What is on the Seder plate?

Daniel Sugarman explains the origins of the shank bone, charoset and more.


On the first and second nights of Passover, diaspora Jews spend the evening recounting the story of the redemption of the Children of Israel from Egypt. 
The process – including the discussion of this landmark event in Jewish history, the customs around it and the meal which takes place during the course of the evening – is known as the seder. And the centrepiece of the seder is a special plate, known as the seder plate, which contains six different items of symbolic significance to the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. 

The Seder plate

Traditionally, the Seder plate is round, with six separate sections. These will either be marked out on the plate itself, or the plate will contain six hollows or impressions, one for each of the six items in question.
The items are as follows: Maror – bitter herbs, Karpas – a type of vegetable, Chazeret – usually horseradish, Beitzah – an egg, Zeroah – the shank bone, and Charoset – a special, sweet, paste-like substance. 

The different items

Maror and Chazeret – traditionally, two types of bitter herbs are placed on the plate to remind seder participants of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. Usually the specific vegetable used for maror is romaine lettuce, which is not bitter when first tasted, but becomes progressively so afterwards. This is intended to symbolise the experience of the Jewish people’s slavery in Egypt, which was not initiated all at once, but rather conducted gradually and so grew progressively more bitter. 
Horseradish is usually used for chazeret – it comes into use at a specific point during the seder process, when it is combined with the charoset and placed inside two pieces of matzah, forming a sandwich, which we are told that Hillel, one of the most famous Jewish sages, used to eat, together with the paschal sacrifice, during the time of the Second Temple. 

Karpas – The vegetable used for Karpas is usually either parsley or celery. Early in the Seder process, the Karpas is dipped in salt water and eaten, to symbolise the tears shed by the Jewish people during their slavery.

Beitzah – The egg. On the Seder Plate this is meant to be a reference to the Korban Chagigah, a special sacrifice offered during Jewish festival periods. It is not eaten. 

Zeroah – The shank bone. Usually the shank bone of a lamb, this is a reference to the Korban Pesach – the Pesach offering, first mentioned in the Bible at the time of the story of the exodus. In the Temple period in Jerusalem, Jews would bring a lamb as a Pesach offering, later eating it at the seder. As with the egg on the seder plate, it is not meant for consumption. 

Charoset – this is a paste-like substance, usually made out of a mixture of fruits, spices, nuts and wine. It is meant to represent the mortar used by the Israelites to build edifices for the Egyptians during their slavery. As its sweet taste contrasts with the bitterness of some of the other seder plate offerings, it is a popular substance among those taking part in the evening’s events.

Although progressive Jews will often place other items on the plate, these items are the traditional elements of this seder centrepiece. With each item representing a link to the past, the Seder plate comes together to serve as a multi-faceted reminder of both the Jewish people’s years in slavery and their subsequent redemption.  


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