Tag Archives: Symposium

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 Shulchan Arukh 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…


The above is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Two. To continue reading, get the book here

Chanukah: Did the Jews Really Defeat the Greeks?

“No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…”

– Winston Churchill

Chanukah is perhaps the most famous of Jewish holidays. The nine-branched candelabrum, the chanukiah, is instantly recognized by people around the world. One reason for this is because of the halakhah of pirsumei nissah, literally “publicising the miracle”. Although just about every Jewish holiday revolves around some kind of miracle, it is particularly with regards to Chanukah that there is a special mitzvah to publicize its wonder. And so, one can find a glowing, public chanukiah on display in pretty much every major city on the planet.

Chanukah Around the World

The purpose of the chanukiah is well-known: after defeating the Greeks and recapturing Jerusalem, and its Holy Temple, the Jewish warriors led by the Maccabees discovered only one cruse of oil for the Temple menorah (this one with seven branches, as the Torah commands). Although the oil was meant to last only for one day, it miraculously burned for eight, the amount of time necessary to produce a fresh batch of olive oil.

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem's Temple Institute

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem’s Temple Institute

This is the story as recounted in the Talmud. However, the more ancient Book of Maccabees (which is part of the apocrypha, scriptural texts that did not make it into the official Biblical canon) provides a different reason for the eight-day festival. Here, we are told that since the Temple was still in the hands of the Greeks two months earlier, the Jewish nation was unable to celebrate the Torah festival of Sukkot. Of all the Torah-mandated holidays, Sukkot is most associated with the Temple, and was celebrated with many offerings on the altar, along with water libations, and eight days of revelry. Since the people were unable to commemorate Sukkot properly in the month of Tishrei, they decided to commemorate it in the month of Kislev instead, now that the Temple was back in Jewish hands. So, they kept an eight-day festival, with offerings, libations, and revelry, both in honour of the belated Sukkot, and to celebrate their victory over the Greeks.

A David and Goliath Story

Chanukah is a beautiful underdog narrative. The mighty Syrian-Greeks (better known as the Seleucids, to differentiate them from the mainland Greeks in Europe) are imposing their Hellenism upon the conquered and impoverished Jewish people, still struggling to rebuild after the decimation of the First Temple period. The Greek king, Antiochus, demands the sacrifice of a pig upon a Jewish altar, and the Jews refuse. Well, at least some of them do.

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit-Jniemenmaa)

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit: Jniemenmaa)

At the time, there were many Hellenized, assimilated Jews among the masses that were very much okay with a pig on the altar. (It seems that history repeats itself: the first graduation ceremony in 1883 of Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, consisted of frog legs, crabs, and shrimp, among other non-kosher foods, earning it the nickname, “the treif banquet”.) Matityahu the High Priest wouldn’t have any of it, and together with his five sons—soon to be known as the “Maccabees”—started a revolution.

More than anything else, this was a civil war between traditional Jews and the Hellenized ones. Of course, the Hellenized Jews had support from the Greek government, which soon brought in some 60,000 troops, together with war elephants, according to the Book of I Maccabees (4:28-29). The Maccabee forces managed to scramble 10,000 mostly-untrained, guerrilla warriors. Ultimately, the 10,000 overpower the professional Greek army. The Seleucid Empire would never be the same again, and less than a century later, would totally come to an end.

Spiritual vs. Physical

Today, the Chanukah story often carries the same message: the Greeks were materialistic, promiscuous, Godless people, while the Jews were moral, spiritual, and God-fearing. Chanukah, then, celebrates the triumph of righteousness over licentiousness, religion over secularism, spirituality over physicality.

While the above description of the Seleucid-Syrian-Greeks may be true, it presents a false image of the Greeks as a whole, and one that isn’t at all consistent with traditional Jewish holy texts, especially the Talmud. In truth, the great Jewish sages of the Talmud valued and respected the Greeks. They stated (Megillah 8b) that it is forbidden to translate the Torah into any language, except Greek, which the rabbis considered a rich and beautiful tongue. The rabbis also adopted the Greek style of democratic government, with elected officials sitting on the Sanhedrin, from the Greek root synedrion, meaning “sitting together”.

One of the earliest known synedrions was established by Alexander the Great, made up of representatives from across his vast empire to assist him in government. The Talmudic sages spoke highly of Alexander the Great. According to legend, Alexander saw a vision of the Jewish High Priest before coming to conquer Jerusalem. There are several versions of this story, but all agree that Alexander was grateful to the High Priest, and spared Israel from his destructive conquests (as well as from paying tribute, according to some sources). In turn, the rabbis adopted “Alexander” as an honorary Jewish name. Indeed, one of the sages of the Talmud is Rabbi Alexandri, and many other rabbis have Greek names, such as Hyrcanus, Teradion, Antigonus, Dosa, Papa, Symmachus, and Tarfon.

These rabbis gathered in various learning academies across Israel and Persia (producing the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, respectively). Their academies were very similar to the Greek academy. In fact, the successors of a Greek academy spoke very much like the rabbis of the Talmud, quoting teachings from previous generations and debating them, while citing an uninterrupted chain of tradition all the way back to Plato, much the same way that rabbis cite an uninterrupted tradition back to Moses. Many of their modes of reasoning and dialectics were the same, too, even lesser-used forms such as gematria, another Greek word adopted by Judaism. The Greeks had also used their alphabet for numerology (an art that they called isopsephy).

Greek traditions appear to have even found their way into Jewish holidays. In ancient Greece, families would get together for symposia, parties in which they would recount the history of Greece and its great victories. According to the Greek philosophers, it was best to drink three cups of wine at a symposium, while drinking five cups was considered excessive and inappropriate. Thus, most people drank four cups. They would lie on couches, specifically on their left side. Recounting history while drinking four cups of wine and lying on one’s left—sound familiar? Let’s not forget that afikoman is itself a Greek word (epikomon, literally “that which comes after” or “that which comes last”, referring to either dessert or the concluding festive songs).

While the ancient Greeks certainly held onto a number of abhorrent beliefs and practices, to suggest that all the Greeks were atheistic, unjust, or not spiritual is certainly untrue. Socrates was killed for criticizing Athenian injustice, Plato preached how illusory this physical world is, and Aristotle described metaphysics and theology as the “first philosophy” and most important of subjects. One of the earliest known preachers of reincarnation was Pythagoras, who also wrote of three souls, much like the Jewish conception of nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Nor is it a secret that some of the angels mentioned in the Talmud bear Greek titles, among them Sandalfon and Metatron.

So, did the Jews really defeat the Greeks? We certainly defeated the immoral and oppressive Seleucid Greeks in battle, but definitely not the Greek spirit as a whole. In fact, some might argue that Judaism is the best preservation of ancient Greek culture in the modern world! Whereas the rest of society has moved on to other methods of education, we still have a yeshiva system like the ancient Academy. While others celebrate their holidays with gifts and formal dinners, we gather in symposia, reliving the words of our sages, who openly bore their Greek names. And of course, while most of society is primarily concerned with what’s happening on television, we’re still trying to be philosophers, debating the finest points of reality.

The Greeks had a profound impact on all of civilization, and Judaism was not immune from it. Perhaps this is why, over time, the holiday became less about defeating Greeks and more about the miracle of light. Chanukah is a holiday celebrating Jewish resilience, and symbolizing the power of light over darkness, and hope over despair. It is a lesson in resisting assimilation and being true to ourselves; in standing up for what’s right and upholding our customs; and most importantly, in the longest, blackest nights of winter, Chanukah teaches us that although the world may be full of evil, one tiny flame can break through all the darkness.


The article above is adapted from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!