As we read the Passover story in Exodus, in chapter 12 God gives His people detailed instructions on what they are to do for Passover, both that night and on that night each year from then on.
(If you’ve not read or listened to the story yet, you might want to do this before moving on to the seder plate. Or you might not 😉
The original instructions
God’s people were told to take a perfect 1-year-old lamb (either sheep or goat), keep it in their home for 2 weeks then on a specific day they are to kill it at twilight, smear its blood on their door frame then roast and eat the flesh, along with bitter herbs and un-risen or flatbread. The sacrifice and the blood on the door is to make them as people for whom the lamb has been killed, and so the destroyer or angel of death will pass over their homes. In all the other homes in Egypt, the eldest son died that night, humans and livestock. Then Pharaoh told them, in no uncertain terms, to leave.
Since that time, Passover has been celebrated by God’s people. Often when they had drifted away and came back, celebrating the Passover was part of their re-boot of their relationship with God (see for example Josiah when he finds the book of the law). As the years passed, many additional traditions have been added to the ceremony into what is now called the ‘Seder’, or order. For observant Jews, a Passover meal marks the beginning of a weekly celebration and no eating of leaven (and a whole lot of other things!). It’s usually an extended family affair, with an elaborate meal and lots of ceremonies and traditions, a unique combination for each family.
One of the central things in the Seder is the Passover plate, usually with 5 or 6 things on it which represent different elements of the Exodus story. I say usually, because the more I look at this, the more I realise there is no single way of doing Passover, no single set of things to put on the plate, no single thing which each element represents, but rather what each family has developed probably over generations. I rather like this organic, individual and yet corporate-ness of the ceremony, and would recommend that as you look at what rituals you might do as a family, you remember that it needs to be yours.
So what’s on the plate and why?
- A Lamb bone – this unsurprisingly represents the lamb that was killed. The Hebrew word is z’roa, and the bone is the forearm of the lamb, which some people say is to remind us that, “the Lord said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh. Because of my powerful hand, he will let the people of Israel go. Because of my mighty hand, he will drive them out of his country.” Exodus 6:1
- An egg – (usually hard-boiled) represents many things, new life, re-birth, and even the temple which was destroyed. The Hebrew word is beitzah, which some people say is similar to the Aramaic word for ‘desire’ because God desired to bring His people out from slavery to worship Him
- Parsley – This is a Springtime herb that represents new life, and is dipped into the salt water, which represents the tears of the slaves. This dipping is also a symbol of how life is often a confusing mix of things that are bitter and sweet. (My 5-year-old has requested sweet and sour popcorn as a children’s version of this part of the plate!) The Hebrew is karpas which means vegetable, and lots of other vegetables can be used. We’ve found using this one for this part of the seder means each time we smell it at other times of the year, it reminds us of this. (We make the salt water by mixing a tablespoon of salt into a small cup of water.)
- Horseradish – I try to get a root, but we’ve also used horseradish sauce. In Hebrew, this is maror which again is a bitter herb (remember Naomi saying “call me Mara because the Lord has made my life bitter” in Ruth 1:20) and we eat it with the charoseth (see #5) as the second mix of sweetness and bitterness, as the Passover was sweet for the Israelites but bitter for the Egyptians.
- Charoseth – this seems to be spelt in many different ways as it’s English spelling of a Hebrew word. It is a sweet paste to represent the mortar that the slaves used to build Pharaoh’s palaces. As part of the seder, we dip a stick of horseradish (maror) into it, as a second mix of bitter and sweet. (Personally, I like this mix of the burn and the sweetness.) There are lots of ways of making it, broadly splitting into chunky and smooth. The simplest chunky version is to chop up 1 apple and 1 pear, 1 cup of walnuts, and 1/2 cup of wine. However, we’ve usually made it without wine or nuts, and just add honey and a bit of water. You can also blend it and add dried fruit (1 cup dates, 3/4 cup walnuts, 1 apple, 1 banana, 2 tbs wine, 1/2 cup raisins, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp black pepper. (I’ve got some other recipes here.) (See below for an Activity Idea)
- Bitter herbs – this is the second bitter herb, for which we have used celery and this year romaine lettuce. I like the lettuce, as when it first grows it’s not bitter, but becomes so as it stays in the ground. This is said to be like the Israelites in Egypt, who at first went there from Canaan with Joseph to escape famine, but the new Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph was afraid they would turn against them in war, and so enslaved them, making their lives bitter.
I made our elements for the seder plate in about 20 minutes, so although it sounds complex, once you have all the elements it doesn’t take long. I like to get this part of the meal sorted in advance so I can focus on the food we’re having for the meal on the actual day.
One thing I’ve noticed on Jewish blogs is that many people add extra elements to symbolise specific groups of current oppressed people, such as refugees. You might like to think about which group of people you would like to remember and/or pray for their freedom from oppression, and what food item you might use to represent them.
1 Make your own Charoseth
You could use a recipe (here’s a selection from Torey Avi) or you could have some fun inventing your own version. We’ve done this with a group of about ten of us, with a table covered in different ingredients: different dried fruit, nuts, seeds, some fresh fruit such as chopped apple and spices like cinnamon and cardamom. You could add sweet wine and a blender and let people experiment. You could even end with a blind tasting to see which one people like. We found eating it with matzah was a good way to balance the strong flavours!
2 Make a way of remembering what’s on the seder plate
You could do this by downloading a copy of the seder plate and use it to create your own plate – this could be of real food, or a play dough version or lego or just colour the sheet. Here’s some sheets you could use:
This one has a basic picture, the text in Hebrew script and English
This one has a cool cut and stick element, cut out the food and place it in the right place on the plate.
This one is a little more detailed, with text in English and Hebrew
Alternatively, draw your own search online for seder plate worksheets.
3 De-code the Hebrew on a seder plate. Use a Hebrew alphabet chart (there’s a few here) and see if you can work out which piece goes where (more on Hebrew later).
4 Bespoke your plate
Choose an additional food item to represent your choice of people still struggling for their own freedom. Many Jews add other foods to their seder plate to represent other people who need to be free from things which enslave them, for example, a cocoa bean or chocolate to represent people in forced labour across the world. You might have a group you know, perhaps because of friends or missionaries you know, who are still in the middle of their freedom struggle. Chat together and choose a food item which you will add to your seder plate to remember them and their struggle as you celebrate Passover.
5 Make or buy your own seder plate. We have one which my Dad found in a junk shop in the East End of London, but I’m always on the look out for others, and I have a pinterest board of ones I like here