Food Focus: The Seder Plate

By: Michael Engle

On Friday and Saturday nights, April 6 and 7, 2012, Jewish families worldwide will commemorate Passover with seders. Seder is actually the Hebrew word for "order," because there is a strict order to the festivities during these first two nights of Passover. In addition to components such as ritual hand-washing, reading the haggadah, asking "The Four Questions," and leaving drops of wine on the side of your plate, there is much more to a seder than just a Passover dinner.

Two food-centric centerpieces that appear on every seder table are the three-sheet pile of matzo and the seder plate. The seder plate has six food items; each one carries its own symbolic element.

  1. Bitter herbs, or maror, and...
  2. Bitter vegetables, or chazeret, respectively, symbolize the bitterness and harshness of the ancient Hebrews' slavery in Egypt. On seder plates, these are represented by horseradish and romaine lettuce.
  3. Charoset combines the texture of mortar with the sweetness of freedom. Charoset is essentially a chopped fruit salad, with endless variations and family traditions. Charoset almost always contains nuts, apples, cinnamon, and sweet red wine; sephardim (Jews of Western European, African, and/or Middle Eastern descent) commonly add dates and honey to the mixture.
  4. Karpas is a non-bitter green vegetable that symbolizes springtime. The most commonly used vegetables for karpas are parsley, celery, or boiled potato. As per Passover tradition, the karpas is dipped in salt water, which replicates the tears shed over the hardships of slavery, before consumption.
  5. Zeroah is the only meat product on the traditional seder plate. The zeroah represents ancient times, when animals were offered as sacrifices at the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. This is generally represented by a lamb shank bone or a chicken neck; vegetarians may elect to use a roasted beet, owing to its sanguine color and its passing resemblance to an animal bone.
  6. Beitzah is a simple hard-boiled egg. Because eggs are traditional symbols of mourning (eggs are served after Jewish funerals), beitzah represent the sorrow over the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, there is also the stack of three matzo, which remains separate from the seder plate yet is equally as vital to the seder. The bottom matzah is passed around the table to make "Hillel sandwiches," which place charoset and maror on matzah. The middle matzah is broken in half; one half remains untouched, while the other half, now known as the afikoman, is hidden. At the end of the seder, the children in attendance are encouraged to find the afikoman. Once brought back the the table, it is shared among all guests; the afikoman is, by definition, dessert, so claim your last serving of fruit salad before you eat it!

Photo: mollyjade

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