Seder Minhagim from Sephardic Lands

It was the first Pesach after I got married, and I was a bit apprehensive about spending the Sedarim with my in-laws. As much as they always made me feel at home, Pesach night is the time when the head of each household leads his family’s Seder according to the traditions of his forefathers. Even in the same geographic location, the rites and rituals, along with the tunes and traditions, vary from home to home.

Ha Lachma Anya, however, caught me by surprise, as my father-in-law lifted the ke’arah and everyone in the family reached over and held onto it. This seemed strange, as I had never seen it done before, nor had I seen this minhag brought down. That is, until some 30 years later, when I learned hilchos Pesach in the Chayei Adam and saw that he mentions this very minhag.

I’m sure some of my family’s minhagim may seem strange to my own sons-in-law. But the tale of Yetzias Mitzrayim, which my father told me and their fathers told them, is the same one they are transmitting to their children. The differences between our traditions are merely a tool for us to expand on the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

While customs vary by degrees in Eastern European countries, Jews who hail from Sephardic regions have vastly different minhagim. Let us explore the rich traditions of these lands and how they are practiced today by Sephardic communities worldwide.

Syrian Seder

Checking the rice

“Our preparations for Pesach begin with checking the rice we will be using,” says Rabbi Moshe Mustachi, whose family follows the minhagim of Syrian Jewry, “and this is usually a family project. The rice is checked three times to ensure that there is not a single grain of wheat mixed in.

“There are some Sephardim, specifically those from Iraq, who use soft masot. Indeed, Hacham Ovadia Yosef and, ybl”c, Harav Shalom Cohen, are both of Iraqi descent, used soft masot, as did Harav Ben Zion Abba Shaul, zt”l, whose parents came from Iran. But in Syria, they used hard masot.

“Before beginning the Seder, the simanim are sung in a traditional tune. Kadeish is said by the head of the house, and he is mosi all the rest, but each one has his own kos of wine. By Yahatz, we try to break the masah in a way in which the larger part has the shape of a dalet and the smaller part is in the shape of a yud or vav. This is done according to Kabbalah.

Soft masot

“After this, Syrian Jews have a very unique minhag. The masah is slung over the left shoulder, and while we walk around the table, we recite the passuk, ‘Misharotam serurot b’simlotam al shichmam…’ Someone asks in Arabic, ‘From where are you coming?’ The response is, ‘From Misrayim.’ Then he asks, ‘And to where are you going?’ The response is, ‘To Yerushalayim.’ Finally, he asks, ‘And what are you carrying?’ And the answer is, ‘Masah and marror.’ Then all declare, ‘L’shanah haba’ah b’ara d’Yisrael bnei horin.’ The children are taught this in school, and it is a high point of the Seder.

“The ke’arah is removed from the table, and the minhag is to hand it to a young girl who is looking for a shidduch. She will hold it until after Mah Nishtanah. The question of dipping is asked first, since that is done first. That is followed by the questions about masah, marror, and finally why we recline. Everyone recites Mah Nishtanah together, and they then request that the young lady return the ke’arah. She replies, ‘You may have it back, but you must give an answer to the questions.’

“When the wine is poured out by the makkot, it is removed from the house and spilled outside. There is a tradition that if it is spilled on the property of an enemy of our nation, it will bring upon him the scourge of the makkot.

“A beautiful pizmon, Ein Emunim, is sung when they recite Rabban Gamliel Omer… which mentions the three things that must said: Pesach, Masah and Maror. After the first part of Hallel, which is recited as it is done in shul, no brachah rishonah is recited on the second kos, which is in line with the ruling of the Beit Yosef.

“There is no minhag to snatch the afikoman, so it is eaten without that fanfare. After Birkat Hamazon, a brachah is recited on the third kos, but it will not be recited on the fourth kos after Hallel.

“For Nirsah, besides the traditional Ehad Mi Yodei’a in Lashon Kodesh, Min Yilam, an Arabic version, is sung. The Seder ends with the recital of Shir Hashirim, which is said with the ta’amim as in shul.”

Minhagim of Morocco

Fava beans

“A typical Jewish family of Moroccan lineage will have a large bowl of dried fruits and nuts on the table from Erev Pesach and throughout the entire holiday,” says Eli Gabai. “When the children see the sweet figs, dates, other fruits and the nuts, their curiosity gets ahold of them, and they are naturally inquisitive, which prompts them to ask questions. So the concept of ‘kedei sheyishalu hatinokot’ starts even before Yom Tov begins.”

Erev Pesach is a busy time for all, and in a Moroccan household, most of the family will be involved either in making haroset or peeling fava beans.

“Although we do not eat rice, which other Sephardim do consume, it is not because they are kitniyot, but rather because in Morocco the wheat and rice were often transported and stored together. Fava beans are used in many of the Pesach dishes, including a delicious soup and in salads, so a family may peel a case of beans before Pesach begins.”

Each family member is involved in the preparations, and every person knows his or her job. One may be roasting nuts, with another using a hand grinder to pulverize the nuts for the haroset, which contains almonds and hazelnuts, along with dates, apples and wine.

After Arbit, Hallel is recited with a brachah, and when the men arrive home, many don a jellabiya, the traditional dignified Moroccan robe, and traditional-minded women dress in a kaftan, or tunic, which was the way the aristocracy dressed.

In Morocco, many used soft masot, but in the United States they are not so easy to come by.

“My parents live in Los Angeles, and they were not able to get soft masot there,” recalls Eli. “When I was learning on the East Coast, I would bring some home with me from New York. Today, most of the masah we eat is the hard type. Of course, when Yahatz is performed on the soft masot, they would be torn rather than cracked in half.”

At this point, the family says a passage in Arabic in which they articulate that this is the way Hashem split the sea for us when we left Misrayim following Moshe Rabbeinu, and so too should He protect us always.

“After the masah is cracked or torn, Ha Lahma Anya is recited and repeated in Arabic as well. This is followed by Mah Nishtanah, which was originally said by one child. Today, however, many have all the children recite it, since they put in effort in school to learn it. It is chanted in a special tune, and an Arabic translation is said by one person as well,” Eli explains.

Before Maggid begins, they wave the ke’arah over the heads of the participants, and some wave flowers as well. A melody is sung describing how the Jews left Misrayim in a hurry and expressing the hope that next year we will be in Yerushalayim.

It is interesting to note that although Moroccan Jews are decidedly Sephardic, they have adopted the custom of reciting Had Gadya at the end of Nirsah, notwithstanding that the poem stems from the Rokeiach, who was Ashkenazi. Yet the Moroccan Jews add their own unique twist, as they sing the words in Arabic as well.

Pesach in Persia

“Growing up in Shiraz, Iran, you couldn’t help but feel the joy and delight that Pesach brought to everyone,” recalls Reb Meir. “Warm weather filled the spring air, and the pleasant atmosphere enveloped everyone as we went about our Pesach preparations.

“There were no processed foods that were kosher for Pesach, so everything was made from scratch. I remember the shock we once had when we walked into a store and saw a bottle which read ‘shemen kosher l’Pesach’! It was unheard of, and we were taken aback to find it with Hebrew lettering on the bottle.

“We bought raw nuts and had to wash them and prepare them. I have memories of the almonds that were just ripening in this season, with their shells still soft and edible,” Reb Meir reminisces. “After soaking them, we rubbed them, put some salt on it to flavor it, and they were our special Pesach treat. Throughout Yom Tov, the children played with walnuts, rolling them and making all sorts of games. It was a fun time, and with entire families living within close proximity, we got together with our cousins and bonded.”

Apricot kernels

Another Pesach treat was eating majak, specially prepared apricot kernel. “The pits of the apricots are naturally quite bitter,” he explains, “but they turn sweet when they are cooked. It is served while moist. The peel is removed and the kernel is eaten, and it is quite delicious.”

For the Sedarim, many Persian Jews use a Haggadah written by Harav Yehoshua Natan-Eli, which he translated into Farsi. Before the Seder begins, the simanim are sung in a sweet tune.

The items used for the ke’arah are unique to Persia. “For Karpas, we used what is called kerafs in Farsi. It is a type of fresh parsley with long leaves (almost like celery). It was dipped into a mixture of saltwater and lemon juice, which I haven’t heard of being used elsewhere,” says Reb Meir. “In addition, we used two different types of romaine lettuce. For maror, we used a dark, leafy lettuce, which was actually quite bitter. For hazeret, we used a lettuce that was lighter and sweeter.” The custom in Iran was to preserve and keep the zero’a after Pesach as a segulah.

This ke’arah, laden with the masot and the simanim, is passed from person to person, and each one holds it while reciting Ha Lahma Anya.

After the youngest child says Mah Nishtanah, the Persians have a minhag when they sing Dayeinu to beat each other softly with scallions, which look somewhat like whips, symbolizing the way Bnei Yisrael were whipped as slaves in Misrayim. It is done as a means of livening up the atmosphere and exciting the children.

The minhagim of Iranian Jews are similar to those of other Sephardim, yet they have a distinctly Persian flavor. This comes to light mostly by Nirsah, where Ehad Mi Yode’a is sung in rhyme in the Farsi language after it is sung in Lashon Hakodesh. Had Gadya, too, is sung in Farsi after it is sung in Aramaic.

Blend of Bukharia

Bukharian Haggadah, circa 1830.

Bukharian Jews have a unique blend of minhagim, some of which traveled with them as they emigrated from Iran and Iraq, some of which came along with the shadarim (sedakah collectors from Eretz Yisrael), and some of which came with Rav Yosef Maimon, who arrived from Tetuan, Morocco, in 1793 and introduced many of his customs. There are also some home-grown customs found nowhere else.

One minhag exclusive to Bukharian Jews is the retelling of the story of Mula Baki before the start of the Seder, in order to instill the belief that one should rely on Hashem for all his needs. A simple, G-d-fearing Jew, Mula Baki heard from the Hacham about giving maaser for sedakah and that Hashem promises to repay it many times over. He immediately distributed these funds of his to the poor, confident that his “Partner” would refill his coffers.

As Pesach approached and his reserves were not replenished, he set out for the mountains out of the city and called out, “I have done Your misvah, and now Pesach is upon us and I cannot purchase what I need.” He wrote his name, address and request on a paper and tossed it to the wind, which took it quite a distance away. It was found by a wealthy Jew, who made his way to Mula Baki’s home and generously supplied him with all his needs.

The other blended minhagim vary. Some families don’t eat rice, because they hosted shadarim, who usually refrained from eating it. The leader of the Seder carries the masot over his shoulder like the Syrian Jews, and the children attempt to snatch the masot away from him, distracting him by hitting him with scallions, as the Iranians do during Dayeinu. In addition, the ke’arah is passed around for all to say Ha Lahma Anya, as is done by the Persian Jews.

Yemen of Yesteryear

While the Jews of the diaspora have wandered throughout the past two millennia, the Jews of Teiman (Yemen) have remained in one location, helping preserve many facets of Judaism that have vanished from other societies. Their adherence to these traditions is evident in the numerous customs performed by Teimani Jews on Seder night.

With the men are all wearing their tallitot, the Seder begins when a covering is spread over the entire table, concealing not only the matzos but the other items on the table as well. In this way, they fulfill the edict of “removing the table” that others do by removing the ke’arah. The cloth is removed at Ha Lachma Anya, and it is replaced until Rabban Gamliel Omer.

Yemenite children reciting the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim in Arabic.

Kiddush is also unique, with a supplement describing Hashem’s love for our nation by taking us out of Mitzrayim and bringing us close at Har Sinai. Similarly, when they begin Avadim Hayinu, they add a supplement in Arabic which is recited by a young child, which provides a brief summary of the tale of the exodus from Mitzrayim.

The Jews of Yemen have preserved special tunes for each area of Torah study; there is one for learning Mishnah and another for learning Gemara. The Haggadah is recited in the Mishnah tune, as much of the text is found in the Mishnah of the tenth perek of Masechta Pesachim.

The matzah used in Yemen is soft and pita-like. Although some divide it before Ha Lachma Anya, many do not; they wait until after the conclusion of Maggid, and after washing, the one leading the Seder tears the middle matzah. He then makes the brachah of hamotzi, and the rest listen quietly as they are yotzei with his brachah. After distributing a kezayis to each person, he makes the brachah of Al Achilas Matzah, and everyone eats only one kezayis. At that point, he wraps the piece set aside for the afikoman in his tallit on his shoulder, and recites the pasuk, “Misharotam tzerurot besimlosam al shichmam.”

Although the Teimanim do not pour a kos shel Eliyahu, nevertheless, when the door is opened by Shefoch chamaschah, the leader of the Seder goes out to see if Moashiach has arrived. In the event that he hasn’t, he will return and sadly state, “He is not yet here.”

After Hallel and the fourth kos, a special pizmon, Agil v’esmach ula-eil meshabach, written over six hundred years ago, is sung in a beautiful tune.

Notwithstanding the differences in their customs, Jews in all places use the words of the Haggadah, which are remarkably similar despite the considerable distance which separates them, to transmit emunah in Hashem to the next generation. And all end with the tefillah that next year, we should all gather in Yerushalayim habenuyah.