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The Symbols of the Seder and the Items on the Seder Plate

Symbols are a powerful way of making ideas tangible; they have an immediacy which the spoken word alone lacks. The significance of the Seder meal is, as our Sages tell us, that we should experience the retelling of the story in order to see ourselves as though we personally had left Egypt. There are, of course, many kinds of ‘Egypts’; material, psychological and spiritual, and ultimately we must break out of all of them. It is the visual and tactile force of the symbol which helps us come closer to our ancient roots, so that we can draw inspiration from them to break out of our own personal Egypt, whatever form it might take.

Wine

The Seder begins with Kiddush recited over wine. It is usually red wine, since that is the color of blood. This has obvious associations with slavery; our ancestors were beaten and they bled. But there is also the blood of freedom. On the night preceding the Exodus, our ancestors were commanded to kill a sheep or goat and to smear its blood upon the door posts of their houses. This was to be a sign that the plague of the death of all the first-born sons of the Egyptians would not affect any of the Israelite homes. Shortly after that, our ancestors left Egypt.

Karpas and Salt-water

The second item taken at the Seder is Karpas (usually parsley) dipped in salt water. Karpas reminds us of the nature of rebirth and redemption, a vegetable of springtime. Salt water calls to mind the tears of the slaves, so it has associations with slavery. When our ancestors stepped over the border into the desert, they were not yet entirely free. There was always the possibility of the Egyptians chasing after them and hauling them back into slavery, which is exactly what they attempted to do. Only after our ancestors crossed the Sea of Reeds, and the Egyptian army was drowned, were they entirely free. It was, therefore, the sea, symbolized by the salt-water, which was instrumental in finally freeing the Jews from Egyptian slavery.

Matzah

After eating Karpas we break the middle matzah. Matzah is the food which our ancestors ate during their long slavery in Egypt. We even say at the beginning of the Haggadah, "This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt..."

The bread which was given to slaves is thin and minimally substantial. It took very little time to bake and very little time to eat, and so it allowed the task-masters to get the maximum working time from the slaves. But our ancestors ate matzah not only while they were slaves. After the slaying of the first-born Egyptian sons, the Egyptians were so anxious to drive the Israelite out of Egypt that the Israelites did not have time to bake proper bread. Ironically, on the way out of Egypt into freedom, they found themselves eating the same matzah bread that they had eaten during the years of slavery. This time, however, it was the bread of freedom.

Maror - Bitter Herbs

Most often, horseradish is used. However, the ideal substance to use for bitter herbs is lettuce. This might surprise some people, but there is a reason for it; it is in the lettuce that we find expressed a very important relationship between slavery and freedom.

The leaves of a lettuce are, of course, not bitter at all. In a young fresh lettuce they are crisp and sweet. Nonetheless, the lettuce grows from a green-white stalk which is very bitter indeed. Clearly, the crisp, sweet leaves represent freedom and the bitter stalk represents slavery. We learn from this that freedom can only really be appreciated when it is rooted in slavery. We who are born free often take our freedom for granted; we do not wake up each morning and say to ourselves, "I am free! How wonderful!" Yet someone who has been imprisoned would do exactly this. So it was when our ancestors left Egypt, hence the use of lettuce.

Charoset

When Charoset is made properly it has the appearance and texture of river mud. It was from this mud that our ancestors made bricks. The appearance of the Charoset clearly calls to mind the harsh servitude to which our ancestors were subjected. But when we put Charoset in our mouths, we experience something quite different. It has a sweet taste, a taste such as no slave ever experienced. Its sweetness is its association with freedom.

Shank Bone and Egg

As well as the above items of food, which are directly connected with the contrast of slavery and freedom, we also have a roasted egg and a roasted bone (either the shank of a lamb or the neck of a chicken) on our Seder plate. These are not connected with slavery or freedom; rather they call to mind the Ancient Temple where our ancestors offered the Passover lamb sacrifice. It is characteristic of Jewish celebrations that there should be something to bring the Temple to mind. It might be the glass smashed under the foot of the bridegroom at a wedding or the salt on the table into which we dip our bread, or the egg and bone on our Seder table. In this case, the egg represents the festive sacrifice, which was offered on the three pilgrim festivals, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The bone represents the special Passover offering, and is usually roasted over an open flame as the original sacrifice was.

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