Celebrating the Seder

Passover, the most celebrated Jewish holiday, commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and can be considered the official birth of the Jewish people. This year’s Passover is April 19-27.

Much symbolism is found in Passover and its rituals. The first night begins just after sundown with the Seder meal. A Seder plate serves as centerpiece for the Seder table and typically includes symbolic foods composed in a traditional arrangement, allowing participants to experience Passover in a personal, hands-on way.

Special plates can be used to arrange these foods, but even a simple napkin can serve as a base. Each food has a specific meaning related to the journey of the Jewish people’s escape from slavery. This allows participants to literally see, smell, feel and taste liberation as the story of Exodus is told.

Karpas—a green vegetable, most often parsley—represents the initial flourishing of the Israelites during the first years in Egypt. Also included is a bowl of salt water, which the parsley is dipped into as a reminder of the tears shed during Egyptian slavery. Jews have also used a potato for karpas, as green vegetables were not readily available in Eastern Europe. Depending on availability of produce, you could also consider adding lettuce, kale, broccoli or even cilantro.

Charoset is traditionally a ground mixture of apple, nuts and cinnamon bound together with wine or honey, which symbolizes the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build Egyptian structures. If you’re looking for variety, the apple could be enhanced by the addition of pears. Equally delicious would be adding dates or figs with bananas. Other stir-ins might include coconut, raisins, dried cranberries or pine nuts.

Maror is a bitter herb (usually horseradish) representing the bitterness of slavery. Often, grated horseradish is dipped in the charoset to soften its flavor. A second bitter herb, hazeret or charzeret, is sometimes also included. Romaine, arugula, watercress, radicchio and turnip greens work well for this. You could use a single variety or combine a few types into a salad of sorts.

The shankbone, or zeroa, symbolizes the lamb offered as the Passover sacrifice in Biblical times. Some communities use a chicken neck instead. Vegetarian households may use beets. This zeroa does not play an active role in the Seder; rather it serves as a visual reminder of the sacrifice offered by the Israelites before fleeing Egypt.

Beitzah, a roasted (hard-cooked) egg, symbolizes sacrifices offered. As well, its round shape represents spring and the renewal of life.

Though not on the Seder plate itself, three pieces of matzo are wrapped in or covered by a cloth on the Seder table. This unleavened bread symbolizes the haste (no time for leavening) with which the Jewish people escaped from Egypt. With this in mind, other types of unleavened flatbreads could be used as well. Also set out besides the plate is a special goblet to be filled with wine for the prophet Elijah.