Rabbis dish on the seder plate


For most Jews gathering next week for Passover, the items on the seder table are as familiar as the story of the Exodus. Which is too bad, given the richness of their history and the multitude of meanings they can embody as times change. To get beyond the traditional explanations for matzo, charoset and the rest of the Passover seder’s usual suspects, area rabbis have offered new interpretations and revelations about some of Judaism’s most beloved symbols.

BEITZAH

While so very fragile, lengthwise the eggshell becomes strong and can withstand surprising pressure. This is because it is a natural arch. Leonardo da Vinci described an arch as “two weaknesses [that] are converted into a single strength.” By supporting each other, the weak segments redistribute the crushing forces upon them and become the strongest structure in engineering.

The purpose of an arch is to act as a passageway, whether for light through a window or people over a threshold. The Passover egg commemorates the passageway from sure death into new life. Its shape symbolizes the great power created when vulnerable individuals are united into a single strength, embodying the talmudic axiom, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”/“All Israel is responsible for each other” (Shavuot 39a). Its perfect arch reminds us that God designed us with the ability to bear heavy burdens while remaining full of light. The arch of the Passover egg is the ancient strength of aqueducts and bridges. It is the means to take us from here to there, to enable us to cross over. Is it any wonder why, to mark the covenant between God and humankind, God chose the rainbow arch? The egg is the very architecture of community.

— Rabbi Zoë Klein, Temple Isaiah

CHAROSET

There is no explanation of charoset in the haggadah, but in the Mishnah, one suggestion is that it represents the mortar the Israelites used during their forced labor. Still, it seems odd that the food’s complex deliciousness would be a symbol of oppression, and other, more positive explanations abound.

Since talmudic times, charoset has been associated with the women of the Exodus who, one midrash says, took fish and wine to their husbands in the fields to seduce them into bearing more children even while they were enslaved, a time of danger and despair.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out that all of the ingredients in charoset appear in the Song of Songs, which we read on the Shabbat of Passover — sacred poetry about love and taking pleasure in the beloved.

Or charoset may simply exist to offset the burn of maror — it sits on the seder plate throughout the narrative of our suffering and oppression as witness to the sweetness that people create even in the worst of times.

The ingredients for charoset are as different as the Jewish cultures that prepare it.  No matter our differences, we all need the sweetness of hope and love to balance doubt and pain.

— Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Kehillat Israel

KARPAS

Confronted with our contemporary political and religious climate, the karpas at the seder contains a crucial lesson for us. The word “karpas” means fine quality wool, as the verse in Megillat Esther indicates when it describes the woolen tapestries of King Ahasuerus as “chur karpas u’techelet.”

With this definition, Rabbeinu Manoah of Narbonne offers a stunning suggestion that karpas at the seder symbolizes the wool coat of Joseph gifted to him by his father Jacob (see Rashi Genesis 37:3). We dip the vegetable (usually parsley, celery or potato) into saltwater to re-enact the brothers’ act of dipping Joseph’s wool coat into blood to deceive their father after they had sold Joseph down to Egypt.   

Before we celebrate how the Jews proudly left Egypt, we take the karpas to reflect upon how the Jews sadly got there in the first place. Jealousy, polarization and divisiveness led to our troubles. One central goal of the seder is to address the divisiveness that plagued us then and now — symbolized by karpas — and repeal and replace it with respect, tolerance, inclusiveness and friendship — symbolized by the enterprise of sitting around the table together.

— Rabbi Kalman Topp, Beth Jacob Congregation

MAROR/CHAZERET

The Almighty called to the children of Jacob
“I have taken notice of you
And seen your suffering
And sent to you my prophet
To relieve you of your maror-bitterness.

I carried you on eagles’ wings
And shielded you from the pursuers’ arrows
So that whenever you taste the maror
You will remember
Who I am
And who you are
And why you are free.

As I took notice of your ancestors
I call upon you today
The descendants of slaves
Who know the heart of strangers
And their fear and desperation
And do for them as I have done for you
And liberate them
The oppressed and the tempest-tossed
The poor and the discarded
The old and the lonely
The abused and the addict
The victim of violence and injustice
And everyone who tastes daily the maror-bitterness
That you know so very well.

As you sit around your seder tables
I call upon you to act
With open, pure and loving hearts
On My behalf
And be My witnesses
And bring healing and peace.”

— Rabbi John L. Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood

ZEROA

One anomalous item on the seder plate is the zeroa, according to the Jerusalem Talmud a shank bone, which is roasted and represents the special Passover sacrifice that was at the center of the festival’s observance in Temple times. Because sacrifices may be offered only from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and because that Temple no longer exists, we create a replica of the sacrifice, but we do not eat it, only pointing at it. We physically aspire to something that remains beyond our reach.

How paradoxical that what is beyond reach is the zeroa (literally “the arm”), recalling God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm” that liberates us from slavery. At the seder table, where it is our hands and arms that do the pointing, we embody God’s liberatory lure. God persistently frees the oppressed and lifts the fallen, but only through us, with us. It turns out that the real image of God’s commitment to human dignity and freedom is not on the plate at all. The outstretched arm and hands are our own. So, this Passover, arm yourself and give God a hand.

— Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University

SALT WATER

Each year at our sedarim, we dip a bit of karpas into salt water — and in some ethnic traditions, into vinegar or lemon water. The bitter liquid reminds us of the deep pain, sweat and tears that accompany hardships such as slavery and oppression. As we dip, we reflect on our ancestors’ pain, modern examples of oppression and times in the past year when our tears flowed freely. Many of us will dip a second time into the salt water at our seder with a hardboiled egg, which serves as a sign of spring and birth. Just as our Israelite ancestors left Egypt by crossing through the saltwater sea to enter the vastness of freedom, the salt water and egg dipping can be for us symbolic of a mikveh, a spiritual cleansing, an acknowledgement of the sweetness that lay ahead.

Salt enhances sweetness. Think salted caramel or salted chocolate. Dipping in salt water acknowledges suffering and bitterness, but also that there, too, will be a time of healing and celebration of freedom. Think, too, of the Dead Sea. It is so bitter nothing can live within it, but within it lies powers of healing. As we dip into salt water this year, may we recall our pain and suffering and exit into renewal, healing, feeling refreshed and free.

— Rabbi Sarah Hronsky, Temple Beth Hillel

MATZO

Passover is such a grand holiday — why should its central symbol be a cracker?

The rabbis identify the matzo with humility. Unlike bread, which is puffed up, the matzo lays flat, shorn of ego. But Passover is not a holiday of humility, but of slavery and freedom. So, why matzo?  

Ralph Waldo Emerson once recorded in his journal something his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, said to him: “ ‘Hurry’ is for slaves.”

To be a slave is to have no control over your own time. The Israelites baked matzo because they had a brief moment, a slice of time, the beginning of true freedom, but they were not yet there. Matzo is the sign of a people soon to be free: the bread of affliction but also the bread of transition — from being a slave to liberation into the service of God.

— Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple

ELIJAH’S CUP

When are the Jewish people going to be able to drink with joy from the fifth cup, Eliyahu’s Cup, during the seder? When we have prepared the world for redemption. Preparing the world for redemption, however, requires tremendous effort and faithfulness to our people’s mission. Where do we start? The haggadah gives us a brilliant place to begin. Immediately after we pour the Fifth Cup for Eliyahu, we open our front door. What a strange custom, right? But it sends a message to our generation: We can help prepare the world for redemption by opening our hearts to one another. Why is the door normally closed? Because we’re in pain. So we close the door on each other — parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. Right after opening the door during the seder, we read a passage from Psalms, a dire warning to those who forget that we are all children of the Creator and must act righteously with one another. My blessing for all of us is that we avoid the consequences of failing to act righteously toward one another and instead pave the road to the redemption of the world.  It’s all there in the Cup of Elijah.

— Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Pico Shul

ORANGE

Since the 1980s, many Jews include Susannah Heschel’s tradition of adding an orange to the seder plate as a symbol of people marginalized in the Jewish community. Heschel chose an orange because, as she said, “in a whole orange, each segment sticks together.”

Over the years, I’ve added to that tradition, and you can, too, with just a few words and actions:

“Tonight, let’s squeeze some orange juice upon the charoset, that already sweet promise of freedom, that symbol of the mortar our ancestors used when they were slaves. In so doing, we offer a reminder that those who some call ‘outsiders’ among the Jewish people — including LGBTQ Jews, Jews by choice, Jews of color, Jews from other traditions, Jews who are adopted, non-Jewish family members — have actually become part of the mortar that holds our people and our traditions together.”

[One person at each table squeezes some orange juice on charoset as we say:]

Evan ma-ah-su ha-bonim ha-y’tah l’rosh pinah.

“The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22).

[Each person takes a slice of orange to eat, as we recite:]

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam borei pri ha-eitz.

“Blessed are You, God, creator of all, who created the fruit of the tree.”

[Each person eats a slice of orange.]

— Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim

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