At the center of the Passover seder experience sits a plate. It is used only once during the year, and it is adorned with foods that symbolize the central themes associated with the holiday. The word for seder plate in Hebrew is 'ka'arah' and within the ancient rabbinic mindset, that word connected the seder plate to more than just Passover - it was a representation of the entire world. The plate laid out symbols of opportunity and challenge, of hope and despair; of curses and blessings. If the seder plate is supposed to resemble elements of our world, then it's important that we spend some time re-evaluating the symbolism behind each element on the plate, making sure that they correspond with issues or concepts that resonate with our lives today. In that spirit, the following are my personal interpretations (at least, for this year) of the symbols on the seder plate, as well as guiding questions that you may choose to use at your own seder.
Roasted shank bone - The Torah describes two types of sacrifices associated with Passover. Only animals from the flock, such as sheep or goats, were eligible for this rite, and therefore, traditionally, the roasted shank bone symbolizes the 'paschal' sacrifice referenced in the book of Exodus. The Hebrew word for 'sacrifice', korban, is linked to the Hebrew word for 'bringing close.' In other words, offering a sacrifice was a way to come closer to the Divine. In light of this week's horrific shooting at a Christian elementary school, as well as the hundreds of other mass shootings that have already occurred this year, I associate this element of the seder plate with the number of children and innocent people we have sacrificed in this country due to gun violence. Instead of 'drawing closer' to our values, we seem to be sacrificing the health and safety of future generations. What kind of sacrifice(s) do you think we need to make in order to bring about more safety and security in our country?
Roasted egg - The Talmud mandates two cooked dishes at the seder, and the roasted egg became the traditional 'number two' symbol to fulfill this requirement. While the roasted shank bone may symbolize the collective work we must do to overcome the destructive trends in our society, the roasted egg reminds me of the individual sacrifices we must be willing to make in order to bring about personal transformation. What do you need to sacrifice in order to improve your own life in the coming year?
Matzah - For over a thousand years, our sages have argued about how many pieces of matzah should be on the seder plate. The most common answer has been three. Some commentators link the three pieces of matzah to a variety of triads in our tradition - the three categories of Jews referenced in a traditional Torah reading (Kohen [the priestly class], Levi [from the tribe of Levi], and Israel [the remaining tribes]); the three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob); the three measures of flour that Abraham and Sarah baked for the angelic strangers who visited their tent. Regardless, the matzah itself symbolizes both the 'bread of affliction' and the 'bread of freedom'. Personally, it represents my journey through the various emotional, physical, and spiritual wildernesses in my life. Like the matzah, those challenging moments began as 'afflictions' and I had to work hard to transform them into opportunities for personal growth and liberation. What have been some of your own strategies to move through your personal 'wilderness' experiences?
Bitter herbs - In describing the Passover seder, the Mishna (our ancient code of law) mentions lettuce (chazeret in Hebrew) as the 'bitter herb', not horseradish. It was only later that our tradition began turning to horseradish as a symbol for maror. This is why some seder plates have a space for 'maror' and 'chazeret', with the latter being represented by romaine lettuce or endive. Regardless, the bitter herbs allude to the harsh conditions of enslavement. For me this year, the maror symbolizes those moments when resentment, envy, insecurity, or fear become my overarching emotions. In those moments, the bitter sting of negativity guides me, and nothing good ever comes from it. What are the moments, experiences, or ideas that trigger your moments of 'maror'?
Charoset - The ancient rabbis did not agree on what charoset should symbolize. Some said it should be thick to remind us of the mud the Israelites used to create bricks. Others said it should include spices as a reminder of the straw used in brick. Others maintained that it should be tart, like apples, to remind us of a legend about the righteous women who defied Pharaoh's orders requiring husbands and wives to stay away from each other. The Jerusalem Talmud states that charoset should be murky or soft to remind us of the blood associated with the first plague, as well as the blood placed on the doorposts of Israelite homes to protect them from the tenth and final plague. The word repeated in each of these explanations is 'remind', connected to one of the most essential elements of the Jewish experience - zachor - remembering/memory. For this reason, the charoset calls on me to remember the moments that have shaped me. What are two or three significant moments that have shaped you into the person you have become today?
Karpas - The English word for 'parsley' is derived from Greek, meaning 'rock celery' and some interpret the word karpas to refer to 'green vegetables', not just our usual use of parsley on the seder plate. The inclusion of karpas on the seder plate became the source of creative interpretations. One sage linked its resemblance to a wreath worn by warriors after a victorious battle; the Hebrew letters link it to the 'coat of many colors' given to Joseph by his father, Jacob - a coat that, through a series of events, led to Israelite enslavement in Egypt; and another interpretation focuses on the fact that, when spelled backwards in Hebrew, karpas can be an allusion to the more than 600,000 Israelites who supposedly fled slavery in Egypt. Generally, however, we think of karpas as a symbol of spring, blossoming, and new beginnings. This year, karpas is my symbol of personal growth. It's my motivation to learn new things about the world (artificial intelligence is at the top of my list!) as well as a reminder that I need to dedicate time to working on the skills and experiences that will help me become a better husband, father, friend, citizen, and rabbi. In what ways do you hope to grow in the coming year?
Other symbols? - In the early 1980s, Susanna Heschel added an orange to the seder plate as "a symbol of struggle of people who have been marginalized within the Jewish community: that includes gay and lesbian Jews, and indeed all Jewish women." More recently, some have added an olive to the seder plate to represent an eventual hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. Whether or not you choose to add your own symbol to the seder plate, our tradition leaves space for us to bring our own interpretations and experiences into our holiday celebration. If you could add a symbol to the seder plate, what would it be and why?
However you interpret the symbols of the seder plate, I hope Passover provides you with the time and space to reflect on your own place within our tradition.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach,