Can you recite the entire Seder by heart?

The ritual symbols have evolved and endured on many different levels.

In his illuminated ‘Moriah Haggada,’ artist Avner Moriah compares the ‘simanim’ with the Exodus narrative in this vibrantly colorful roundel. (photo credit: PHOTO © AVNER MORIAH 2005)
In his illuminated ‘Moriah Haggada,’ artist Avner Moriah compares the ‘simanim’ with the Exodus narrative in this vibrantly colorful roundel.
(photo credit: PHOTO © AVNER MORIAH 2005)
If you can’t recite the Seder by heart, you’re not alone. Although 1,800 years ago, in the time of the Mishna, recitation of the Seder from memory was common, a system of memorization eventually became essential as the contents of the Seder expanded over the centuries. The mnemonic device of simanim (symbols) evolved, becoming the core DNA of the Haggada.
Today, the standardized 15 simanim – compiled in France in the 13th century and often sung at the beginning of the Seder – are a concise table of contents that steer the Seder ceremony.
They comprise the following: Kadesh – blessing over wine; Urhatz – washing hands; Karpas – eating vegetables; Yahatz – breaking the middle matza; Maggid – telling the Passover story; Rahtza – washing hands with a blessing; Motzi – blessing before eating any kind of bread; Matza – blessing over matza and eating matza; Maror – eating bitter herbs; Korech – eating matza and maror together; Shulhan orech – festive meal; Tzafun – eating the afikoman; Barech – grace after a meal; Hallel – psalms of praise; Nirtza – concluding songs.
Artistic renderings of the simanim and the evolution of Passover symbols throughout the ages will be the focus of the Kol HaOt Illuminated Haggadah Fair, to be held at the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel on Thursday, April 13, from 5 p.m. to 10 pm.
The fair, co-sponsored by the hotel, will feature breathtaking displays of historic and contemporary artistic interpretations of the simanim and Seder icons. It will also feature presentations by leading scholars on the development and significance of simanim and illuminated Haggadot, as well as live art demonstrations that explore modern Jewish symbols and icons. “Because the Haggada was expanded over time, there was a need for the simanim as guide posts, and at least 12 different mnemonic systems were developed over time,” notes Prof. Avigdor Shinan, a scholar of the development of the Haggada, who will speak at the Kol HaOt Fair about the evolution of the Haggada and the need for symbols. “It is logical to think that some of the simanim systems were created while the Haggada was being recited orally from memory. The most famous of them is, as far as we can tell, the one that we still recite today.”
During the Middle Ages, according to the writings of Menahem Kasher, a 20th-century rabbi who wrote extensively about the development of the Haggada, different versions of the simanim were used by Jews in various regions throughout the world. For instance, one version attributed to Meir of Rothenburg, a 13th-century German rabbi, put the section “This Is the Bread of Affliction” as an independent item in his siman.
Often, parts of the Seder were referred to by different labels: gefen (grapes) for Kadesh; adama b’tibul (dipping a vegetable that comes from the ground) for Karpas; yivatzea (to break bread) for Yahatz; and yitahar (purify) for Rahtza.
A manuscript from 1457 indicates that Rabbi Shmuel of Falaise, who lived in France in the 13th century, authored the standard simanim that we recite today, according to Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, editor of The Schechter Haggadah.
“These standardized simanim were accepted by Ashkenazi Jews, as well as those in Yemen, Spain and Rome,” adds Golinkin, who will give a special presentation on “700 Years of Illuminated Haggadot: Halacha, history and folklore” at the Kol HaOt Fair.
Golinkin notes that some simanim simply didn’t catch on, such as a page-long poem written as a siman by Rabbi Israel Isserlein, who lived in Austria in the 15th century. “It was simply too long to memorize,” notes Golinkin. “On the other hand, kadesh urhatz is easy to remember because it is short and also rhymes.”
For contemporary artists, the simanim are an ideal palette from which they can draw inspiration. David Moss, in his breathtaking Moss Haggadah, portrays the simanim of the Seder in an image of ascending steps.
The steps, he says, are a reference to the 15 steps on which the Levites stood, singing their songs in the Temple.
“The Seder, with its stress on ordered ritual activities, perhaps more than any other ceremony, strongly evokes the aura of the Temple service,” he explains.
In his illuminated Moriah Haggada, artist Avner Moriah depicts the simanim in a vibrantly colorful roundel. The Hebrew word “Pessah” is in the center, with three concentric circles surrounding it. The outer ring includes scenes of a typical modern day; the middle ring illustrates the story of the Exodus from Egypt; and the inner band represents the simanim of the Seder.
Wedges slice through the three rings, thereby connecting one element of the workday to a section of the Exodus narrative, and to one from the Seder simanim. “At each juncture, the question should arise for the viewer: ‘Am I free or not?’” he explains.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz created an imaginative way to include the siman of Karpas into his illuminated Lovell Haggada: The endpapers are actually made out of parsley – including sprigs of the herb embedded into the paper.
“It took four and a half months to produce the parsley endpapers for my limited-edition Haggada,” he recalls. “Parsley animates our connection to Passover as Hag Ha’aviv – the Festival of Spring. I couldn’t think of a better way to reflect this notion than actually using real, Israeli-grown parsley!” Silversmith Yaakov Greenvurcel labored more than 400 hours to design and produce his multidimensional, sterling silver pyramid, which doubles as a Seder plate. This technically complex endeavor “was my own creative journey from slavery to freedom,” he says. The top of the structure flips into Elijah’s cup; other levels pull out to reveal the matza, shank bone, haroset, karpas and burnt egg.
He chose the image of a pyramid because it is an iconic symbol of slavery. “When you start telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt and start pulling out each compartment of my pyramid, you are symbolically and physically breaking the mold of slavery, as well as visually and physically turning the story into a celebration of freedom,” he explains.
Kol HaOt executive director Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz points out that the Kol HaOt Fair is an opportunity for the public to be exposed to diverse, creative interpretations of the Exodus narrative and Passover rituals. In addition to its annual Illuminated Haggada Fair, Kol HaOt conducts a variety of artsbased, interactive programs for local residents, tourists and schools throughout the year at its new center in the Hutzot Hayotzer Jerusalem Artists’ Colony. All the Kol HaOt workshops and events combine the magic of the visual and performing arts with Jewish texts, ideas, history and values.
“Kol HaOt’s mission is to use the engaging prism of the visual arts to expose the general public to the depth and creativity of Judaism and Jewish sources,” Moss Rabinowitz notes.
Yair Medina, a co-founder of Kol HaOt, adds, “Our interactive approach enables people to explore and express their own personal, intimate connections to Judaism and Jewish rituals.”
The Kol HaOt Illuminated Haggadah Fair will take place on April 13 from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem. Admission is free. For more information, visit