Symbolism of the Jewish Passover Seder Plate
What is Passover?
Passover is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Exodus of Jews from their enslavement in Egypt. The Jewish people, led by Moses, asked the Pharoah to free the Jewish slaves, and was denied. As punishment against Egypt, God sent ten plagues to convince the Pharaoh to release the Jews. The Pharoah would not obey. As a result, God sent the last plague, which would kill the firstborn male in each household.
The Jews were instructed to mark their doors with the blood of a sacrificed lamb so that the Angel of Death would pass over their homes. Passover is derived from the Hebrew word, Pesach, which means to "pass over" or "to protect." With this last plague, the Pharoah finally relented, and the Jews were free to began their exodus from Egypt. The holiday of Passover commemorates these events and the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.
Passover which begins on the night of the 15th day of Nissan and lasts for eight days. In the United States and the diaspora, a Passover Seder is celebrated on the first two nights of Passover. In Israel, a Passover Seder is held only on the first night of Passover.
During the Passover Seder, a book is read, called the Haggadah, which tells the story of Passover and discusses how to celebrate the Passover Seder, including which foods to eat and when and their symbolism. These foods include bitter herbs, sweet apples, and matzah -- all of which are symbolic of the imprisonment of Jews. Matzah, which is unleavened bread, is eaten at Passover because when the Jews fled Egypt, there was no time to allow the bread to rise.
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 rise 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 unleavened bread is kept on a separate matzah tray.
Maror and chazeret are bitter herbs, such as romaine lettuce, endives, or horseradish, which are eaten to remind us of the bitter lives of the Jewish slaves in Egypt and of the frightening journey of Exodus. The maror is eaten near the end of the Seder after the washing of the hands. It is eaten along or as a sandwich with matzah.
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 Hebrew word Charoset comes from the word cheres meaning clay.
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. The charoset can be eaten as a sandwich with matzah.
Karpas is a vegetable of parsley, celery or potatoes, which is dipped into salted water. It should be allowed to drip off, to represent the tears shed by the Jews during their enslavement by the Egyptians. The plain, bitter taste of this food also reinforces the brutal life of the Jewish slaves, which was fraught with scarcity and pain. The participants at the Passover Seder meal taste the pain of their ancestors.
As slaves, they were only able to eat simple foods, so a simple vegetable is used during the Seder. In a typical Sabbath or Holiday meal, the first food we eat after the blessing of the wine is bread. During the Seder, the first one we eat is the vegetable. 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.
Eating the karpas is followed by The Four Questions, Mah Neeshtanah Ha Layla HaZeh Mi kohl HaLaylot? Why is this night different from all other nights?
Zeroah is the only meat included on the Passover Seder plate. Usually, zeroah is a shank bone of meat or poultry. For vegetarians, the Pesach sacrifice can be represented by a beet. Before the Jews left Egypt, in order to protect their houses from the tenth plague against the Egyptians, Jews smeared lamb's blood on their doorposts. The Angel of Death, seeing the blood, would pass over those houses.
In ancient Jerusalem, 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.
Beitzah is an egg which has been roasted to symbolize an 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. The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in about 586 BCE and the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
Another meaning behind the Beitzah is that it celebrates Spring, renewal, and rejuvenation. It is not eaten as part of the Seder, but many people dip it in saltwater and eat it as a first course of the Passover meal.
An Orange - A New Addition to the Passover Seder Plate
An orange symbolizes the intolerance of women and homosexuals in Judaism. This new tradition began in the 1980's be Susannah Heschel. It represents the fruitfulness of all Jews when there is inclusively for all.
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 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 Passover Seder Plate abounds in meaning and allusion. Because of this, there can be some variety in the foods that are used to celebrate Passover. 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 their Exodus from Egypt.