are roughly three different strains of Jewish cultural movements, all of which have many different subgroups. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Romans forcibly removed Jews from their homeland and scattered them throughout the Empire. Thus, three distinct cultures emerged. The Ashkenazi Jews come from Central and Eastern Europe, and make up between 70 and 80% of the worldwide Jewish population. The Sephardi Jews settled in Spain and flourished under Muslim rule there: after the expulsion of Jews in 1492, many fled to Portugal, the Netherlands, and Southern Europe, including the Ottoman Empire (especially present-day Turkey and Greece). Finally, Mizrachi Jews, from the Hebrew word for “east”, were descendents of Jews who lived in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
Unsurprisingly, one of the largest differences between the different Jewish groups is one of food. Ashkenazi Jews are forbidden from eating any products of the “five grains”: wheat, oats, barley, spelt, and rye. The only exception is matzah. (This prohibition has led to a market for kosher-for-Passover tequila.) The ban on these grains also led to bans on similarly-shaped foods which could be mixed in or confused with these grains, called kitniyot: rice, peas, beans, lentils, and corn. (This includes a ban on everything made with corn syrup – hence the need for kosher-for-Passover Coke.) Sephardim and Mizrachim generally don’t forbid kitniyot; indeed, rice with saffron is a traditional Mizrachi dish.
Charoset, a sweet dish that is made to resemble the mortar used by the ancient Hebrews, also differs by region. The Ashkenazi dish is usually made of apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine. Sephardi dishes tend to include dried native fruits, such as figs and dates, and may be cooked. Persian Jews call it “halleq” and tend to use pomegranate and cardamom.
Gefilte fish and matzah-ball soup are a common first dish at a Passover seder for Ashkenazi Jews, though some ultra-Orthodox Jews won’t eat any matzah that has come in contact with any liquid. Lamb is a very common dish in some Sephardi and Mizrachi areas. Some people from the Middle East would make balls of matza and eggs, by wetting matzah and wrap it in a towel and let it stay. Matzah itself can be very different, depending on where it’s made: Ashkenazi matzah is hard and cracker-like, while Mizrachi and some Sephardi matzah is soft, like pita or a tortilla. No matter what texture it takes, it has to take no less than 18 minutes from mixing to the end of baking.
While the text of the seder stays the same no matter the culture, there are different traditions associated with it. The Hagaddah refers to Jews reclining: Ashkenazim tend to use pillows or cushions on their chairs, while Sephardim may drag mattresses and actually lie down around the table. (This works best when there is lots of room, a problem at many seders.)
The seder is also often primarily focused around children. Sephardim send their children outside carrying sacks and wait to start until the children knock on the door.
“Where are you coming from?” the parents ask.
“We’re coming from Egypt.”
“Where are you going to?”
“Going to Israel!”
Ashkenazim have the tradition of having the youngest child present – or at least the youngest child who is old enough to speak – recite the Four Questions. In Sephardi families, the entire family recites them together.
During the song “Dayenu”, Mizrachi Jews lightly beat each other with the green onion stalks to represent the lashes of the Egyptian overseers, as seen here. (The bike helmet also shows some of the modern preparations that people make!)
While the songs for the seder are the same in meaning, they can vary in tune and pronunciation. To show some of the possible variations, here are three different versions of the song “Chad Gadya”:
Ashkenazi Chad Gadya –
Ofra Haza, a famous Israeli singer of Yemenite descent, singing Chad Gadya –
A Moroccan version of Chad Gadya in Arabic:
Not all of the variations are due entirely to these regional differences. Some variations in a seder are found in a family, or to a synagogue, or to a group. One recent addition to the seder plate is an orange: alternatively to represent the fruitfulness of all Jews, including gays and lesbians, and to represent increasingly prominent role of women. (Many things on the seder plate have multiple meanings.)
No matter what your cultural custom, two wishes remain present: let all who are slaves become free, l’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim!
Rachel Landau is a graduate student in public policy. She previously worked as a museum security guard. She has lost on Jeopardy!