This is the first installment in a new monthly series, “Of Sacred Items And Gorgeous Tchotchkes,” looking closely at the Judaica items that fill our homes.
Growing up, Passover was always my favorite Jewish holiday. Sure, on Hanukkah you got presents and [Rosh Hashanah](https://forward.com/schmooze/320610/rosh-hashana/ “Rosh Hashanah”) meals boasted most of the best food, but there was something about the transformation of it all—the extensive preparations, the deep cleaning, the turnover of the kitchen cabinets from boxes of cereal and pasta to stacks of matzo boxes and kichel and Passover-friendly Bazooka gum that gave that week-long spring holiday a rarified air, a specialness that reminded you that even in a country where Jews were welcomed and participated fully in social and civic life, it was okay—even good sometimes—to hold on to what made us different.
Even within Judaism, a religion whose calendar is filled with festivals, Passover is a special holiday, the only one that commands us to conduct its central ritual service within our own homes, at our very own tables. On the night of the seder, we are the priests, the prophets, the storytellers, recounting and reenacting the narrative of the redemption by Divine decree, welcoming all those who are hungry—both spiritually and physically—into our homes to share in our bounty, declaring that next year, next year we will all be free. And at the physical and symbolic center of this annual ritual: the seder plate.
The seder plate was not originally the ornate object we know it to be today. In fact, although the holiday is referenced in the Torah itself, and the seder service is mentioned in the Mishnah in conversations recorded from between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, the earliest known decorative seder plate (now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem) dates back to only the late 15th-century in pre-expulsion Spain. This ceramic plate, while beautifully designed, does not have the labeled sections for the various ritual items required at or traditionally included in the seder service, a design element that became incorporated roughly a century later when the early Kabbalists, most influentially Rabbi Isaac Luria, gave instructions for various mystical configuration of the objects on the plate, giving rise to the modern seder plate’s design.
There are differing opinions regarding the proper set-up of the plate, of course (two Jews, as the saying goes, three opinions on where to put the maror). Additionally, what’s so beautiful, and so very Jewish, about all these objects, is how complex and overlapping their reasons for appearing on the seder plate are.
Some have required uses at the seder—the matzo, of course, chief among them, though we are also required to say blessings before dipping the karpas (usually parsley or onion) in the salt water and eating the bitter herb, making them integral to the service as well.
The shank bone (in most homes a chicken bone cooked to a beautifully inedible crisp) is a reminder of the required sacrifice during temple times, but is itself only a symbol of that obligation rather than an object we use in any meaningful way in our contemporary seder.
The haroset is both symbolic and an essential part of the opening course of the seder meal, the Hillel sandwich, which is itself a rabbinic custom rather than a biblical obligation.
And then there’s the egg, a symbol, but an esoteric one, not of a specific event or act, but, depending on who your ask, of the idea of spring or rebirth or wholeness (though if you ask a child they might rightly inform you that its primary purpose is to keep their mouths quiet and their tummies from rumbling as the story of the exodus unfolds into its second hour).
And so, while there are requirements regarding the foods and rituals enacted at the seder, the plate itself, along with its elements, was something that developed as Judaism did, from practical object to mystical portal to symbol of the ever-evolving values of the Jewish diaspora. That’s why, in the 1980’s, Professor Susannah Heschel added an orange to hers, “as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men, and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community” (the apocryphal story of it being in response to a man who told her that “a woman belongs at the pulpit like an orange belongs on a seder plate”, is, according to her, a bit of fiction).
More recently, bananas, pineapples, and even fair trade coffee or chocolate have shown up on seder plates across America, each representing a different modern-day experience of suffering or oppression by people around the world. Though traditionalists would be unlikely to make room for these objects on their own seder plates, they are certainly in keeping with the spirit of the object, which is to use this domestic service as an opportunity to recount the story of our own oppression and remember our obligation to uplift those who still live in bondage, whomever and wherever they may be.
My daughters, now teenagers, have always shared my childhood love of Passover, and of the seder, which in our home means inviting our friends, most non-Jewish, to participate in the traditions we hold dear, to ask questions and find their own personal meaning in our ancient story. Like the seder plate itself, our experience is ever-changing, with new experiences and symbols to explore and interpret as we grow in our own understanding of the story’s relationship to our lives.
Rachel Klein is a writer and teacher living with her husband and two children in Boston, MA. Her personal essays and editorials have appeared in Catapult, Hazlitt, The Rumpus, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media and more, and her humor writing has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Reductress. Her current project is a memoir about the seven years she lived as an Orthodox Jew. You can follow her on Twitter @racheleklein.
This story "Of Sacred Items And Gorgeous Tchotchkes: The Seder Plate" was written by Rachel Klein.