Passover is almost here and if you are Jewish then it’s time to think about preparing the Seder plate. The foods are symbolic and are arranged on a specific Seder plate which is called k’arah in Hebrew. Some of these symbolic foods are eaten and some are not. Throughout the years these plates have been made from silver, pewter, brass, painted porcelain and glass with specific indented compartments for the ceremonial foods. If you don’t have a Seder plate then you can display the foods on a pretty tray or platter with decorations of fresh spring blossoms or herbs. If you are having quite a few quests then you may want to have a second Seder plate for the other end of the table.
The traditional Seder plate items include:
Karpas: A vegetable to celebrate spring and rebirth. This vegetable usually is a green vegetable such as celery, sweet lettuce or a spring herb such as parsley or chervil which symbolizes the beginning of new life. Some use a boiled potato as a reminder of a harsh early spring.
Maror: This symbolizes the misery of the Israelites’ slavery and oppression. This is a bitter herb that varies from community to community or even from one family to another. Ashekenazim like to use either ground or sliced fresh horseradish root or romaine lettuce. Sephardim like to use bitter greens such as endive, escarole, chicory, sorrel, arugula, dandelion, purslane, celery leaves or watercress. Maror is eaten by all at the table so you may want to put extra in a separate bowl.
Haroset: Haroset is the fruit and nut dip that is symbolic of clay or mortar that the Israelites used to construct the pyramids. Kids like to sculpt it into pyramid shapes if the haroset is stiff enough. Some people like to serve two or three different types of harosets symbolizing the diverse Jewish communities. Haroset usually consists of quartered, grated or chopped apples, walnuts or almonds, ground cinnamon and kosher grape wine or grape juice. The consistency tends to be more like a paste.
Hazeret: Many Seder plates have a second place for another bitter herb in addition to the maror. This additional bitter herb is to be used in the traditional Hillel sandwich which is a matzoh with a filling of haroset and bitter herbs.
Zeroa (Forearm): This is a roasted lamb shankbone that symbolizes the ancient Paschal lamb sacrifice in the Temple. It also symbolizes the protective arm of God. The Israelites marked their doorposts with blood from the lamb that was slaughtered on the eve of the Exodus. Seeing this sign, the Angel of Death “passed over” their homes, keeping them from God’s tenth and final plague (the slaying of the firstborn males). Some use a poultry wing or neck. Vegetarians may use a beet. A friend of mine, who is not a meat eater, told me that last year she cut out a picture of a shankbone and placed it in the proper place on the Seder plate. Zeroa is typically not eaten at the Sedar. The shankbone is roasted and scorched to symbolize the burnt sacrificial offering.
Beitzah: This is a roasted egg which is the symbol of the festival sacrifice of each Jew brought to the ancient Temple. It is also a symbol of spring, mourning and rebirth. The egg is also not eaten during the Seder service. Hard boil an egg and then wrap it, still in the shell, in a foil. Place it in a hot oven until it is lightly charred. Make sure to hard boil the egg first or you will have quite a mess on your hands.
Another symbolic item on the Seder table, not on the Seder plate, is a plate of three whole matzot, which are stacked and separated from one another by cloths or napkins. The middle matzah is broken and half of it put aside for the afikoman (after the meal or dessert). The top and other half of the middle matzot is used for hamotzi (blessing over the bread). The bottom matzah is used for the Hillel sandwich.
A bowl of salt water is used for the first “dipping” of the Seder. It is not traditionally part of the Seder plate, but it is placed next to it. Sometimes the bowl of salt water is used as one of the six items, omitting haroset.
Potato Peels: Survivors of the Holocaust and their children began including potato peels as a symbol of the Holocaust and today’s hunger and famines. It was a blessing to have a potato peel as it could mean the difference between life and death in the concentration camps. For many Jews who fled the famines of Ethiopia it was the potato that was the first food tasted when they immigrated to Israel.
Orange: Some new Seder plates have an additional place for an orange. Theologian Susannah Heschel, “Orange on the Seder Plate,” talks about the ritual that she created based on a story that she had read in a feminist Haggadah. She asked everyone to take a tangerine segment, say the blessing over it and eat it to symbolize solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men as well as others who are marginalized within the Jewish community.