Passover Seder Plate

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The Passover Seder is one of the most widely observed of all Jewish customs, and at the center of every observance of Seder lies the Passover Seder Plate(Hebrew: ke'ara), a special plate containing symbolic foods used by Jews during the Passover Seder. The plate is carefully prepared and placed before the head of the household, or the one conducting the Seder, who dispenses the Seder foods to each of the participants. Each of the six items arranged on the plate has special significance to the retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which is the focus of this ritual meal. The seventh symbolic item used during the meal — a stack of three matzos — is placed on its own plate on the Seder table.

The six traditional items on the Seder Plate are:

1) Matzah - Matzah is a crisp, flat, unleavened bread made of plain white flour, and water. The dough is pricked in several places and not allowed to rise before or during baking, thereby producing a hard, flat bread. Similar in preparation to the central Asian lavash and the Indian chapati, Matza is the substitute for bread during the Jewish holiday of Passover, when eating chametz - bread and leavened products - is forbidden. Eating matza on the night of the Seder is considered a positive mitzvah, i.e., a commandment. Matzah is placed either on the Seder plate or next to it.

Eating Matzah on Passover commemorates the unleavened bread eaten by the Jews when they left Egypt in such haste that there was no time for the dough to rise. (Exodus 12:39). It symbolizes redemption and freedom, but also serves as a reminder to be humble, and to not forget what life was like in servitude.

The Matzah also stands for the three castes of Jews: Priests, Levites, and Israelites and also commemorate the three measures of fine flour that Abraham told Sarah to bake into matzah when they were visited by the three angels (Genesis 18:6).

At the Passover Seder, it is customary to eat matzah made of flour and water only. Matzah containing eggs, wine or fruit juice in addition to water is not acceptable as it is considered to become leaven. Matzah made with these items without the use of water is acceptable during the remaining days of the holiday, although some strictly Orthodox Jews will not eat this kind of matzah at all.

2) Maror and Chazeret - It is obligatory to eat Maror or bitter herbs twice at each Seder. Traditionally, the bitter herbs may consist either of romaine lettuce, horseradish or endives. The bitter taste of Maror symbolizes the bitterness and harshness of the slavery which the Jews endured in Egypt. For Maror, many people mix freshly grated horseradish with cooked beets and sugar to make a condiment called chrein. While whole horseradish root can be eaten, horseradish cooked or pickled is not considered valid for the Seder by traditional Jews.

Chazeret is typically romaine lettuce, which have roots that are bitter in taste. Either the horseradish or romaine lettuce may be eaten in fulfillment of the mitzvah of eating bitter herbs during the Seder.

3) Charoset - Charoset or charoses is a sweet, dark-colored, lumpy paste formed of a special mixture of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon and served during the Passover Seder. Its color and texture makes it a symbol of the mortar that was used by the Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Ancient Egypt. The word charoset comes from the Hebrew word cheres meaning "clay". Maror is a very special item on the Passover Seder Plate. The charoset serves an ancillary function to the Maror. Before eating the Maror diners dip it into the charoset. It gives an idea of how hard the Israelites worked in Egypt, combining a food that brings tears to the eyes (the maror) with one that resembles the mortar used to build Egyptian cities and storehouses.

Despite its symbolism, the charoset is a tasty concoction and is a favorite of children. During the Seder meal, it may be eaten liberally, often spread on matzah. Some people believe it is the tastiest thing eaten during the holiday. There are, naturally, a huge number of recipes associated with charoset. Sephardi recipes call for dates and honey in addition to chopped nuts, cinnamon, and wine. The choice of ingredients reflects the various foods to which Israel is favorably compared in King Solomon's Song of Songs.

4) Karpas - One of the traditional rituals in the Passover Seder, Karpas also refers to the vegetable, usually parsley, celery or boiled potato that is dipped in liquid (usually salt water) and eaten during the occassion. The liquid may be any of the seven which make food capable of becoming ritually impure, although salt-water or vinegar are usually used. The idea behind the salt water is to symbolize the pain felt by the Jews, who could only eat simple foods during their slavery in Egypt. The vegetables symbolize the coming of the spring.

Some have explained the dipping of the Karpas to symbolize Josef's tunic being dipped into blood by his brothers. Karpas is hence, performed at the beginning of the Seder, just as Josef's tunic being dipped into blood began the Israelites descent to Egypt. Indeed, the word Karpas, in some languages, means cloth.

5) Zeroah - Zeroah(Hebrew for the word "bone) is a piece of roasted or boiled meat or poultry, preferably a shankbone. Zeroah represents the korban Pesach (the ancient Passover sacrifice), when the slaves sacrificed a lamb in the Temple in Jerusalem, roasted and ate it as part of the meal on the first Seder night, on the eve of the Exodus. Since the destruction of the Temple, the zeroah serves as a visual reminder of the Pesach sacrifice; it is not eaten or handled during the Seder. The present day zeroah can come from whatever the family is eating, including the leg bone from a roast turkey. For vegetarians or anyone who prefers not to use a bone, some rabbis suggest using a roasted beet, quoting Pesachim 114b as justification.

6) Beitzah - Beitzah is a roasted egg, symbolic of korban chagigah (festival sacrifice) that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and roasted and eaten as part of the meal on Seder night apart from the Paschal lamb. Although both the Pesach sacrifice and the chagigah were meat offerings, the chagigah is commemorated by an egg, a symbol of mourning (as eggs are the first thing served to mourners after a funeral). The Beitzah also recalls the grief over the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E., and the inability to offer any kind of sacrifices in honor of the Pesach holiday. Since the destruction of the Temple, the beitzah serves as a visual reminder of the chagigah; it is either not eaten or handled during the Seder or eaten dipped in salt water (which represents tears).

The Beitzah is also a symbol of spring - the season in which Passover is always celebrated. In many households, it is customary to use a brown egg on the Seder plate. The egg should be baked or roasted if possible.

Some Seder gatherings put additional items on the Seder plate as symbols. The special foods eaten on Passover are also food for thought. Every item on the Seder plate abounds in meaning and allusion. For example, some Seders include an orange on the Seder Plate to honor feminism, gay and lesbian rights, rights for marginalized people and Jews, and/or activism. The use of the orange is said to have been inspired by a quote by a conservative rabbi saying a woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the Seder Plate. However, Susannah Heschel, who claims to have initiated the orange tradition, claims that this story is false.

Many decorative and artistic Seder Plates sold in Judaica stores have pre-formed spaces for inserting the various symbolic foods. According to the Halakha (Jewish law), however, the items must be arranged in the order in which they will be used during the Seder, with the first item to be used placed closest to the leader of the Seder.

The table set for the beginning of the Passover Seder includes the Passover Seder Plate (front center), a bowl of salt water, three shmurah matzot (rear center), and bottles of kosher wine. A Hebrew language Haggadah (Talmudic literature that is a part of Jewish tradition) sits beside each place setting. The seventh symbolic item on the Seder table is a plate of three whole matzot, which are placed on top of each other on a plate or napkin, and then covered. Some also have the custom to separate the matzot from each other with interleaved plates, napkins, or the like.
The top and bottom matzot is used for the hamotzi (blessing over bread), while the middle matzah is broken and half of it is put aside for the afikoman.

A bowl of salt water, which is used for the two "dippings" of the Seder (once at the beginning of the Seder to dip the karpas, and once before the meal begins to dip a plain, hardboiled egg in remembrance of the chagigah) is not traditionally part of the Seder Plate, but is placed on the table beside it. However, it sometimes is used as one of the six items, omitting chazeret.

Because of the popularity of the Passover Seder, and because of the Seder plate's central position in its observance, the plate has become a very common outlet for Jewish artistic expression. Preparing the items for the Seder plate requires several hours of work and the work is completed before the Seder begins. Many families prepare all the Seder foods before the onset of the holiday, in order to avoid halachic questions.

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