In an increasingly prepackaged and expensive age, there is at least one aspect of the seder that requires us to be homemade and down-to-earth. That is the seder plate.
Most of our seder rituals were established in the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic writings on Jewish law that was edited in 200 C.E. But the origins of the seder plate seem to be later, perhaps from the fifth century. The first mention is found in a commentary from around 1000 C.E.
The commentary describes a basket that was placed on the table containing all the symbolic foods of the seder. Many Sephardim still use a basket today, rather than a plate.
Here are the history and customs of these symbols of Pesach.
Three matzot are stacked together and separated from each other by a cloth or a compartment . The matzot are either placed under the seder plate or beside it.
They represent the two "breads" that are used for Shabbat and festivals, as well as a third "bread." This third piece is the lechem oni, the bread of affliction. This is also the matzah that is broken in half. One part represents our suffering and our past; the other part, which is hidden as the afikomen, is a symbol of redemption.
The most commonly used bitter herbs are horseradish — whole slices or grated — and romaine lettuce. The bitter herbs remind us of our bitter times in Egypt. They are also cleansing foods that open the sinuses and tear ducts and purify the blood as a springtime tonic.
Charoset is perhaps the favorite food of the seder evening. It is a sweet mixture of fruits and nuts that the maror is dipped into. There is no blessing for the charoset because it is part of the maror ritual.
Charoset reminds us of the mortar that was used to hold the bricks together when we were slaves in Egypt. When sweet charoset is mixed with the bitter maror, it reminds us of the bitter-sweet nature of life.
The ingredients in the charoset are influenced by the cultures in which Jews lived. Ashkenazi charoset consists of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine. Sephardi charoset varies, but can include dates, almonds, sesame seeds, raisins and apricots.
The z'roah is a roasted bone with some meat on it. It reminds us of the z'roah netuyah, the outstretched arm with which God took us out of slavery. The z'roah represents the Pesach lamb sacrifice that each family offered on Passover eve in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
After the lamb was slaughtered, the meat was roasted and eaten by the family.
Ashkenazi Jews no longer eat roasted lamb on Passover because of the loss of the Temple, but many Sephardim do eat lamb.
Some people use a roasted lamb shoulder for the z'roah on the seder plate, while others use a roasted chicken neck, so as not to confuse it with the Passover sacrifice. In vegetarian families, there is a custom to substitute a roasted beet or a "paschal yam" in place of the meat.
The baytza is a hard-boiled, roasted egg that is used instead of another piece of meat, to remind us of the second sacrifice, the hagiga, which was offered at the Temple on each festival.
There are many thoughts as to why the egg was used. It is the food served after a funeral and is therefore a symbol of mourning for the Temple. It is round and reminds us of the wheel of fate that turns and brings us from our mourning into hope.
The egg is also a symbol of fertility, of birth and rebirth. Although we don't eat the z'roah or the baytza as sacrifices on Pesach, there are many people who serve hard-boiled eggs dipped in saltwater as a first course.
In some Sephardic homes, the roasted egg is eaten by a firstborn at the end of the meal, while standing behind a door. This gesture symbolizes gratitude that the firstborn of the Jews were saved.
Sometimes the baytza is given to an unmarried girl to eat to increase her good fortune in finding a husband. It is important to note that after hard-boiling the baytza, the ends of the egg are punctured before broiling it, so that it does not explode in the oven.
There is an old Sephardi tradition that states: The z'roah represents Moses and the quality of judgment. The baytza represents Aaron and the quality of kindness. And dag, a fish, is added to the seder plate to represent Miriam and the quality of modesty.
The karpas is a vegetable that is not bitter, usually celery, parsley or boiled potato. It is customary to use the fresh greens of spring, which can include many kinds of herbs like cilantro and chives.
The boiled potato is an Eastern European custom, due to the cold climate, where the only fresh vegetables available were the sprouting potatoes in the root cellar. Karpas is the first food eaten after the kiddush — the blessing of the wine — and it is a symbol of the simplicity of life.
The greens are dipped in saltwater or cider vinegar that is placed in a bowl near the seder plate. Dipping the greens into the saltwater is a reminder of the tears we have shed in our suffering. It is also a reminder of the salty ocean, mother of all life on earth.
After the blessing over the karpas vegetable has been said, it is possible to nosh on vegetables throughout the rest of the seder and allow discussions to take place without unbearable hunger. Since it is an evening of dipping, some families place fresh vegetables around the table with tasty dips like guacamole and Russian dressing.
One of the gifts of our tradition is that we are able to interpret and expand the customs that have been handed down to us. One new custom that has become very popular is the addition of an orange on the seder plate.
This was the result of an encounter that scholar Susannah Heschel had while delivering a talk. A man in the audience said that women had as much place on the bimah –the raised platform in the front of sanctuary — as an orange on the seder plate. Needless to say, Heschel's family instituted the custom of the orange that Pesach. The custom quickly gained popularity among feminists.
The design of the seder plate is an opportunity for artistic imagination and beauty. Although one usually thinks of only one seder plate for the table, some people have the custom of making one for each family or for each person.
The seder plate is more than a ritual decoration. We eat from many of the foods on the plate and therefore it is functional as well as ceremonial. Many years ago, when I saw a photograph of a Yemenite seder in "A Feast of History," I had a deep realization.
The table was very simple and was covered with romaine lettuce and the symbolic foods of the seder plate. It suddenly occurred to me that the table was the plate. Since that time, I have covered our plastic tablecloth with romaine lettuce, fresh veggies and dips. Rather than worrying about fancy dishes, silver and crystal, I place a simple glass bowl and kiddush cup at each place setting.
When we enter the dining room, it feels like walking into a garden. The seder table is pregnant with greens. It becomes an edible reminder of our simple origins and the freedom of our imagination.