History Stories

The coming of Passover, a celebration that commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt—a story depicted in the biblical Book of Exodus—brings with it the annual ritual of loading up the Seder plate. The six items on the plate each hold a special meaning for the Jewish people, so let’s take a look at the stories behind the bitter herb, the egg and other common Passover foods.

Most often, maror is placed in the middle of the arrangement. This is the “bitter herb” that allows modern Jews to taste the bitterness of their ancestors’ slavery. Most modern Seder plates feature grated horseradish as maror. Chazeret is another bitter herb featured on the plate. Today, this might be romaine lettuce. Although we wouldn’t think of romaine as particularly bitter, when the stem is left in the ground too long it becomes hard and unpleasant, much like the Israelite slaves’ confinement under the Pharaoh.

Karpas is a fresh vegetable (most Seder plates today use parsley or celery) that symbolizes the arrival of springtime and new life. It also represents the initial settlement and flourishing of the Israelites during their first years in Egypt. As part of the Passover ritual, the karpas is dipped in salt water or vinegar. This is so celebrants can taste the hope of new birth, along with the bitter tears of the Israelite slaves.

The word charoset comes from the Hebrew “cheres,” which means clay, but that gives short shrift to this delicious Seder plate concoction. The charoset represents the clay and mud bricks made by the Israelites during their years of labor in Egypt. In these modern times charoset is a mixture of apples, red wine, cinnamon and walnuts. However, ingredients can vary according to where the Seder plate is being served. Italian Jews prefer their charoset with chestnuts, while Egyptian Jews add dates.

The zeroa is perhaps the most visually striking item on the Seder plate, a roasted shank bone (lamb, goat or even poultry is commonly used) presented most often near the top of the platter. This roasted bone represents the lamb the ancient Jews sacrificed on the eve of their Egyptian exodus. The meat isn’t what is important here, but the bone itself, leading many families to start a tradition of having a roast in the days leading up to Passover, and then the bare leftover leg on the plate for the Seder. Vegetarians take note: if you don’t want to have a lamb leg on your holiday table, many contemporary Jews make do by substituting a roasted beet, instead. The red of the beet symbolizes the blood of the sacrifice, without any actual blood.

The roasted egg, or beitzah, finishes our tour around the Seder plate. The egg isn’t eaten during the celebration, so most cooks will just hard-boil it and then give it a few minutes in a hot oven or on a stovetop to make it look roasted. The roundness of the egg symbolizes the cycle of life, hope for new birth and the renewal of the Passover holiday.

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