What’s on Your Seder Plate Might Depend on Where You’re Eating

This post is written by Museum intern John Hanson.

A seder plate in the Museum’s permanent exhibition.

As spring comes, so does Passover! The oldest, continuously celebrated holiday of the Jewish calendar is fast approaching, and all of us here at Eldridge Street have been busy discussing our own Passover traditions. Surprisingly, we have discovered our Passover customs take many different forms, with illuminating differences in how we compose our seder plates. So we decided to take a look at how diverse Jewish communities around the world prepare and arrange their seder plates. Along the way we discovered differences that exemplify the multifarious 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. Lastly, the chazeret is commonly parsley dipped in salt water. This is to symbolize the harshness that the Israelites endured in Egypt. An orange is a contemporary addition to the seder plate and may symbolize support of marginalized groups, specifically LGBTQ communities.

We use this “play” seder plate during the Museum’s education programs to teach school children about Passover traditions.

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.

As you prepare your seder this Passover, pay special attention to what is on your own plate! Ask yourself where you might have learned to include these specific items. If you have never been to a seder, many Jewish organizations and restaurants around the world hold seders for first-time participants. Check your local Jewish community center, or ask your Jewish friends to join in on this special tradition.

As always, if you need a break from Passover prep, the Museum at Eldridge Street is here to provide a point of relaxation, education, and renewal! The Museum is closed for the holiday on Sunday, April 1st and Friday, April 6th. But we’re open the rest of the week to welcome one and all!

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.

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