“Let all who are hungry come and eat! Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover with us.” These words are said around Passover seder tables year after year, the world over, as Jewish families and their dear ones celebrate this yearly springtime festival of freedom.
The Passover seder is essentially a mash-up of a religious service and a meal, with the act of asking questions and retelling the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt at its core. It is one of Judaism’s longest-standing rituals, with its origins in the Torah (the first 5 books of Hebrew scriptures).
Replete with special roles for kids to proudly take, invigorating conversation for the grown-ups, songs for everyone, and a table piled high with food, the Passover seder is the ultimate community and family gathering. It is not only a celebration of freedom from oppression – ancient pharaohs and modern dictators alike – but it is a yearly reminder for the Jewish community that we were once slaves in Egypt, so we know the heart of the downtrodden; through our mythical-historical memory we know what it is like to be oppressed and therefore we must always be the ones to lift up the vulnerable and the needy; we know what it is like to be cast aside as “other” and as “different” so we must open our tents (and our doors and our tables and our communities) to those who may at first seem unlike ourselves.
The Exodus is not only the quintessential triumph of the few over the many, the weak over the powerful. It is also the moral compass of the Jewish community. Retelling the story of the Exodus every single year, we hear it speak to us: You were strangers in a strange land. You became wanderers with shoes on your feet. When you see oppression, cry out. You are God’s mighty hands with outstretched arms and now it is your job to lift others up.
How does the Exodus speak to us? Not just in the words we speak, but in the food we eat. Every food eaten as part of the Seder meal has a special meaning. And as we eat each food, the story of the Exodus again becomes part of ourselves. Food is not just food after all, for the Jewish community or for any of us. Food is memory. Food is sustenance. Food is a delight. Food is love. Rabbi Emily Segal
For me personally, Passover not only transports me spiritually into the story of the Exodus, but it transports me back to my grandparent’s kitchen with my Grandpa working on his “famous” mashed potatoes while whistling happily through his teeth and my Grandma helping me up onto a stool to roll matzah balls with her out of the sticky batter, just so. It transports me to the dining room table in my childhood home covered in our special holiday table cloth – a patchwork of stains from Passover wine spilled in years past (“the ghost of Passover 1984!”) as we tap out the beat singing “Dayeinu!” together, thanking God for the numerous miracles of Exodus, gratefully acknowledging that any single miracle would have been dayeinu, enough for us.
It holds me in the sanctity of this very moment as my 7-year-old and 4-year-old laugh as egg whites and sugar become “fluffy” meringue that forms the basis of their favorite kosher-for-Passover chocolate cake. And it allows me to catch a glimpse of the future I imagine – of my children (God willing) grown into adults, passing to their own little ones the joy of family and friends coming together in gratitude and the sacred obligation of opening our doors and our hearts to those who still long for freedom.
A few Passover secrets:
- First, here’s a not-so-secret secret: you don’t have to make Matzah Ball Soup from scratch – “everyone just uses a box,” Rabbi Segal says. Make your favorite easy soup stock, or buy it by the quart, then follow the directions on the Matzah Ball Soup box. Chop some fresh herbs to float on each bowl as you serve it, and your Matzah Ball Soup will taste like you’ve been making it all your life, and working all day in the kitchen.
- “Matzah Crack” is a sinfully delicious toffee treat, yet it is entirely Kosher and easy to make. (Recipe below)
- Finally and most importantly, there is a symbolic meaning behind each food on the Passover Seder plate. Rabbi Segal explains:
On the Sedar Plate:
Matzah – unleavened, flatbread, made of flour and water and cooked in 18 minutes or less. Unleavened bread was traditionally eaten with sacrifices in the time of the Israelites. It is called the “bread of freedom,” referring to the Israelites’ rush out of Egypt without time even to let their bread rise, instead of baking into hard crackers on their backs. It is called the “bread of humility” as it is not “puffed up” with “hot air” or ego. No leavened food is allowed during the weeklong festival of Passover and matzah is eaten not just during the Seder but every day during the holiday.
Charoset – a sweet chopped mixture, most commonly of apples, cinnamon, nuts, wine or grape juice, and sometimes dried fruit; symbolizing mortar and brick that the Israelites would have used when building structures in Egypt.
Maror and Chazeret – Bitter herbs, most often horseradish (prepared paste or fresh root) and bitter lettuce; symbolizing the bitterness of the lives of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt.
Beitzah – Roasted Egg. The hard-boiled, then roasted egg symbolizes the festival sacrifice offered when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. The round egg also symbolizes the cycle of the seasons and rebirth in springtime. Vegans traditionally substitute an avocado pit in its place.
Zeroah -Shank Bone/Beet. This represents the Paschal lamb (Passover sacrifice) of the Israelites on the night before they left Egypt. Interestingly this symbolic food is not actually eaten or handled during the Seder. Vegetarians traditionally substitute a beet in its place.
Karpas – Parsley, accompanied by saltwater. Parsley symbolizes hope and renewal, green as sprouts grow in springtime. Parsley is dipped into saltwater, representing the tears of the Israelites experiencing the harshness of Egyptian slavery.
Orange – A newer item on the Seder plate, some include an orange as a symbol of inclusion. While many tell a modern (incorrect) fable of a rabbi who claimed that “A woman belongs on the bimah (pulpit) like an orange belongs on a seder plate!” the origin of this ritual item is a positive symbol of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Jewish community. Much like an orange, inclusion is sweet and carries the seeds of its own rebirth.
On the Table:
Wine – a symbol of joy and freedom. Wine not only fills glasses around the table but one cup is placed in the center for the prophet Elijah, who tradition claims visits each Passover Seder as an expression of hope for a messianic age of perfection to come. 4 cups of wine (or grape juice) are consumed during the seder, each with special liturgy, scriptural quotations, and themes.
Water – In a newer ritual, a cup is filled in the center of the table for Miriam, the prophetess, sister of Moses, who led the Israelite women in song and dance after crossing the Sea of Reeds. Tradition tells of a well of freshwater that followed Miriam and the Israelites throughout the wilderness until Miriam’s death, quenching the thirst of the Israelites and sustaining them through their wandering.
And now for a sinfully delicious treat: “Matzah Crack”
5 pieces of matzah.
1 cup butter.
1 cup brown sugar.
1 bag of dark chocolate chips.
1 cup of chopped nuts.
Coarse salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel for the top.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread the matzah crackers on a baking sheet. Melt butter. Brush crackers with the melted butter. Sprinkle with brown sugar, chocolate chips, and nuts. Bake for between 7-10 minutes until chocolate chips have melted and the nuts are toasted. Remove from the oven. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Cool. Cut into squares or break into smaller portions. And try not to eat the entire batch in one serving!