Celebrating the Seder: Passover Foods and Their Meanings
The Jewish faith is rich with tradition, and understanding the history is essential to understanding the faith. This year, we’re prepping for Passover with a quick breakdown on some of the most common foods and what they symbolize, as well as a reminder of why we celebrate this holiday.
What is Passover and How is it Celebrated?
Passover, also known as Pesach, is a week-long celebration that begins on the 15th of the Jewish month Nisan, which usually falls in March or April. This holiday commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and is often celebrated with great pomp during the Seder.
What is a Seder?
The first two nights of Passover typically include a traditional meal called a Seder. Seder, meaning “order,” refers to a series of scripted activities. Though every family has their own rituals, the five main mitzvot, or commandments, for the Seder include eating matzo, relating the story of the Exodus from the Haggadah, drinking four cups of wine and reciting the Hallel.
Children are encouraged to participate in the Seder. At the start of the ceremony, the youngest child typically asks or sings the “Four Questions,” which are a set of questions regarding the proceedings. Another common tradition includes having kids search for a hidden piece of matzo, called the afikomen, similar to a game of hide-and-seek.
Another important aspect to the celebration is the Seder plate, which serves as centerpiece for the Seder table.
What Goes on a Passover Seder Plate?
Seder plates are designed to hold the ceremonial foods around which the Seder is based. Each of the foods has a specific meaning related to the journey of the Jewish people’s escape from slavery. These traditional foods include:
- Karpas: A green vegetable, most often parsley, represents the initial flourishing of the Israelites during their first years in Egypt. A second cup is filled with saltwater, which the parsley is dipped into as a reminder of the tears shed during Egyptian slavery.
- Charoset: Traditionally a ground mixture of apple, nuts and cinnamon bound together with wine or honey, charoset symbolizes the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build Egyptian structures.
- Maror: A bitter herb, usually horseradish, is used to represent the bitterness of slavery. A second bitter herb, called chazeret, may also be included as well. Romaine lettuce leaves are usually used for this course.
- Zeroa: The shank bone, or zeroa, symbolizes the lamb offered as the Passover sacrifice in Biblical times. Some communities use a chicken neck, while vegetarian households may use beets. This item serves as a visual reminder of the sacrifice offered by the Israelites before fleeing Egypt.
- Beitzah: A hard-boiled egg also symbolizes sacrifices offered. Its round shape represents spring and the renewal of life.
Though not on the Seder plate itself, three pieces of matzo are wrapped in cloth and included on the Seder table. During Passover, Jews are forbidden to eat leavened foods, and instead eat matzo, an unleavened flatbread similar to the unleavened bread eaten during the flight from Egypt. Being reminded of Passover’s meaning year after year, then being able to sample the foods allow participants to see, smell, feel and taste liberation as the story of Exodus is told.
What Do You Eat for Passover Seder Dinner?
In addition to the foods included on the Seder plate, Passover typically involves a delicious meal for all to enjoy. The menu may differ depending on family tradition, but some popular choices include brisket, roasted chicken, gefilte fish and potato kugel. For dessert, many opt for a flourless chocolate cake, macaroons made with coconut, or something made with matzo (like a Matzo Truffle Tart or Berry Matzo Crumble). Whether carrying on family traditions or creating new ones of your own, Passover Seder is a time to embrace the beautiful rituals of food, family, friends and reflection.