Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) commemorates our liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. Each spring, Jews around the world recount Passover's story at a festive meal called the seder, surrounded by family and friends.
Passover without a seder is like a football game without a quarterback. And the MVP at the Passover table is the seder plate. Nothing on the seder table is randomly selected; the plate is rich with symbolism, meaning, and history. From Zeroa and Maror to Charoset and Chazeret, Passover foods reconnect the seder participants with historical events that happened more than 3,000 years ago.
So what exactly is a seder plate?
In theory a seder plate could be any plate on which you place the symbolic foods of the meal, but many people use a plate made specifically for the Passover seder.
If you have kids, get them involved by decorating a paper plate with pictures of the events or things the seder foods symbolize. If you’re not creative, don’t worry. They’ll probably bring at least one a year from Hebrew School.
Does it matter where the foods are placed on the plate?
Most seder plates label which food goes where, so most people just put each item in the designated spot on the plate.
So..what goes on the seder plate?
There are six traditional foods that go on the seder plate:
1. Zeroa or shank bone:
One of the most striking symbols of Passover is the roasted lamb shankbone (called zeroah), which commemorates the paschal (lamb) sacrifice made the night the ancient Hebrews fled Egypt. Some people say it symbolizes the outstretched arm of God (the Hebrew word zeroah can mean “arm”).
While a roasted lamb bone is traditionally used to represent the zeroa, any piece of roasted meat may be used. Some families use chicken or turkey neck. Growing up we only used the bone, there was no meat on it, so this really does depend on your upbringing and your family's traditions.
2. Beitzah or egg:
Like the zeroa, the egg (beitzah, in Hebrew) stands in for a holiday sacrifice once offered at the Holy Temple. The egg is also a universal symbol of springtime, new beginnings and rebirth -- all themes that are echoed in the story of the Exodus.
The egg is not eaten during the ritual part of the seder; however, many families preempt their main course with an appetizer of hard boiled eggs, which they serve with salt water. This first course reminds those who eat it of the hardships that brought them here.
3. Maror or bitter herbs
Maror, or bitter herbs, symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. Different families use different foods to represent the maror, but it is most typically horseradish or romaine lettuce. Like the Jews' time in Egypt, romaine lettuce is sweet at first, but becomes more and more bitter as time goes on.
4. Karpas or vegetable
Karpas is a green leafy vegetable, usually parsley, used to symbolize the initial flourishing of the Jews in Egypt. According to the Book of Genesis, Joseph and his family moved from the biblical land of Ca'anan down to Egypt during a drought. Once in Egypt, Joseph quickly rose to power as the Egyptian pharaoh's second-in-command -- a revered position that extended special protection to the Israelite people for several generations.
However, when a new pharaoh came to power, he was threatened by the growing size of the Israelite community and enslaved them. This turn of events is commemorated during the seder by dipping the karpas into bitter salt water, which represents the tears shed by the Israelites.
Karpas also symbolizes springtime — which is appropriate since Passover is called Hag Ha'Aviv or the holiday of spring. Some families use boiled spring potatoes, continuing a tradition from Eastern Europe where it was difficult to get fresh green vegetables.
There’s nothing further from maror than charoset (“kha-ROH-set”).
A paste-like mixture of fruits, nuts and sweet wine or honey, charoset (also spelled haroset) is symbolic of the mortar used by the Israelite slaves when they laid bricks for Pharaoh’s monuments. The word charoset is derived from the Hebrew word for clay, cheres.
Jews from Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi) make their charoset from apples, walnuts, sweet red wine and a generous dash of cinnamon. Families from Sephardic descent use dates, figs, almonds and honey to make charoset.
Similar to maror, chazeret is a bitter food (usually lettuce or a root vegetable). The sixth symbolic Passover food on the seder plate, chazeret is not used by all families. Chazeret is more commonly included on seder plates in Israel, where romaine lettuce typically stands for the chazeret and horseradish for the maror.
What else is on the seder table?
Salt water: Salt water symbolizes the tears and sweat of enslavement. Often a single bowl of salt water sits on the table into which each person dips their karpas during the seder. Then, it’s traditional to begin the actual seder meal with each person eating a hardboiled egg (not the roasted egg!) dipped in the bowl of salt water.
Matzah: Perhaps the most important symbol on the seder table is a plate that has a stack of three pieces of matzah (unleavened bread) on it. The matzot (that’s plural for matzah) are typically covered with a cloth. People have come up with numerous interpretations for the three matzot. Some say they represent the Kohen class (the Jewish priests in ancient times), the Levis (who supported the priests), and the Israelites (the rest of the Jews).
The top matzah is referred to as Kohen, for the Kohen takes precedence in all matters.
The middle matzah Levi is broken into two at the beginning of the seder. The smaller piece is left on the plate and is later eaten along with the Kohen matzah in fulfillment of the mitzvah of matzah; the larger piece is put away for use as the afikoman.
The bottom matzah, Yisrael is used for korech, so that every one of the matzot is used for the performance of a mitzvah.
Wine cups and wine (or grape juice): Everyone at the seder has a small cup or glass from which they drink four cups of wine. Traditionally, the four cups represent the four biblical promises of redemption: “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments. And I will take you to me for a people . . .” Others say the four cups represent the four letters in the unspeakable Name of God.
Chag Pesach Sameach.