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Secrets of the Pesach Seder Plate

This Friday evening marks the start of Passover. At the Passover seder, it is customary to have a plate upon which all the symbolic Passover foods are placed. According to one arrangement, on the top right we place the zeroa bone; parallel to it on the left is an egg; then the maror (bitter herb) in the centre; the sweet charoset on the bottom right, opposite the karpas vegetable; and in the bottom centre the chazeret, horseradish or another serving of maror (which is used in the korech “sandwich”). In addition, we have three matzahs and the cup of wine, to be filled four times. What is the significance of these Pesach elements?

The zeroa represents the fact that God took us out of Egypt “with an outstretched arm” (b’zeroa netuya), as the Torah states. It also represents the korban pesach, the Pesach offering that would be brought and consumed in the days of the Temple. For this reason, it is best to have a zeroa from a lamb shank, since the Pesach offering was a lamb. The lamb itself was in commemoration of the fact that the Israelites smeared the blood of the lamb on their doorposts on the eve of their Exodus, to protect their homes from the tenth and final plague. It was a lamb in particular because the astrological sign for the month of Nisan is Aries, a ram or sheep. This is tied to Egyptian idolatry, where a number of Egyptian gods were depicted as ram-headed, or with the horns of a ram, including Khnum and Osiris. The slaughter of a lamb was thus symbolic of destroying the idols of Egypt, like the Ten Plagues themselves (see ‘The Ten Plagues: Destroying the Idols of Egypt’ in Garments of Light).

The egg symbolizes another offering brought on Passover: the chagigah, or holiday offering. This was the standard offering brought on all festivals in the days of the Temple. The reason that it is specifically an egg is because a whole egg is one of the foods traditionally consumed by mourners. (The round egg represents the cycle of life.) In this case, the egg is a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Intriguingly, Rav Sherira Gaon (d. 1006) wrote how it is customary to eat meat, fish, and egg at the Pesach seder to represent the foods that will be eaten in the End of Days at the Feast of Mashiach. According to the Midrash, in that time the righteous will eat the fishy flesh of Leviathan, that great sea-dragon that Mashiach will slay; as well as the meat of the beast called Behemoth; and the egg of the mythical bird Ziz. So, eating an egg at the Pesach meal is symbolic of that future messianic feast.

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

The maror famously represents the bitter oppression of the Jews, just as the Torah states that the Egyptians “embittered” (v’imareru) the lives of the Jews with mortar and brick, and hard labour (Exodus 1:14). The need to eat maror actually comes explicitly from the Torah, which commands that Jews should eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). The Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) lists five possible maror herbs, though their identity is not entirely clear. The only one that appears to be undisputed is lettuce, and hence it is lettuce that is used for maror in Sephardic communities. Another possibility is that maror is horseradish—not the mustard-like sauce but an actual horseradish root (since maror must be a raw vegetable, as the Shulkhan Aruch states in Orach Chaim 473:5). There are other traditions for maror’s identity as well.

Interestingly, the Midrash states that the consumption of maror on Pesach is one of the few things King Solomon did not understand! In Proverbs 30:18, Solomon wrote that “Three things are wondrous to me and four I do not know.” Although the passage continues to state what it is that Solomon wondered about, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) has an alternate explanation: The three things wondrous to Solomon were the Pesach offering, matzah, and maror; and the four he didn’t know were the mysteries behind the four species of Sukkot!

The Mystery of Karpas and Charoset

The maror is dipped into the sweet charoset. This paste is meant to resemble the clay mortar that the Israelites used, or the mud that was baked into clay bricks. The word charoset comes from cheres, “clay”. There are vastly different traditions as to the ingredients of charoset. One tradition is to use the fruits mentioned in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, among them: apples (2:3), figs (2:13), nuts (6:11), dates (7:7), wine (1:2), and cinnamon (4:14). The romantic lyrics of the Song are interpreted as an allegorical “love story” between God and Israel, and the fruits are used throughout the text in metaphorical fashion to describe that passionate love. It is particularly appropriate to use the Song of Songs recipe since it is customary to read the Song of Songs on the holiday of Pesach. (There are five megillot, “scrolls”, in the Tanakh, and each is read on a particular holiday: Shir HaShirim on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, Eichah on Tisha b’Av, Kohelet on Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.)

Some have pointed out that charoset may have a Greek origin, as it was common to eat fruit and nut mixtures in the Greek symposia, which the Pesach seder might be loosely modelled on. Similarly, karpas has a Greek etymology (as does afikoman) and means “vegetable”. This vegetable can be celery, parsley, water cress, green onion, or even boiled potato. It is commonly said that the karpas symbolizes, once again, the difficult labour of the Jews. In the word karpas (כרפס) appear the letters פ-ר-כ, as in the Torah’s statement that the Egyptians worked the Israelites בפרך, b’farekh (Exodus 1:13), exceedingly hard. It is customary to dip the karpas in salt water, which represents the tears of the Israelites.

Having said that, there may be a better explanation for the karpas, and its secret lies in an alternate custom to dip it not in salt water, but in wine vinegar. The Hebrew word karpas (כרפס) actually appears in one place in the Tanakh. This is in Esther 1:6, amidst a description of the feast of King Ahashverosh, where his palace was draped with chur karpas u’tekhelet (חור כרפס ותכלת), “white linen and blue thread”. So, while the Greek karpos means “vegetable”, the Hebrew karpas means “linen” or “fabric”. Dipping the karpas in wine vinegar is therefore like dipping clothing in blood, symbolizing the tunic of Joseph which his brothers dipped in blood and presented to their father Jacob. It was that act which sparked the sequence of events leading to the Israelites descent to Egypt, and their ultimate enslavement.

The sixth spot on the seder plate is sometimes missing altogether, and other times holds horseradish (sometimes the creamy kind), salt water (for dipping karpas), or another serving of maror which is used in the korech, the “sandwich” made up of matzah, charoset, and maror. As the Haggadah states, this was the custom of the great Hillel, who used to make such a sandwich to literally fulfil the word of the Torah to eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs.

In addition to the plate, we have three matzahs. These symbolize the three patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as well as the three divisions of the Jewish nation—Kohen, Levi, and Israel. (We have explored in the past why it is the middle matzah, corresponding to Isaac, that is broken in half.) They can also be said to symbolize the three siblings who led the Exodus: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

The Four Cups

The four cups of wine symbolize the four expressions of salvation that the Torah uses (Exodus 6:6-8) in describing the Exodus:

I am Hashem, and I will [1] bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and [2] I will deliver you from their bondage, and [3] I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and [4] I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am Hashem your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am Hashem.

We see a fifth expression here, too—“and I will bring you to the land…” This is why we do pour a fifth cup, but we do not drink it. It is left for the prophet-turned-angel Eliyahu. In the Talmud, it is common for the rabbis to leave an unsettled debate “for Eliyahu”, who will come in the Messianic days and finally resolve all the Talmudic disputes. Since there is a debate whether to drink four or five cups of wine on Pesach (based on a variant text in Pesachim 118a), we drink four and leave a fifth “for Eliyahu”. The deeper meaning behind the debate here is whether our salvation is complete or not. Although we were taken out of Egypt, Jews have continued to experience oppression for centuries ever since. We will not be totally redeemed until the coming of Mashiach. Our presence in the Holy Land will not be secured until then either. This is why the fifth cup is for Eliyahu, who is the harbinger of Mashiach.

It has also been pointed out that in Genesis 40:11-13, Pharaoh’s cupbearer mentions a cup four times in his dream. Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream in the positive, and prophesied that he shall return to his position, while the Pharaoh’s baker would be put to death. Joseph asked the cupbearer that he remember Joseph and help to get him out of his imprisonment. Although the cupbearer forget all about Joseph, he later remembered the young dream interpreter when the Pharaoh’s own dream was inexplicable. This led to Joseph’s release from prison, his ascent to Egyptian royalty, and the eventual settlement of his family in Egypt, leading to their enslavement. So, the dream of the “four cups” sets in motion the events that lead to Israel’s descent to Egypt.

Likewise, when Joseph tests his siblings and places his special goblet in the bag of Benjamin (Genesis 44), the word “goblet” is mentioned four times. Better yet, the numerical value of “goblet” (גביע) is equal to the value of “cup” (כוס) when including the kollel. And the value of “cup” (כוס) itself is 86, which is the number of years that Israel was enslaved. (Israel was in Egypt a total of 210 years, of which the first 94 were peaceful. Then came 30 years of persecution, followed by 86 years of hard slavery. For a detailed analysis see ‘How Long Were the Israelites Actually in Egypt?’)

Some say the four cups parallel the four types of kelipah, the impure “husks” in Creation. Kabbalistic texts often speak of Pharaoh as the ultimate force of kelipah. It just so happens that the Torah speaks of four pharaohs altogether: the first Pharaoh was the one Abraham encountered upon his descent to Egypt; the second was the one that took Joseph out of prison and appointed him viceroy; the third was the wicked one who enslaved Israel and later decreed the drowning of the Israelite babies; and the fourth is the pharaoh at the time of the Exodus.

Yet another explanation is that the four cups correspond to the four exiles of Israel: the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman. Just as we were redeemed from the oppression of Egypt, we were redeemed from the future exiles (awaiting the final redemption). Appropriately, the Arizal taught that Egypt was the root of all future exiles (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Re’eh). Similarly, the Talmud and Midrash state (based on Exodus 14:13-14) that the Jews split into four groups when trapped between the Red Sea on one side and the approaching Egyptians on the other. There were those that lost all hope and wanted to surrender, and those that wanted to kill themselves rather than surrender; those that wished to arm themselves and fight the Egyptians, and those that simply prayed to God for salvation. Regardless of their faith or faithlessness, God saved all four groups of Jews, and we drink four cups in commemoration.

Lastly, if the three matzahs parallel the three patriarchs of Israel, then the four cups can be said to parallel the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. After all, the Talmud (Sotah 11b) states that “As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt.”

Sefirot of the Seder Plate

Etz Chaim, the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”

The Arizal arranged his seder plate according to the mystical Tree of Life that depicts the Ten Sefirot. The zeroa is in the top right because this is the position of Chessed, kindness, as it represents God’s compassion in taking us out of Egypt. The egg is in the position of Gevurah, or Din, strict judgement and restraint, since it represents mourning the Temple’s destruction. (Another symbolic explanation for the egg is that it represents the Jewish people: just as an egg gets harder the more it is boiled so, too, does the Jewish nation only grow stronger the more we are “boiled” and oppressed.) The all-important maror is in the central sefirah of Tiferet, balance and truth.

The sefirot of Netzach and Hod (paralleling the legs) are charoset and karpas, symbolizing our difficult labour. The salt water, chazeret, or additional maror below is for Yesod. Finally, the plate itself is Malkhut, since Malkhut is the receptacle for all the sefirot above, just as the plate holds all the foods. Alternatively, Malkhut may correspond to the cup of wine.

Finally, at the top are the three matzot, corresponding to the upper three mochin of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at (or Keter). This reveals a deeper secret as to why we break the middle matzah into two halves. The middle matzah is the middle sefirah of Binah, which actually has two aspects: Binah and Tevunah. While “Binah” is simply understanding a matter, “Tevunah” is internalizing that information more deeply. Tevunah is engraving that understanding into one’s mind, and it leads to being able to apply that knowledge in real world situations. Thus, we end the seder with the consumption of the afikoman—the Tevunah half—as we wish to not only understand what was discussed at the seder, but to internalize it on the deepest of levels.

Chag Sameach!

The Spiritual Power of Bread and Challah

This week’s Torah reading is Shlach, most famous for recounting the incident of the spies. One distinguished member of each of Israel’s twelve tribes was appointed to scout the land of Israel in preparation for the Jewish people’s conquest and habitation of the Holy Land. After forty days, the twelve returned, with ten of them giving over a less-than-positive report that frightened the nation. Despite God’s promise that Israel belonged to the Jewish people and they would be able to settle it effortlessly, the people’s faithlessness caused them to fear and err, resulting in their own banishment from the Holy Land. They were condemned to forty years in the wilderness, over which time all of the adult males that came out of Egypt (and participated in the sin of the spies) would pass away.

"Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise" by Gustave Dore

“Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise” by Gustave Doré

Following this account, a number of Torah laws are introduced. One of these is that of challah, the portion of every large quantity of prepared dough that was separated and donated to the priests (Numbers 15:20). Rashi tells us that this was a portion equivalent to an omer. An omer was a tenth of an ephah (Exodus 16:36), which is defined by Chazal as equal to the weight and volume of 432 eggs. So, whenever a Jew prepares around 43 eggs’ worth of dough (or more), they must separate a small portion as a donation. The exact mass and volume of an egg are in dispute. Today, it is customary to separate challah when preparing about 8 cups of flour or more. Because of the uncertainty of the measurements, however, a blessing is only recited when preparing at least 12 cups, and some say at least 16 cups. Rashi tells us that a person at home should separate 1/24th, while a baker separates 1/48th of the total amount.

Challah and Shabbat

Although challah strictly refers to the separated portion that was donated to the priests, today it is associated with the special loaves of bread baked for Shabbat and holidays. Some connect challah to the Sabbath by the fact that it typically has seven ingredients: flour, water, yeast, eggs, sugar, salt, and sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Others point out that the mispar katan mispari, the “reduced” numerical value, of the word challah (חלה) in Hebrew is seven: ח is 8, ל is 30, and ה is 5. Together, that makes 43, where the digits themselves add up to 7 (ie. 4 + 3).

Challah

This happens to be a peculiar pattern with a number of other Shabbat-related things. The meal starts with Kiddush wine, yayin (יין), where each י is 10 and ן is 50, making a total of 70, which once again sums to 7. After the challah, the first course is fish, dag (דג), where ד is 4 and ג is 3, making 7. The main course is meat, bassar (בשר), where ב is 2, ש is 300, and ר is 200, totalling 502, with the digits again adding up to 7.

One important question to ask is: why must the entire Sabbath meal start with challah? Moreover, why does any meal typically start with bread? In Jewish law, the blessing on the bread covers all the other foods on the table. This isn’t so when one eats other things, in which case the person would have to say a separate blessing for each type of food. Yet bread somehow includes all the foods within it. What is so special about bread?

The Quintessential Human Food

Before the modern industrial age, food was quite simple. People typically ate fruits and nuts, legumes and vegetables, meat, milk, and bread. One will notice that all of these are also consumed by animals – except for bread. Producing bread is a long and complicated process, starting with hard, inedible stalks of wheat. These have to be harvested, threshed, winnowed, milled, carefully combined with other ingredients, and baked. Such a complex procedure requires a higher intellect; no other organism is capable of such a feat.

For this reason, bread is a potent symbol of humanity as a whole. It is symbolic of man’s higher spiritual condition, and greater intelligence. Bread represents our divine mission in this world: taking the raw material that God has prepared for us, and perfecting it into an elevated state. It reminds us that we are not just animals eating to satisfy a physical need. Bread is human food, and carries a far more powerful spiritual potential, including within it all other “lesser” forms of food. And so, we begin each meal with bread, and every Sabbath meal with challah.