Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Passover Seder, a Tradition over 3 Millenia Old

The Judaic celebration of Passover which began at sunset last evening is probably one of the most well known of this religion's celebration. The symbolism of the Passover seder goes back thousands of years to the liberation of the Israelite slaves as described in the Biblical story of Exodus. While my purpose here is not to delve into the rich history of the Israelites at this time in history, it's important to know that the Israelites had been enslaved under the Egyptian Pharoah's rule for many generations. I'll assume that most of you are familiar with the story of Moses and how he was found by the Pharoah's wife in the bullrushes and raised as the Pharaoh's son. I'll also assume that you're familiar with the 10 plagues that G-d strikes the Egyptian people with, but I will touch more on the 10th plague - the death of the firstborn sons - since that is what defines the Passover.

According to the Old Testament story, when G-d visited the 10th plague on Egypt, the Israelites were told, thru Moses, to mark their homes with the blood of a sacrificial lamb so that when the angel of death passed over the land, any home marked with this symbol would be spared from the plague. When Pharoah's own firstborn son fell dead that night, he finally agreed to free the Israelites. In their rush to flee Egypt, the Israelites were forced to leave in such a hurry that they could not even wait for bread to rise. This unleavened bread continues to be a primary tradition of the celebration of Passover, today continued by the use of Matzoh.

Symbolism and tradition are strong in the Passover Seder. Only the home's finest china and tableware is used, this being set aside for use in the holiest of celebrations. Cooking utensils must be those only used for Passover. The home must be cleaned and no yeast food, grains or non-kosher food are allowed in the house. Each place setting must contain a wine glass as well as a glass or bowl filled with salt water (or vinegar for Sephardic Jews). A separate wine glass (Elijah's cup) remains in the center of the table. Some families also add Miriam's cup next to the Elijah's cup.

A Matzoh plate rests near the center of the table near to where the Seder plate will rest. It holds three pieces of unleavened bread, or Matzoh; symbolic of the unleavened bread that the Israelites fled Egypt with because they didn't have time to let it properly leaven it. The three pieces symbolize the three groups of Jews - the priests, the Levites, and the Israelites.

The centerpiece of the table is the seder plate, filled with foods that represent the Israelites passage out of Egypt, as well as their years of bondage there. Each of the circles will hold a different food. These foods, along with their symbolic meaning are:
  • Maror - usually freshly grated horseradish, the maror symbolizes the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.
  • Charoset - a sweet, dark-colored, chunky paste made of fruits and nuts. Its color and texture are meant to recall the mortar with which the Israelites bonded bricks when they were enslaved in Ancient Egypt.
  • Karpas - vegetable, usually parsley or celery, that is dipped in salt water and eaten. The idea behind the salt water is to symbolize the salty tears that the Jews shed in their slavery in Egypt. The vegetables symbolize the coming of the spring.
  • Z’roa -A roasted lamb or goat shankbone, chicken wing, or chicken neck symbolizing the sacrifice of a lamb; it is not eaten or handled during the Seder.
  • Beitzah - A hard boiled egg, broiled over the fire, also symbolic of the temple sacrifice. An egg is used because it is a food eaten by mourners. Beitzah means "“want" or "desire" - the egg on the Seder plate implies the "desire" of G-d to deliver His people.
  • Chazeret - a bitter vegetable, like romaine or celery. Romaine is the preferred chazeret as it tastes sweet to start out, but becomes bitter the more is eaten. This symbolizes the Israelites' exile in Egypt, which started with sweetness but turned out to be very bitter.

Seder Plate from elbrozzie on Etsy

The complete ritual of the Passover Seder is quite complex, outlining the history of the Israelites and their passage into freedom in 15 distinct parts, guided by the reading of the Haggadah, an ancient work which contains the narrative of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, special blessings and rituals, commentaries from the Talmud, and special Passover songs. We're in possession of a beautifully bound and illustrated edition of a Haggadah, and while it would probably be a bit inappropriate to copy any text from the book, I do want to share the richness of this piece and an example of one of the amazing illustrations it contains.

While seder traditions may vary slightly between religious sects and even from household to household, the very basic story it honors does not. I hope you have a better appreciation for this spring religious celebration and the rich history and traditions behind it! (Oh, and just in case you're wondering about the "G-d" thing, I'm honoring the Jewish custom of not writing the full word, as they believe that in doing so, people are prevented from being able to dishonor or deface the name of G-d, since it is implied, but incomplete.)


Lee said...

Oskee Wow Wow! I am dee-lighted to have been included in your recent blog posting. Jocular tone aside, your summary of the Passover ritual is excellent--clear and concise!

Thanks so much!


Hammerpots said...

A lovely summary of Passover traditions! Thank you for including me. I am proud to be a part of your blog.


Joy (The Art Of Joy) said...

Wow! Thanks for the info... I didn't really know much about the whole holiday.

Great finds too!

Jean May Originals said...

Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing.

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