Passover is the Jewish holiday of freedom, commemorating the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Each spring, Jewish people from around the world recount Passover’s watershed story of redemption at a festive meal called the Seder.
The centerpiece of this richly symbolic meal is the Seder plate. On the Seder plate there are five or six different Passover foods, each symbolizing a unique element of the Exodus story. At various points in the Seder (which means ‘order’ in Hebrew), participants partake in these different foods to tangibly and gastronomically reenact the events of the Exodus.
In Israel, one Seder is commemorated on the first night of Passover (called Pesach in Hebrew). The rest of the Jewish world celebrates two Seders on the first and second nights of Passover.
While the main course at the Passover Seder varies from family to family and country to country, the five or six elements of the Seder plate are universal. Here’s a look at the symbolism, history and culinary expression these seven Passover foods.
Also spelled matzoh and matza, matzah is the unleavened bread eaten (instead of bagels, sandwich bread and pita) during Passover. No matter how you spell it, matzah is the quintessential Passover food.
When the Israelites learned that the pharaoh had agreed to let them leave Egypt, they did not have time to bake bread for their journey. Lest Pharaoh change his mind (which he did), they quickly made unleavened dough and baked it on their backs in the sun. Also called the Bread of Affliction, (Lechem Oni in Hebrew), matzah symbolizes the hardship of slavery and the Jewish people’s hasty transition to freedom.
During the Seder meal, a plate of at least three covered matzahs is set next to the Seder plate. The matzah is partaken from ritually three separate times during the Seder. The first time, the matzah is eaten by itself; next it’s eaten together with maror (bitter herbs – see below); and finally with maror and haroset (also see below) in a “korech” sandwich.
In addition to enjoying matzah at the Seder meal, Jewish people eat this unleavened bread throughout the 8-day holiday. Traditionally, Jews are prohibited from eating any leavened product (including pasta, cereal, wheat crackers and (of course) bread) during the week of Passover. Instead, they enjoy sandwiches made on matzah and cakes baked from matzah meal.
While you could make your own matzah at home with special Passover flour and water, most buy their matzah at the supermarket. Making matzah requires exact precision. In order to be considered “kosher” for Passover, matzah must be made in 18 minutes or less (from mixing to kneading to baking).
Karpas is one of the six Passover foods on the Seder plate. It is a green leafy vegetable, usually parsley, used to symbolize the initial flourishing of the Israelites in Egypt. According to the Book of Genesis, Joseph and his family moved from the biblical land of Ca’anan down to Egypt during a drought. Once in Egypt, Joseph quickly rose to power as the Egyptian pharaoh’s second-in-command — a revered position that extended special protection to the Israelite people for several generations.
However, when a new pharaoh came to power, he was threatened by the growing size of the Israelite community and enslaved them. This turn of events is commemorated during the Seder by dipping the karpas into bitter salt water, which represents the tears shed by the Israelites.
Karpas also symbolizes springtime — which is appropriate since Passover is called Hag Ha’Aviv or the holiday of spring. While parsley leaves are the most common food used to represent the karpas, some families use celery or boiled spring potatoes.
Maror, or bitter herbs, is another one of the Passover foods on the Seder plate and it symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. Different families use different foods to represent the maror, but it is most typically horseradish or romaine lettuce. Like the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt, romaine lettuce is sweet at first, but becomes more and more bitter as time goes on.
A paste-like mixture of fruits, nuts and sweet wine or honey, charoset (also spelled haroset) is symbolic of the mortar used by the Israelite slaves when they laid bricks for Pharaoh’s monuments. The word charoset is derived from the Hebrew word for clay, cheres.
Jews from Eastern European descent (referred to as Ashkenazi) make their charoset from apples, walnuts, sweet red wine and a generous dash of cinnamon. Families from Sephardic descent use dates, figs, almonds and honey to make charoset.
During the Seder, a sandwich is eaten from matzah, charoset and maror. Known as “korech”, this ritual sandwich embodies the Israelites’ bitterness over their hard labor (masonry) and the spiritual affliction they suffered from being enslaved.
The shank bone, or z’roa in Hebrew, represents the Paschal sacrifice offered by the Israelites on the eve of their exodus from Egypt. During the time of the Holy Temple in ancient Israel, this Paschal sacrifice was reenacted on the afternoon before Passover. Today there is no Holy Temple, so the shank bone on the Seder plate has taken its symbolic place.
While a roasted lamb bone is traditionally used to represent the z’roa, any piece of roasted meat may be used. Some families used chicken or turkey neck, which they roast completely in the oven and then char over an open flame on their stoves. Unlike the other foods on the Seder plate, the shank bone is never eaten. Instead, it remains as a visual reminder of those monumental moments right before the Exodus.
Some vegetarian families substitute a roasted beet for the shank bone, alluding to a passage in the Talmud (the compilation of Jewish Law), which refers to the blood red beet as one of the vegetables originally partaken of in the first Seder.
Like the z’roa, the egg (beitzah, in Hebrew) stands in for a holiday sacrifice once offered at the Holy Temple. The egg is also a universal symbol of springtime, new beginnings and rebirth — all themes that are echoed in the story of the Exodus.
Similar to maror, chazeret is another bitter food and is usually lettuce or a root vegetable. The sixth symbolic Passover food on the Seder plate, chazeret is not used by all families. Some prefer to combine use horseradish for both the chazeret and the maror. Chazeret is more commonly included on Seder plates in Israel, where romaine lettuce typically stands for the chazeret and horseradish for the maror.
The Passover Seder is a richly symbolic and sensory experience. The foods that are eaten during Passover serve as tangible reminders of the hardship of slavery and the exaltation of Exodus. From matzah and maror to charoset and chazeret, Passover foods reconnect Seder participants with historical events that happened many years ago.