A seder table tour

April 18, 2008

Five rabbis take a trip around the Pesach plate and explore the symbolism of the items that will feature on it tomorrow night

Maror always strikes me as being rather a paradox. On the one hand, it is meant by its unpleasantness to evoke the misery and abject bitterness of the Egyptian bondage, but it never really achieves that, having become one of the much anticipated and uniquely enjoyable tastes and aromas of the seder! Horseradish atop a bit of matzah and charoset must rank alongside chicken soup and kneidlach in the top ten of Jewish cuisine and nostalgia. More than this, according to the halachah, maror does not even need to be a particularly bitter herb. Romaine lettuce and other leafy vegetables are also quite acceptable, on the basis that the initially mild flavour usually develops a bit of an aftertaste, just as the slavery went from mild to bitter, almost imperceptibly, over time.

Perhaps the deeper message of maror is more nuanced than we generally appreciate. For me, it is that no experience in life is totally black or white. As in this symbolic seder herb, there is some sweet and sour, good and bad, joy and sadness intermixed in every dimension of human existence. The message is that it is up to us to reframe tragedy, setback and the bitterness of life — however enormous — as sweeter than it may appear; indeed, as even an opportunity for redemption and new beginning. In that way we begin to turn our own lives around.

So, whereas we break a glass under the chupah to evoke the pain of Jewish history at a time of joy, on Pesach eve we do the exact opposite. By mixing maror with charoset and using the mild lettuce leaf, we inject a sense of sweetness and hope even as we dwell on bitter tragedy.

The meaning of the maror grows and changes as we mature. If the maror of childhood is simply a bitter flavour, the maror of adulthood becomes a more complex admixture of various and even opposing sensations. The maror becomes a mirror of life itself.

Rabbi Reuben Livingstone
Hampstead Garden Suburb United Synagogue

One hard-boiled egg, one hard-boiled egg. The egg is a well-known symbol of spring and features in many different traditions at this time of year. For some, the egg is painted in bright colours, for others it is made of chocolate and wrapped in shiny, coloured foil. Across the Atlantic, eggs are rolled across the White House lawn at this season.

And all we have is one hard-boiled egg, one hard-boiled egg. Not only that, our version of the springtime symbol is roasted, burned on the outside to remind us of the Temple burnt-offering at Pesach. We do not roll it around the seder table, or paint it in bright colours or replace it with foil-wrapped chocolate. All we have is a hard-boiled egg, one hard-boiled egg.

Why don’t we jazz it up a bit, add some razzle dazzle to our dull and ordinary spring symbol? The arrival of spring is celebrated as a joyful time by those around us: why don’t we greet it with a sweet or colourful version of our egg?

Our egg should be plain, it is right that it is just one hard-boiled egg. A basic food item representing a basic human right that is the very essence of the seder: the right of every human being to enjoy freedom. And the fact that this freedom often has to be fought for, and the struggle for it can cause suffering to both victim and oppressor, is symbolised by the fact that this plain, simple egg is partially charred and burned. Freedom does not come easily but it is as fundamental to human existence as the humble egg. One hard-boiled egg, one hard-boiled egg.

Rabbi Pete Tobias
Liberal Synagogue Elstree

I have a longstanding relationship issue with the shank bone on the seder plate. It is not there for eating. It is there solely to remind us of the Pesach lamb which we used to eat in Temple times.

Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch stipulates that we should not eat for a while before Pesach so that we have an appetite for matzah. When we start the seder, we are a bit peckish.

Sitting at the seder, I see the shank bone on the plate. It is roasted. It glistens in the light. I can see, almost feel, the texture of the meat as it clusters crunchily on the bone.

But I stay here, it stays there. I try to face it down and it reaches out to me, an outstretched arm of temptation. I pretend to ignore it as I nibble parsley dipped in saltwater but this doesn’t work.

And in truth, this tantalising food sums up the whole diaspora issue. Since the Romans destroyed our Temple some 1,900 years ago, we have had no access to the powerful symbolism of the sacrifices, and the light of God’s presence in the world is dimmed.

And for 1,900 years, the human condition has been one of unsatisfied longing. Isaiah (2:3) prophesied that our Temple would be a source of spiritual enlightenment for the whole world, a gentle influence transforming swords into ploughshares. But while it is not restored, the bad news continues to trickle in from Gaza, Darfur, Iraq, Tibet and Afghanistan. The world hungers in vain for peace and inspiration.

Maybe next year we’ll be in Jerusalem. There’ll be world peace. God’s love will be palpable and visible.

And I’ll get to taste that shank bone.

Rabbi David Lister
Edgware United Synagogue

Karpas is the vegetable or herb that represents spring time and is dipped in the salt water that represents the tears of Israelite slaves. Dipping the karpas is one of the first ritual acts of our seder, and is included in the Mah Nishtanah. The dipping of the vegetable originated with the Romans, who were first to introduce one of our favourite kiddush fares: the crudité dipped into hummus. There is some confusion over what constitutes karpas. In my family, we use parsley: others, radishes or even beetroot.

Clearly the vegetable is important but I am more intrigued by its twin, the salt water. Water is a powerful theme in the haggadah. But the water has anomalies. We cross the Red Sea, but on dry land, as the water is held back, in a way that defies natural law. Mitzrayim, according to the Midrash, means “tight place” and is referred to as the birth canal, with the water of the Red Sea representing the amniotic fluid through which we are born anew as a people.However, we are born as a people through the water that does not rush, as does amniotic fluid, but through water that is withheld. Our national birth is through a dry birth canal.

In modern times, many have added a Cos Miriam to the seder table. Cos Miriam is a cup of water, which represents the midrashic well of sweet water which followed the Israelites through the wilderness. The well is attributed to Miriam because of her prophetic abilities, and her courage in leading the women across the Red Sea with joy and singing. In contrast to the sweet water of the Cos Miriam, we dip our karpas into bitter water.

The contrast between sweet, life-giving water and bitter salty tears points to one of the important messages of the haggadah. Although the seder is a celebration, the waters remind us that life is not easy. We get tossed by the waves of daily life and crisis. Bitter and sweet experiences share the same hours. Perhaps that is why we lean during the seder. We lean near the one sitting next to us, not just for freedom’s sake, but to encourage us to lean on each other while we metaphorically drink both bitter and sweet waters in our lives.

Rabbi Marcia Plumb
Southgate Reform Synagogue

Why do we dip bitter herbs in charoset? The Talmud mentions the reason for the sweet dip on our seder plate as kapa: the bitter “poison” in the bitter herb of maror must be neutralized for fear that excessive consumption may damage the stomach lining.

The siddur of Rabbi Shlomo ben Nathan Al-Sijelemsi, containing a version of prayers used in the Atlas Mountains nine centuries ago, refers to the haleg, the Arabic name for charoset, and mentions that it was dipped into twice; first with the karpas and then the maror. Persian haleg could have several dozen ingredients, including bananas!

Maimonides had a simple charoset — boiled figs or dates, crushed but not puréed. Charoset has a consistency reminiscent of mortar; cinnamon and walnuts for colour and grit, shredded apple for the straw with which the Hebrews baked bricks. All this tinged with the wine of celebration, bringing hope into the vale of tears.

Life has its bitterness, but also its sweeteners, its charoset. We need to make the effort to dip, when miserable, into the sweet memories and simple pleasures that take the edge off the harsh times of life. It is possible to look back on pain and recast the experience as a positive that helped us build ourselves up anew and become stronger, more resilient than before.

No-one can be commanded to be so brave —but it is worth trying. Thus, even though there is no particular mitzvah to eat charoset on its own, its purpose in fusing with bitterness teaches us the importance of partnership between those with better and worse fortune for a good result. The Hebrew word charoset is derived from cheres, meaning clay, which when hardened is fragile but durable, protective and preserving. Charoset is therefore a simile for Israel: fragile but strengthened to survive — and still able to find sweetness, in spite of all the suffering we have endured.

Rabbi Ariel Abel
Radlett United Synagogue

Last updated: 2:58pm, April 23 2008