The Symbolic Foods at a Passover Seder

Almost every Passover seder (ritual dinner) includes various ritual foods and other items. Nothing on the seder table is selected randomly; each item has its purpose and often its specific place on the table or seder plate.

Remember that as with all symbols, each item has a traditional symbolism, but that shouldn’t stop you from coming up with new ideas that are meaningful for you and the people at your seder.

At a Passover seder, the following traditional items are on the table:

  • Seder plate: The seder plate (there’s usually one per table) holds at least six of the ritual items that are talked about during the seder: the shankbone, karpas, chazeret, charoset, maror, and egg. While the booming seder plate industry would like you to buy a beautiful, ornate, and expensive plate, you can use any plate. If you have kids, get them involved by decorating a paper plate with pictures of the events or things the seder foods symbolize.

    The ritual seder plate.
    The ritual seder plate.
  • Roasted lamb shankbone: One of the most striking symbols of Passover is the roasted lamb shankbone (called zeroah), which commemorates the paschal (lamb) sacrifice made the night the ancient Hebrews fled Egypt. Some people say it symbolizes the outstretched arm of God (the Hebrew word zeroah can mean “arm”).

    If you don’t like the idea of a bone sitting on your table, you may consider using a roasted beet instead. (That’s what vegetarians usually do.) This isn’t a new idea; the great Biblical and Talmudic commentator Rashi suggested it back in the eleventh century.

  • Roasted egg: The roasted egg (baytsah) is a symbol in many different cultures, usually signifying springtime and renewal. Here it stands in place of one of the sacrificial offerings which was performed in the days of the Second Temple. Another popular interpretation is that the egg is like the Jewish people: the hotter you make it for them, the tougher they get. This egg isn’t even eaten during the meal; the shell just needs to look really roasted.

  • Maror (“bitter herb”): Any bitter herb will work, though horseradish is the most common. Bitter herbs bring tears to the eyes and recall the bitterness of slavery. The seder refers to the slavery in Egypt, but people are called to look at their own bitter enslavements, whether addiction or habit.

  • Charoset: There’s nothing further from maror than charoset (“kha-ROH-set”), that sweet salad of apples, nuts, wine, and cinnamon that represents the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves to make bricks.

  • Karpas: Karpas is a green vegetable, usually parsley (though any spring green will do). While karpas may symbolize the freshness of spring, others say people eat it to make them feel like nobility or aristocracy. Some families still use boiled potatoes for karpas, continuing a tradition from Eastern Europe where it was difficult to obtain fresh green vegetables.

  • Chazeret: The chazeret (“khah-ZER-et”) is a second bitter herb, most often romaine lettuce, but people also use the leafy greens of a horseradish or carrot plant. The symbolism is the same as that of maror.

  • Salt water: Salt water symbolizes the tears and sweat of enslavement, though paradoxically, it’s also a symbol for purity, springtime, and the sea, the mother of all life. Often a single bowl of salt water sits on the table into which each person dips their karpas during the seder. Then, it’s traditional to begin the actual seder meal with each person eating a hardboiled egg (not the roasted egg!) dipped in the bowl of salt water.

  • Matzah: Perhaps the most important symbol on the seder table is a plate that has a stack of three pieces of matzah (unleavened bread) on it. The matzot (that’s plural for matzah) are typically covered with a cloth. People have come up with numerous interpretations for the three matzot. Some say they represent the Kohen class (the Jewish priests in ancient times), the Levis (who supported the priests), and the Israelites (the rest of the Jews). What symbolism you attribute to this trinity isn't all that important, as long as you’re thinking about it.

    During the struggles of Soviet Jewry, a fourth piece of matzah was added to the seder plate to symbolize the struggles of Jews who were not yet free enough to celebrate the Passover. Today, some families still use that fourth matzah as a way of remembering all people who are not yet free to celebrate as they wish.

  • Wine cups and wine (or grape juice): Everyone at the seder has a (usually very small) cup or glass from which they drink four cups of wine. Traditionally, the four cups represent the four biblical promises of redemption: “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments. And I will take you to me for a people . . .” Others say the four cups represent the four letters in the unspeakable Name of God.

Some of the symbols aren’t eaten, such as the roasted lamb shankbone and the roasted egg. However, when it comes time to eat the karpas, the charoset, and the other symbols, different families have different traditions. Some eat the symbols from the seder plate; others give each person their own mini-seder plate to eat from; at larger events, these items may be served family style, with large bowls being passed around so that people can serve themselves.

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