Symbolism of the Jewish Passover Seder Plate
The Passover Seder Plate
The Passover Seder Plate is the centerpiece of the Passover meal and is the heart of the Passover Seder. The foods that are placed on the Seder Plate are integral to the telling of the Passover story. There are six different foods on the Passover Seder plate and each serves the purpose of retelling the story of Exodus.
There are no specific rules about how a Seder Plate should look. It can be traditional or contemporary, round or square, flat or architectural. It can be as simple as you wish or ornate and festive. Generally, each of the six sections are decorated with the Hebrew words for what goes in them, often in fanciful writing.
Every participant at the Passover Seder is served from the Seder plate, which has been specially arranged by the leader of the ceremony. Below are the symbolic foods that are served during the Passover Seder.
Matzah is one of the most iconic elements of Passover. During the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews fled so quickly that there was no time to waste waiting for bread to ris. Instead, they ate unleavened matzah in their desperate escape from slavery. What was once an act of necessity is now celebrated in triumphant, everlasting joy. Jews choose to eat matzah in honor of their ancestors, and to celebrate their freedom. This special bread is included on the Seder plate, or next to it.
Maror and Chazeret are bitter herbs, such as romaine lettuce, endives, or horseradish, which are eaten to remind the participants of the bitter and frightening journey of Exodus.
Charoset is a sweet-tasting mixture of apples, cinnamon, wine, and nuts. Charoset is symbolic of the mortar that the Jewish slaves used when being forced to build Egyptian storehouses. The bitter maror is dipped into the charoset before being consumed. When tasted together, the participants remember the struggle of the Jewish slaves, and pay homage to their hardships. The bitterness of the maror tells the tale of a life of strife, while the sweet-tasting charoset invokes the very building blocks of a slave’s daily existence. While it may seem strange that the charoset, which tastes so delightful, should be used to reinforce the building clay of the slaves, it is a reminder that Passover is a time of celebration of the Jewish slaves’ freedom.
Karpas is a vegetable, often celery or potatoes, which is dipped into salted water or vinegar. The plain, bitter taste of this food also reinforces the brutal life of the Jewish slaves, which was frought with scarcity and pain. The participants at the Passover Seder meal taste the pain of their ancestors. The vegetable serves a secondary purpose - the promise that spring is on its way. Like many of the elements of the Passover dinner, the dual nature of the dish both reminds us of the past struggles of our ancestors, and celebrates their successful journey to freedom.
Zeroah is the second-to-last dish on the Passover Seder Plate. Zeroah is the only meat included on the dish. Usually, zeroah is a shank bone of meat or poultry. In ancient Jeruselum, the Jews celebrated the first night of Passover by sacrificing a lamb in the Temple, roasting it, and consuming it on the eve of the Exodus. The lamb was known as the “Pesach” offering. After the temple was destroyed, the zeroah became part of the Seder Plate to invoke the offering of Pesach. For vegetarians, the Pesach sacrifice can be represented by a beet.
Beitzah is an egg which has been roasted to symbolize another ancient Jerusalem sacrifice - the Korban Chagigah. The Chagigah was a meat sacrifice, yet on the Seder Plate it is represented by an egg for two reasons. The egg is symbolic of mourning and represents sadness after the Temple’s destruction and in knowing that no sacrifices could be offered there. Another meaning behind the Beitzah is that it celebrates Spring, renewal, and rejuvenation.
An Orange - A New Addition to the Passover Seder Plate
The traditional bitter herbs, sweet cinnamon paste, shank bone, roasted egg, and matzah come together to make the traditional Seder Plate dishes. The special foods eaten on Passover are also food for thought. Every item on the Seder plate abounds in meaning and allusion. Because of this, there can be some variety in the foods that are used to celebrate Passover, and different foods may be added to the plates to symbolize more elements of Passover. Some Seders include an orange on the Seder Plate to honor feminism, gay and lesbian rights, and rights for marginalized people.
The origin of the orange comes from an interesting, though unverified story, that the orange earned its way onto the Seder plate after a stuffy rabbi said, “A woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the Seder plate!” Susannah Heschel, who claims to have started the orange tradition, says this story is false. Heschel, a Jewish feminist scholar, says that she started the tradition after witnessing students placing crusts of bread on their plates to symbolize the intolerance of women and homosexuals in Judaism. Heschel loved the idea of symbolizing these minorities, but changed the bread crust to an orange, in order to avoid violating the restrictions of the Passover diet (Heschel would spit out the seeds of the fruit, as if “spitting out” or rejecting intolerance of homosexuals).
The symbolic foods of the Passover Seder Plate each have an interesting and layered meaning. They come together to create an atmosphere which reflects upon, sympathizes, and celebrates the tragedies and triumphs of our Jewish ancestors and the Exodus from Egypt.
Read all of the articles in our Jewish Passover Traditions series: