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Pesah 101

  • Posted: April 17, 2024
  • Pesah

Let My People Go

The spring holiday of Pesah, in English “Passover,” is a celebration of the Jewish origin story. During Pesah, we commemorate the miraculous account described in the Torah of the Israelites being redeemed from slavery in Egypt. A centerpiece of Pesah observance is to attend or host a ritualized meal called a seder. Jewish people also abstain from eating and even owning leavened products during the eight days of Pesah instead eating matzah, unleavened bread. While the Passover story is set in the past, the immersive experience of observing Pesah rituals intentionally blurs the lines between history and the present. We believe that each of us is commanded to see ourselves as having been personally redeemed from slavery in Egypt. The eternal struggle for liberation reverberates as vibrantly in our modern world as it did for our ancestors. Pesah encourages a sense of radical empathy guiding us to guard ourselves from becoming callous and hard-hearted, like the cruel Pharaoh who brutally oppressed us. Instead, this holiday calls us to continually renew our commitment to bravely fight for liberation undeterred by the obstacles that we face as we build a better world. 

Seder Table Symbolism 

A seder is more than a meal. It is an immersive experience. Through storytelling and intentional symbolism, we create an opportunity for us to transport ourselves to different eras of Jewish history and to connect ourselves to the eternal struggle for true liberation and the relentless hope for a better world. We accomplish these spiritual goals, in part, through exploring the unique items we place on our seder tables.

Seder Plate: There are six items that we put on a seder plate and each one draws our attention to a particular aspect of the Passover story. In addition to the traditional elements, there have been several modern additions to the seder plate. Among the most popular is to add an orange on the seder plate as a symbol for LGBTQ+ inclusion. You can also learn about other possible additions.

Haroset is a sweet mixture of apples, nuts, wine, and cinnamon. Haroset reminds us of the mortar the Israelites used during their forced labor for the Egyptians. While this connects us to the hardship of slavery, the sweet taste of haroset also tempers the bitterness of our experience. 

Beitzah is a hard boiled roasted egg. Some people, particularly vegans, choose to replace this with plant seeds or flowers. The egg is a symbol of fertility referencing the spirit of renewal we experience in spring. It also reminds us of birth and how the Passover story describes the creation of the Israelites as a community. 

Zeroa is the roasted shank bone. Some people, especially vegetarians, choose to replace this with a roasted beet. The roasted shank bone reminds us of the lamb sacrifice we would have offered at the Temple when we still worshiped primarily through animal sacrifices.

Maror is an especially bitter herb, often horseradish. The sharp, uncomfortable taste reminds us of the pain of slavery.

Hazeret is another kind of bitter herb, often romaine lettuce, which also represents the difficulty of slavery. Not all seder plates have a dedicated spot for hazeret.

Karpas is a spring vegetable, often parsley, celery, onion, or a boiled potato. Karpas is a symbol of spring, growth, and renewal. 

Haggadah: The haggadah is the booklet that guides you through the seder. There are many different haggadot to choose from with a variety of particular themes. You can even make your own haggadah

Matzah is the unleavened bread we eat throughout the week of Passover. Matzah, with its simple ingredients and minimal nutritional value, is called lehem oni, bread of affliction (Deuteronomy 16:3). This reminds us of the meager food we were forced to eat as enslaved people. In this way, matzah represents our experience of oppression. Interestingly, matzah is also a symbol of our liberation. When the Israelites were finally given the permission to leave Egypt following the tenth plague, they were rushed to make food for the journey. Not wanting to delay, the Israelites baked matzah instead of bread which would have required a lengthier process (Exodus 12:39). This dual symbolism reminds us of the power of a shift in perspective and the possibility of change.

Elijah’s Cup: Throughout the seder, we drink four cups of wine. There is a fifth cup wine that we leave untouched on the table which we designate for the prophet Elijah. As we conclude the seder, we turn our attention from our ancestors’ experience to our current obligation to fight for freedom. Elijah represents our hope for redemption in the future, the stubborn belief that a better world is possible in spite of the obstacles we face.