Commands, customs and kids: A Passover synopsis

One in twenty mitzvot in the Torah have to do with Pesach. What's it all about?

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Pesach mitzvot
Pesach mitzvot
Credit: JWG

The Torah contains lists of commandments given to guide every single aspect of Jewish life. A disproportionate 5% of these mitzvot are specific to Passover: that means 1 in every 20 commands relates to just one week of the year!

As well as these very specific commandments, our springtime festival is shrouded in age-old traditions that vary between countries, cities and families. It’s really no wonder that Pesach is such an intense time in our calendar.

One of these commands is to teach one’s children about the story of the Exodus. It’s so important for our children to know this story that the instruction appears on four separate occasions in the Torah! Unsurprisingly, many of the Seder’s customs and rituals exist simply to invoke childish curiosity and encourage questions and involvement. Here’s a breakdown of the Seder’s rituals, and everything you might need for a seamless Passover celebration!


Command: Eat matzah/do not eat leavened products

It is absolutely forbidden to eat leavened dough throughout Pesach; it is one of just 36 transgressions that warrant the Biblical punishment of Karet – spiritual excision. While most grains are off the menu for the week, matzah is the carb of choice (or necessity?). Buy plenty of matzah before the holiday – it’s the one thing you really don’t want to run out of! Sadly, you can’t have matzah without crumbs. The crispy flatbreads are notorious for leaving mess wherever they’re eaten, so plan ahead and keep your table clean with a matzah tray!

Custom: Break the middle matzah

Three sheets of matzah are used during the Seder: two for making hamotzi, and one which is broken and hidden for later. Matzah is also called lechem oni – poor man’s bread – as a reminder that the Jewish nation was born out of slavery and poverty. We break a matzah and put part away in a special ‘afikoman bag’ for later, to remember our humble roots.

Kids: Hiding the afikoman

It’s customary for kids at the Seder to ‘steal’ the afikoman and hide it, and random it off for gifts later in the night. It’s a great way to keep your little ones engaged in what’s going on, and a fabulous incentive for them to stay awake till the end of the night! Don’t get tricked into offering big, expensive gifts in exchange for your matzah: plan ahead and pre-buy children’s gifts for instant bribes!


Command: Passover is a Festival

Just like every other holiday, we welcome the day by lighting candles, making Kiddush and saying Hamotzi before the festive meal. We refrain from work, add tefillat mussaf and hallel, and spend the day resting and enjoying the time with our families.

Custom: Four Cups of Wine at the Seder (…we know it’s a Rabbinic mitzvah really)

Traditionally, four cups of wine are drunk at the Seder. Each of these cups is associated with completing one of the crucial commands of celebrating Pesach: the first is for Kiddush; the second for recounting the Exodus story; the third concludes Birkat Hamazon and the fourth concludes Hallel – praising God. They also represent one of four verses of redemption mentioned in the Torah. Make sure you have plenty of good wine in – with so many exceptional Israeli wines to choose from, you have no excuse for getting stuck with four glasses of sickly sweet Kiddush wine!

Kids: Questioning our Use of Wine, and Elijah’s Cup

Even those of us who like to indulge in the odd tipple don’t periodically pour out four glasses and drink them with such ceremony – especially not in front of our kids! Staggering our drinks like this is a great question prompt for kids – as is the mystery fifth cup we pour and leave un-drunk. Called the Cup of Elijah and poured into a large, decorative goblet, it represents a fifth expression of redemption and according to legend, is drunk by the legendary prophet when he visits Seder tables.

Telling the Story

Command: Relate the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim every day; teach it to your kids

The story of the Jewish people’s redemption from Egypt is quoted in the Shema and mentioned both in Shirat Hayam and Birkat Hamazon. We have a national responsibility to remind ourselves of the story of our ancestors’ exodus – and on Passover, the festival designated for its commemoration, we do more than simply relate the story. We relive it as if it was our own personal miracle.

Custom: The Haggadah’s Maggid section (as above)

The content of the Haggadah was laid down in medieval times, and the familiar liturgy is full of songs and texts describing the events that unfolded in Egypt. Your Haggadah is a precious book that will travel with you through life – so make sure that whether you want a translated, illustrated or commentary edition, it’s something you love.

Kids: Mah Nishtana and Jazzing it Up

Maggid – the section of the Seder in which we retell the Passover story – begins with our children asking the Four Questions. We spend the rest of maggid answering them – but long Hebrew texts can get boring pretty quickly! Spice up your Seder with songs and props: you can have an interactive 10 plagues, or a live re-enactment of packing up to leave. Seder isn’t meant to be a lesson – it’s about experiencing the story for yourself, and adventuring out of Egypt with your family!