I am new to Jewish observance and am a bit confused about what to do at the Passover Seder. More accurately, I’m not sure which of the traditional observances apply or not, and why or why not. For example, I know there’s a mitzva to sacrifice a lamb for Passover, at least in the Torah, but I’m not sure if that’s done nowadays. But eating matza certainly is done, as well as other observances. So could you please shed light on this for me?
I commend you on your interest in observance and for asking such important questions.
The main reason why some of the mitzvot of Passover mentioned in the Torah are not observed nowadays is because we do not have the Temple in Jerusalem, and in particular, the altar upon which were offered sacrifices.
Therefore, the lamb that was prescribed by the Torah to be eaten on the first night of Passover cannot be performed. Similarly, since the bitter herbs mentioned in the Torah are to be eaten only with the Passover lamb, this mitzva is also not applicable nowadays. It is nevertheless customary to have some roasted meat or poultry (usually a thigh) on the seder plate as a remembrance of the Pascal lamb. Regarding the bitter herb, it is actually a rabbinic commandment to eat it during the Seder.
That being said, there are other mitzvot of Passover from the Torah that do apply even today.
As you point out, one is the eating of matzot as in the verse, “On the fourteenth of the month in the evening you shall eat matzot” (Ex. 12). Even though it was a mitzva to eat the matza with the Pascal lamb, the Talmud explains based on verses that the mitzva of eating matza is independent of the lamb, and therefore operative even in the absence of the altar.
Another Torah mitzva applicable today is relating the story of the redemption and departure of the Jews from slavery in Egypt as in the verse, “You shall tell your son on that day saying, ‘As this G‑d did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Ex. 13). The Haggada (literally “the telling”) that we read on this night is essentially a rabbinic formula for fulfilling this mitzva of relating the miracles of the Redemption. It is to be recited even if one has no son, and even if one is alone.
In addition to the rabbinic mitzva of eating the bitter herbs, the Sages ordained another mitzva especially for this night which is the four cups of wine that correspond to the four different references to redemption in the Torah. Beyond these rabbinic mitzvot, there are other rabbinic customs and practices such as: eating and drinking while reclining, dipping the carpas vegetable in salt water, dividing one matza and putting it aside for the end of the meal, eating this afikomen, and reciting special praises to G‑d called hallel.