Countless people will soon be observing a Passover Seder. There are many important aspects to running an effective Seder, but perhaps the most important and the least known is that the Seder, meaning order, is an arrangement of fifteen indispensable steps from start to finish. In order to explain this to you, I must first explain the significance of the number fifteen.
The periodic table arranges into a grid all the chemical elements out of which the entire universe and its contents are comprised. These elements of creation are laid out in the order of increasing number of protons in their nuclei. Thus, for instance, the first element, hydrogen, has one proton in its atomic nucleus while the 92nd, uranium, has 92 protons.
The fifteenth element, with yes, 15 protons, is phosphorus which has the distinction of giving off light. It is from this element that we derive the term phosphorescence to describe anything that gives off light without being burned. Phosphorus was used not only in the manufacture of early matches but also to make luminous watch dials in the early 20th century.
It is interesting that the fifteenth element radiates light because the fifteenth generation from Abraham was King Solomon who radiated light in the form of wisdom. We still use the phrase ‘seeing the light’ to suggest becoming wise. The final few verses in the Book of Ruth detail the ten generations from Peretz to David, the father of Solomon. From Genesis we know that Abrahm, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah, were the four generations leading to Peretz for a total of 15 generation from Judaism’s founder, Abraham, to Solomon’s building the Temple, the domicile of Divine light.
In Jewish numerology the number fifteen always signifies the fifteen steps necessary for the attainment of a lofty objective. In Solomon’s Temple, there were fifteen steps leading up towards the Holy of Holies. The priests sang one psalm on each step as they ascended. Thus we find fifteen psalms that open with the words, “Song of The Steps” (Psalms 120-134)
Similarly, the Passover Seder comprises fifteen separate agenda items, each of which is a necessary step from where we are now to where we hope to arrive by the Seder’s conclusion.
1. Kadesh. The blessing over the first cup of wine. The word means sanctification. It also means separation which is a necessary first step in sanctification. We are separating and sanctifying the time we shall spend in the Seder from all other time.
2. U’rechatz. Washing the hands. The primary organs for moving food from the world into our bodies are our hands. By pouring water over them, we dedicate them in purity even though we utter no blessing at this point, elevating the physical act of eating to a spiritual purpose.
3. Karpas. Dipping a vegetable that grows underground into salt water and eating it. We start off the evening acknowledging that we are from the earth and its oceans and to the earth we shall return.
4. Yachatz. Breaking the middle of the 3 special matzohs in half and putting one half aside for step number 12 later on. The only way to grow is to recognize our flaws which is, in essence, the breaking of our egos.
5. Magid. Reciting the story of the Exodus from the Hagadah. What distinguishes us from animals incapable of growth is our ability to speak. This part of the Seder is exercising our ability to communicate by means of stories, questions and answers.
6. Rachtzah. Washing the hands again. However, this time, on account of our already having ascended through the first five steps, we merit to bless God as we further sanctify our hands before the meal.
7. Motzi. The usual blessing over bread. Although we use a substitute, matzoh, for Passover, we thank God for giving us the ability to eat, not just the fruit and vegetables of the earth but also the unique human food, bread.
8. Matzoh. The blessing over the matzoh. This is the first taste of matzoh, the main food of the Seder and further suggests our willingness to subdue our egos by getting rid of all the ‘hot air’ that differentiates bread from matzoh.
9. Maror. Eating the bitter herb. A mouthful of horseradish which leaves us gasping for breath with our eyes streaming emphasizes that unless we acknowledge that our past mistakes were indeed mistakes that have caused pain, growth is impossible.
10. Korech. Eating a matzoh bitter herb sandwich. Our pure souls unencumbered by pompousness and arrogance unified with acknowledging yesterday’s painful mistakes is the perfect recipe for growth and transformation.
11. Shulchan Oreich. The set table at which we now eat a festive meal. We don’t merely open a few cans of cranberry sauce or gobble up a mass produced hamburgers. A set table signifies that we do not eat merely for survival as do animals.
12. Tzafun. Eating the Afikomen. That half of the middle matzoh put aside earlier in step 4 is eaten as the dessert. The final taste in our mouths is not chocolate mousse or brandy flavored crepe suzette but the plain basic matzoh with which we began the evening’s process. We never lose sight of what really matters.
13. Bareich. Grace after the meal. At a time when we feel full and sated, it would be so easy to forget He who gave us the food.
14. Hallel. The section of the Seder in which we praise God. After having worked our way through the first 13 steps, we know that we have made progress but we herein acknowledge that in the final analysis it is all up to God.
15. Nirtzah. Acceptable to God. Here we reflect that through God’s love and acceptance of our imperfections and our efforts we achieve true spiritual transformation. Our fifteen steps are done and we feel the ever present light of the Almighty shining brightly enough to carry us through the entire year until we are privileged to do the Seder again, ideally in Messianic times, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
This ‘fifteen-step program’ leading to authentic transformation is one of many growth opportunities Passover presents. More appear in earlier Thought Tools, including those found in our Thought Tool Set. This time of year is particularly attuned to spiritual growth. Make the most of it.