This post was originally written by Museum intern John Hanson in April 2018. We are reposting with edits for this year’s Passover holiday.
Passover is the oldest, continuously celebrated holiday of the Jewish calendar. And it is a holiday commemorated with deep and longstanding traditions. But this year, families are being forced to adapt their holidays to new schedules, socially distancing, and less frequent trips to the grocery store. So everyone’s Seders are probably going to look a little different! And although these are unprecedented circumstances, Seders have always reflected the time and place in which they were held. How do Jewish communities around the world prepare and arrange their Seder plates? The many differences exemplify the diversity of Jewish cultures around the world.
Passover celebrates the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The holiday runs seven or eight days, depending on where on the globe you’re celebrating. During that time, observant Jews eat no leavened bread. This is because, 3,000 years ago, the Israelites fled Egypt so fast that they did not have time for their bread to rise. Instead they baked thin bread, known as matzah, in the hot desert sun.
Passover begins with two ritual meals, known as the “Seder.” Family and friends gather together to sing songs of prayer and eat traditional foods. Special prayer books called “Haggadah” are only used just twice a year during these festive meals.
While Jews across the seven continents celebrate Passover in diverse ways, a common thread is the presence of the Seder plate. (Yemeni Jews do not even use a Seder plate, instead turning their entire tables into Seder plates, lining the outside with large Romaine lettuce leaves.) The Seder plate is a designated, often ornate plate that holds the Passover foods that symbolize and celebrate the joys of freedom and recall the bitterness of slavery.
At least six principal items make up the vast majority of Seder plates. The first, karpas, can actually be any vegetable (as long as it is not the same one used for maror), but is most commonly parsley or celery. Some Ashkenazi families use potatoes for karpas, representing the bitterness of Jewish ghetto life in Europe. Karpas is included to represent growth, hope, renewal, and fruition. Next, maror, or the bitter herb, is of typical horseradish or horseradish root, but romaine lettuce and green onion are also prevalent and serve as reminders of the affliction of bondage. After maror comes zeroa, a shank bone or piece of roasted meat that is the only meat element on the Seder plate, usually the forearm of a lamb or shank bone. This is to remind Jews of the tenth plague of Egypt, or the “death of the first born”. Enslaved Israelites marked their doors with lamb’s blood so death would know to pass over them, but the zeroa also harkens back to the Pesach sacrifice, where a lamb was killed and sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem, before being eaten the next day. Vegetarians often substitute beets or potatoes for zeroa. Next comes the beitzah, a lightly roasted egg, symbolizing life and referring to the rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem. The chazeret is commonly parsley dipped in salt water. This is to symbolize the harshness that the Israelites endured in Egypt.
A Seder plate favorite is always the haroset (or charoset). Made of apples, nuts, and spices, haroset has diverse local particulate; the Jewish world prepares haroset in a multitude of ways and it symbolizes the mortar used by the Jewish slaves laboring in Egypt. Traditional Ashkenazi haroset is made with finely chopped apples, walnuts, and a sweet wine or grape juice; many add lemon juice to preserve the color of the apples. Egyptian haroset includes dates and yellow raisins, while Italian haroset introduces pine nuts, ground almonds, prunes, and yellow raisins to the mix. Moroccan haroset also includes dates, plus ground almonds, prunes, and yellow raisins. Piedmont haroset has chestnuts, almonds, and orange juice, and Israeli Sephardic style haroset brings in dates, figs, cinnamon, and cardamom.
Many contemporary additions are made to seder plates to represent new struggles or causes. An orange may be added to symbolize support of marginalized groups, specifically LGBTQ communities. Some people add a Miriam’s Cup to their table alongside the traditional Elijah’s Cup, to celebrate her role in the deliverance from slavery and her help throughout the wandering in the wilderness. Other modern additions include a banana for refugees around the world, a pinecone for prison reform, fair trade coffee or chocolate for issues of labor and slavery, and artichokes to represent interfaith relationships. When it comes to crafting your Seder, the world is your oyster. (Although oysters are NOT very likely to make their way onto plates anytime soon.)
As you prepare for Passover this year, pay special attention to what is on your own plate! Ask yourself where you might have learned to include these specific items and what might feel meaningful to add this year. Or maybe this year you’re having to adapt your Seder plate? Consider how you can use the items and experiences available to you to still create the same meaning or feeling to the ritual. After all, commemorating a holiday like Passover is all about the meaning, intention, and symbolism behind the traditions, rather than specific items themselves.
Wishing everyone around the world, a happy, safe, and, most importantly, a healthy Passover this year.
John Hanson is a student in the Bachelors-Masters Cohort at Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School. He is sophomore studying art history, architecture, and design.