Seder Plate Musings

The seders are over. The last dish has been washed. The ritual objects—seder plate, Elijah’s cup, frog dish to catch the wine drops during the recitation of the ten plagues (yes, we actually have that—the dish, not the plagues), afikomen holder made by one of the kids as a Sunday school project, copies of the Maxwell House haggadah—have been carefully wrapped back up and put away for next year. This year, we actually remembered to both water the parsley seeds Emily planted on Tu B’Shevat and cut the sprigs to use during the seder. Ennui has set in. We’re on our third or fourth box of matzah, and about the fifth dozen carton of eggs. And it’s only the third day of Passover. So I thought I’d look back and think about the seder plate and all its symbols, and, more importantly, about some of the more modern symbols that have become a part of the Pesach celebration.

Traditionally, the seder plate contains five items: baitza, the egg, symbolizing the circle of life; zeroa, the shankbone, symbolizing the paschal lamb and the blood on the doorposts; maror, bitter herb, for the bitterness of slavery; karpas, parsley, for spring; and haroset, for the mortar used to cement bricks. Some seder plates include a sixth item, hazeret, a second bitter herb, often used in making the Hillel sandwich.

In recent years, other items have found their way onto the seder plate or the table, and it is these items I want to briefly discuss. Some may be more familiar than others. For example, many of us add a Miriam’s cup filled with water to the table, a parallel of sorts to Elijah’s wine-filled cup. Why water? It symbolizes the well of fresh water said to accompany Miriam, and thus the Israelites, on their wanderings in the desert. When Miriam died, the well disappeared.

Some families add a piece of cooked fish to the seder plate to honor Miriam. There are two other cooked items—the shankbone and the egg. Together, the three cooked items honor the three people responsible for leading the Israelites in the desert, as it is said in the book of Micah: “And I sent before you Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).

Another more common item is an orange. Supposedly, the orange is there because a man once said that there would be a woman on the bima—in other words, a woman as rabbi—when there was an orange on the seder plate. Actually, the orange is a symbol of inclusion, and the idea originated with Professor Susannah Heschel, daughter of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. She writes: “During the first part of the Seder, I asked everyone to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit, and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men, and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community.…In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out—a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia that poisons too many Jews.” (http://tinyurl.com/3r5zhgk)

Another item added to the seder plate in recent years is the olive. Why an olive? The olive branch has been a traditional symbol of peace for centuries. We try to make peace when there is war. So the olive has come to represent hope for peace in the Middle East. Another explanation for the olive is that olive groves in the Middle East are a commodity, providing economic security to families. By enabling families to feed themselves, they are freed from economic slavery.

Finally, some families, especially those with pets, add a dog bone to the seder plate. Why? Because tradition tells that during the Exodus, as the Jews were leaving, not a single dog barked, as it is said in the Book of Exodus: “But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast: that you may know how Adonai differentiates between the Egyptians and Israel” (11:7).

What items did you add to your seder plate this year?