I don’t remember reporters discussing surfaces as much as they have in the last week – which surfaces are porous, to which ones can this virus attach. The rabbis taught that the table replaces the altar. It is our vessel for communicating with Gd. There is no holiday that represents this more than Passover. What we put on our table, what those props represent are the story we tell of Passover – not only the history of Passover, but also what it means to us today. Today’s email is all about setting the table for the Seders.
First is the Seder plate. The traditional Ashkenazic Seder plate contained Charoset, Karpas, Maror, Egg, Shank bone and Chazeret
. Each one reminds us of our story and its contemporary meaning to us.
Karpas is parsley or celery dipped in the salt water or vinegar, which is also found on the table. Karpas represents spring.
Maror is the bitter herbs representing the bitterness of oppression.
Chazeret is a minhag/custom not practiced by all Jews. It is romaine lettuce, another bitter food used as part of Hillel’s sandwich.
Beitzah is a roasted hard-boiled egg symbolizing the sacrifice offered for Passover in the second Temple. The sacrifice was roasted and eaten as part of the Passover celebration. The egg on the Seder plate is not eaten. But many Jews eat an egg dipped in salt water as the first course of the meal to symbolize the cycle of life.
Zeroah, also transliterated Z’roa, is the shank bone or chicken neck symbolizing the lamb offered erev Pesach, the first night of Passover. Vegetarians often substitute a beet or a sweet potato.
There are many different interpretations about what these different foods could mean for us today. Here is the one published by Jewish United for Justice:
Maror: “The bitter herb reminds us of the bitterness inside all of us. Living in a racially discriminatory society means that racism infects our thoughts and actions, even if we don’t want it to. We must call attention to the prejudiced ideas we all carry inside us in order to actively resist and uproot them.” JUFJ
Egg: “The egg in its shell reminds us that we can choose how we identify ourselves, but we can’t always choose how the world sees us-we’re vulnerable to other people’s assumptions about who we are inside (and out). When others assume things about us that don’t jibe with our concept of ourselves, or when people cannot see an identify we hold close to our hearts, we feel dehumanized. Tonight we commit to celebrating everyone as they wish to identify.” JUFU
Haroset: The charoset mixture reminds us of the interconnectedness, intersectionality, of all social forces. Haroset reminds us of the sweetness of our diversity.
Karpas: “The green vegetable reminds us to help each other along as we learn and grow. Sometimes our friends and loved ones say or do things that are hurtful, even if they mean well. What if telling someone that they’ve said something racist was as easy as telling someone that they have parsley in their teeth? Let’s affirm our commitment to being more aware of what we and our loved ones say, and to being less afraid to lovingly tell each other when our words or actions have fallen short.” JUFJ
Throughout history there have been other items added to our Seder plate as a way of making our story come alive for us today and as a reminder that oppression and prejudice did not end when the Israelites were freed from Egypt. Rather, it is our job to lift up our contemporary forms of oppression in order to set our agenda for the coming year. Some people add an olive to their Seder plate as a reminder that we must strive for a peaceful and just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Others add a tomato to lift up the economic oppression suffered by migrant workers in our country today.
And then there is the orange. As with many folk traditions, there is the way most have heard about this ritual and the way it was truly created. The myth is that Professor Susannah Heschel was giving a lecture in Miami Beach when a man stood up and yelled: ‘A woman belongs on a bima like an orange belongs on a Seder plate.’ In order to place women in places of leadership, Heschel and others began to place oranges on their Seder plates……This story is not true. Here is the true story in Professor Susannah Heschel’s own words, from an article that she wrote for The Jewish Daily Forward in 2013. ‘At an early point in the seder…I asked each person to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in he Jewish community. When we eat that orange segment, we spit out the seeds to repudiate homophobia and we recognize that in a whole orange, each segment sticks together. Oranges are sweet and juicy and remind us of the fruitfulness of gay and lesbian Jews and of the homosociality that has been such an important part of Jewish experience. That incident never happened! Instead, my custom had fallen victim to a folktale process in which my original intention was subverted. My idea of the orange was attributed to a man, and my goal of affirming lesbians and gay men erased.”
In Tunisia, the shank bone, charoset, maror, karpas, egg and matzah are placed in a covered basket, ready to be carried out of Egypt with us. In addition, in Tunisia they place a fishbowl with a live fish in it on the Passover table.
The Seder plate is not the only thing placed on the Passover table. On the table is one plate with only three matzot on it. Each matzah representing the Cohen/Priest in the second temple times, the Levite/the Priest’s helper, and Yisrael – all the rest of us. One of the oldest additions to the seder plate that I know of was to place one extra piece matzah on this plate of three to remind us of the refusniks, the Jews who in the 1970s were not allowed to leave Russia.
In addition to the Seder plate, the bowl of salt water, and the plate of matzot, there are also two cups. Traditionally, there is only one cup – the cup of Elijah. In Casablanca, Morocco, Jews would set up an elaborate chair with cushions and ornaments and leave it empty for Elijah’s arrival. In most of our haggadot there is a moment when we open the door for for Elijah to enter into our Seders. At that moment, we are reminded of what else might walk in and the faith it takes to have a Seder, to announce publicly that we are Jews and to make the time to practice Judaism proudly.
In addition to Elijah’s cup, many of us have a separate cup for Miriam. Elijah drinks wine or grape juice and Miriam drinks water. For it says in the Midrash that it is Miriam who found water for the Israelites to drink as they wandered in the desert. Miriam, one of the few women given the tittle of prophet in the bible, has come to represent all women who work tirelessly and often anonymously to provide sustenance to their families and communities. As it is written on the website, miriamscup.com, “Miriam’s life is a contrast to the life of Elijah. Elijah was a hermit, who spent part of his life alone in the desert. He was a visionary and prophet, often very critical of the Jewish people, and focused on the world to come. On the other hand, Miriam lived among her people in the desert, constantly encouraging them throughout their long journey. Therefore, Elijah’s cup is a symbol of future messianic redemption, while Miriam’s cup is a symbol of hope and renewal in the present life. We must achieve balance in our own lives, not only preparing our souls for redemption, but rejuvenating our souls in the present. Thus, we need both Elijah’s cup and Miriam’s cup at our Seder Table.”
Persian and Afghani Jews add a scallion to their Passover tables which they use to hit each other with every time they say Dayeinu! They especially use the scallions in the ninth stanza which mentions the manna that the Israelites ate every day in the desert because Torah tells us that the Israelites began to complain about the manna and longed for onions, leeks and garlic.
Maybe some of us will place a ruler to measure 6 feet of social distancing with the hope that next year we will all be celebrating Passover together in one room, excited to touch our surfaces, knowing that we were liberated from the Coronavirus and the isolation and fear that it causes.