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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Seder Plate: Core plus more

A Seder Plate (Photo by Yoninah)
Since the Passover Seder is a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, its bittersweet selections reflect both the sorrows of oppression and the joys of liberation.

There are five – no, six – no, maybe even seven – standard selections on the modern Seder Plate.  All were carefully chosen for their symbolic value.  The first five are the core traditional items, the sixth a debatable addition, and the seventh is still quite controversial.

Numbers 9:11 speaks of eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs on Passover.  Therefore, at least one bitter herb is always included on the Seder Plate.  This herb is often horseradish, and some say the sharper the better.  When maror of this sort brings tears to the eyes, that serves as a reminder of enslavement in

Although charoset is sweet enough to be reminiscent of God’s kindness, it too evokes harsh memories.  This thick mixture of fruit, nuts, spices, wine, and sometimes honey resembles the mortar that Jewish slaves used for Egyptian building projects.  When apples are used in this mix, they symbolize the secret birthing of male Jewish children in apple orchards so that they would be at least temporarily safe from Egyptian soldiers.

Karpas is a vegetable (different from the maror one, often parsley) that is dipped in salty water which resembles tears shed by Jewish slaves.  On the brighter side, karpas is also associated with new beginnings and spring greenery. 

Zeroa - most often a shank bone (aka tibia or shin bone), but sometimes a chicken wing or neck, or even a beet – symbolizes the Pesach sacrifice that was made in the Temple of Jerusalem.  The vegetarian-friendly red beet resembles the blood of this Paschal lamb.

Since eggs are traditionally a symbol of Jewish mourning (and are handed to mourners immediately after a funeral), a beitzah (hard-boiled egg) is included on the Seder Plate.  It serves as a mournful reminder of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction.

These five – maror, charoset, karpas, zeroa, beitzah – are the core Seder Plate selections.  A sixth is often added in honor of the plural wording in Numbers 9:11 (which speaks of bitter herbs, not just “herb”).  That additional bitter vegetable (often Romaine lettuce) is called chazeret.

Those who believe that seven is a lucky number must have had this last, and very modern, Seder Plate selection in mind.  In the midst of the ancient hues sits a dazzling newcomer – the orange.  Vitamin C notwithstanding, the orange plays a significant role in updating the Seder ritual.  Tamara Cohen reports that it was originally introduced by feminist Suzannah Heschel in the early 1980s in order to affirm gay rights (spitting out the orange seeds was likened to repudiating homophobia).  The backstory of the orange somehow morphed over time into one that bypasses gay rights and concentrates instead upon the rights of women to lead Jewish congregations.


Copyright April 19, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke

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