The seder plate
A typical seder plate. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
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Whether or not Shakespeare was right about all the world being a stage, the seder table on Passover – laden as it is not just with chicken soup but also with many symbolic representations of a larger theme – sure functions like one. The players, as Will would have it, are everyone sitting around the table. And the main prop? That would be the seder plate.

What exactly is a seder plate?

Technically it could be any plate on which you place the key symbolic foods of the seder, but many people use a plate made specifically for the seder, which you can get in just about any store selling Judaica. You only need one per seder, though some people make more for a large seder.

Does it matter where the foods are placed on the plate?

There are different opinions about where each item should be placed, and even how many items should be on the plate. But since seder plates generally label which food goes where, most people just put each item in the designated spot on the plate.

What goes on a seder plate?

There are at least five foods that go on the seder plate: shank bone (zeroa), egg (beitzah), bitter herbs (maror), vegetable (karpas) and a sweet paste called haroset. Many seder plates also have room for a sixth, hazeret (another form of the bitter herbs). All of them are meant to remind us of the primary theme of Passover: the Jewish people’s transition from slavery to freedom. There is generally only a small, symbolic amount of food on the seder plate, with additional dishes of karpas, maror and haroset set out for people to eat from during the seder.

What does each food on the seder plate symbolize?

Shank bone (zeroa): This is a roasted bone with some meat on it. Although zeroa is often described as the shank bone of a lamb, other bones work too – such as a roasted chicken wing, chicken leg or part of the neck. The emphasis is less on the exact body part and more on the commemoration of the Paschal sacrifice, which was the most important part of celebrating Passover in the time of the Temple.

The zeroa is also seen as an allusion to the “outstretched arm” (zeroa netuyah) with which the Bible says God took the Jews out of Egypt. Unlike most of the symbols of seder night, this one is for looking at, not eating.

Egg (beitzah): The egg commemorates the Hagigah sacrifice that was eaten with the Paschal sacrifice on seder night during Temple times, though it was animals, not eggs, that were brought to the Temple. One reason commonly suggested for using an egg to represent the sacrifice is that eggs – whose circularity is seen as representing the cycle of life – are a typical mourner’s food, and thus remind us that we are mourning the destruction of the Temple, as a result of which we cannot bring the Passover sacrifices.

The egg is traditionally boiled and then roasted, for that charred, sacrifice-y look. (Note that the seder plate egg is different from the hard-boiled eggs that many have a custom to eat once it’s time for the meal to begin.)

Vegetable (karpas): Just about any vegetable may be used for karpas, as long as it’s not one that can be used for bitter herbs. It should be served either cooked or raw, whichever is the normal method of eating it. Vegetables that are commonly used for karpas include parsley, celery and potatoes. During the seder, the karpas is dipped into salt water, reminiscent of the tears of the Israelite slaves, before eating.

Bitter herbs (maror and hazeret): Mar means “bitter,” and the maror is meant to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. The two main foods customarily used for maror are lettuce –especially Romaine lettuce (which eventually turns bitter and is commonly used as maror in Israel) – and grated horseradish, which is commonly used in many Jewish communities outside of Israel. Some seder plates have a spot for each of those items, and you can put horseradish in one of them and lettuce in the other.

Horseradish appears to have become a popular choice for maror because it was easier to obtain than lettuce in Germany and Eastern Europe, but hazeret, a plant that scholars identify as lettuce (yet, confusingly, is the modern Hebrew term for horseradish), is the first of five plants listed in the Mishna as a food that can be used for maror.

Haroset: The word is thought to come from heres, meaning “clay,” and the sweet reddish or brownish paste (the color depends, of course, on what you put in it) is meant to symbolize the clay the Israelite slaves used to make the bricks and mortar for their Egyptian overlords. The sweetness also offsets the taste of the bitter herbs, much as our freedom offsets the taste of remembered slavery. There are many different recipes for haroset, but the classic Ashkenazi version involves apples, walnuts and red wine, while many Sephardi recipes call for dates or other dried fruit.