Sign In Forgot Password

The Evolution of the Seder Plate

The part of the Seder that I always find confusing is the Seder Plate. Do we need five or six items on the plate? Can we eat horseradish for bitter herb, or do we need another vegetable? (The answer is that you don’t need both.)

But what puzzles me the most are the zroah, shank-bone, and the beitzah, egg. The official explanation is that they symbolize the two sacrifices that were offered on Passover during the time of the Temple in Jerusalem. The shank-bone is for the Paschal lamb, and the egg is for chagigah, the festival sacrifice. While I get the connection between the shank-bone and the Paschal lamb, the egg confuses me. The animal that was offered for the festival’s sacrifice was either a lamb or a goat, and neither one of them, to the best of my knowledge, lays eggs.

The good news is that our generation is not the first to wonder about these questions. The food of Passover has been evolving over 2,000 years and has had many variations and versions.

The Jerusalem Talmud (compiled around 400 CE) requires two unspecified cooked dishes to be eaten as part of the Passover meal. Some 200 years later, The Babylonian Talmud asks, what are these two dishes? And it offers several answers that resemble neither lamb nor eggs.

  1. Huna said: “Beets and rice.” Probably because they were the cheapest foods available on Passover in Babylonia.
  2. Hizkiyah said: “Even a fish and the egg on it.” Which means that if the two cooked dishes are served as one, this still fulfills the requirement to have two cooked dishes at the Seder.
  3. Rav Joseph said: “Two kinds of meat are necessary, one in remembrance of the Paschal lamb and one in remembrance of the regular festival offering.”
  4. Ravina said: “Even a bone and its broth.” Seems like an option for those who could not afford meat.

Some 400-500 years later, Rav Sherira, when asked about the two cooked dishes, responded that “They are in memory of the two messengers, Moses and Aaron, whom God sent in Egypt” and he continues, “There are those who add a third cooked dish in memory of Miriam.” The third dish he claims (also based on a mystical teachings about the world to come) is an egg. At that point, the egg had become a standard part of the Pesach meal (probably because in Babylon, eggs were widely available in the spring) and once this became the norm, it was interpreted, symbolically as well, either as Miriam, the third savior, or as a third savory messianic dish.

More explanations for the egg were offered by later rabbis, from an act that symbolizes  mourning over the Temple to simply “that it is easy to cook.”

For most of our history, the dishes, no matter what they symbolized, were the main dishes of the meal. Today, the egg and the shank-bone are symbolic and are not part of the meal, but initially they were the meal. Only much later, as some Jews refrained from eating roasted meat at all during the Seder, the egg and the shank-bone were merely ritually placed on a Seder Plate and were left untouched.

This evolution of the Seder has not stopped in our days and this is the beauty of Judaism. To make your own Seder even more meaningful, you may want to offer your own interpretation to the items on the Seder Plate, and even add a new item.

Happy Passover.

Fri, May 24 2024 16 Iyyar 5784