What Are the Symbols of the Seder Plate?

The Meaning of Items on the Seder Plate

Seder Plate
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Passover is a holiday full of ritual symbols that guide Jews in retelling the Exodus story, and the seder plate that holds these items is the centerpiece of the seder meal. The seder is a service held at home that features storytelling, songs, and a festive meal. 

The Symbols of the Seder Plate

There are six traditional items placed on the seder plate, with a few modern traditions in the mix as well.

 

Vegetable (Karpas, כַּרְפַּס): Karpas comes from the Greek word karpos (καρπός), meaning "fresh, raw vegetable."

Throughout the year, after kiddush (the blessing over wine) is recited, the first thing that's eaten is bread. On Passover, however, at the beginning of the seder meal (after kiddush) a blessing over vegetables is recited and then a vegetable – usually parsley, celery, or a boiled potato – is dipped in salt water and eaten. This prompts the table to ask Mah Nishtanah? or, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Likewise, the salt water represents the tears the Israelites shed during their years of enslavement in Egypt. 

Shank Bone (Zeroa, זרוֹע): The roasted shank bone of a lamb reminds Jews of the 10th plague in Egypt, when all firstborn Egyptians were killed. During this plague, the Israelites marked the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a lamb so that when Death passed over Egypt, it would pass over the Israelite homes, as it is written in Exodus 12:12:

"On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn - both men and animals - and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. .. The blood will be a sign ... on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt."

The shank bone is sometimes called the Paschal lamb, with “paschal” meaning "He [God] skipped over" the houses of Israel.

The shank bone also reminds Jews of the sacrificial lamb that was killed and eaten during the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. In modern times, some Jews use a poultry neck, while vegetarians will often replace the shank bone with a roasted beet (Pesachim 114b), which has the color of blood and is shaped like a bone. In some communities, vegetarians will substitute a yam. 

Roasted, Hard-Boiled Egg (Beitzah, ביצה): There are several interpretations of the symbolism of the roasted and hard-boiled egg. During the time of the Temple, a ​korban chagigah, or festival sacrifice, was given at the Temple and the roasted egg represents that meat offering. Also, hard boiled eggs were traditionally the first food served to mourners after a funeral, and thus the egg serves as a symbol of mourning for the loss of the two Temples (the first in 586 BCE and the second in 70 CE). 

During the meal, the egg is merely symbolic, but usually, once the meal begins, people dip a hard-boiled egg in salt water as the first food of the actual meal. 

Charoset (חֲרֽוֹסֶת): Charoset is a mixture that is often made of apples, nuts, wine, and spices in the Eastern European Ashkenazic tradition.

In the Sephardic tradition, ​charoset is a paste made of figs, dates, and raisins. The word ​charoset comes from the Hebrew word cheres (חרס), meaning clay, and it represents the mortar that the Israelites were forced to use while they built structures for their Egyptian taskmasters. 

Bitter Herbs (Maror, מָרוֹר): Because the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, Jews eat bitter herbs to remind them of the harshness of servitude.

"And they embittered (v'yimareru וימררו) their lives with hard labor, with mortar and with bricks and with all manner of labor in the field; any labor that they made them do was with hard labor" (Exodus 1:14).

Horseradish – either the root or a prepared paste (usually made with beets) – is most often used, although the bitter part of romaine lettuce is also very popular.

Sephardic Jews tend to use green onions or curly parsley.

A small amount of maror is usually eaten with an equal portion of charoset. It can also be made into a "Hillel Sandwich," where maror and charoset are sandwiched between two pieces of matzah.

Bitter Vegetable (Chazeret, חזרת): This piece of the seder plate also symbolizes the bitterness of slavery and fulfills the requirement called korech, which is when the ​maror is eaten together with matzah. Romaine lettuce is usually used, which doesn’t seem very bitter but the plant has bitter tasting roots. When chazeret is not represented on the seder plate some Jews will put a small bowl of salt water in its place.

Orange: An optional addition, the orange is a recent seder plate symbol and not one that is used in many Jewish homes. It was introduced by Susannah Heschel, a Jewish feminist and scholar, as a symbol that represents inclusiveness in Judaism, specifically women and the GLBT community. Originally, she'd suggested putting a crust of bread on the seder plate, which didn't catch on, and later suggested the orange, which has caught on in some communities. 

Updated by Chaviva Gordon-Bennett in February 2016.