The festival of Pesach has an extraordinary amount of symbolic and/or coded practises. The items on the seder plate – the burned egg (beitza) for the additional festival sacrifice of thanksgiving (chagigah) brought during the three pilgrim festival, is also a symbol of fertility and of life. Hard boiled and touched by flame it has no “speaking” role in the service, but reminds us of both hardship and survival. The charoset, a mixture of wine nuts and fruit, is generally said to symbolise the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves in their building work (its name, first found in Mishna Pesachim 20:3 shows it to have become part of the seder ritual, though there is debate as to whether the charoset is mandatory.) Eaten first with the matza and then with the bitter herbs before the meal, it embodies a confusion of meanings – if it has apples as in the Ashkenazi tradition, it is to remind us of the apple trees under which, according to midrash, the Israelite women seduced their husbands in order to become pregnant – their husbands not apparently wanting to bring a new generation into the world of slavery. If it has dates and figs, as in the Sephardi tradition, it is to remind us of the Song of Songs, read on Pesach, an erotic work which supposedly alludes to the love between God and Israel, as well, of course, as being rich in the symbolism of fertility. The wine-dark colour is supposed to remind us of the blood placed on the doorposts of the houses to stop the Angel of Death from entering, and the blood into which Joseph’s torn coat was dipped to show his father that he had most likely been savaged by a wild animal – the moment from which the Pesach narrative is born.
The zeroa, the shank bone of a lamb, is a reminder both of the lamb roasted on the night of the exodus (exodus 12:8-9) and of the korban pesach, the lamb brought as paschal sacrifice when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Along with the egg it forms the “two cooked dishes” required by the Mishnah, and the “pesach” together with the matza and the bitter herb (maror), is one of the three objects we are required to discuss in order to fulfil the obligation of the Seder according to Rabban Gamliel. While the zeroa represents the paschal sacrifice, in fact there are a variety of traditions as to what can go on the plate – as it means an arm or a shoulder – so chicken wings can be used, or – should one go further into the etymology where it is used to mean “to spread out” – chicken necks and in fact any meat – even without a bone – can be used (Mishnah Berurah). But for vegetarians there are other possibilities. A beet is an acceptable symbol for the zeroa according to Rav Huna (Pesachim 114b) and it does “bleed” onto the plate in meaty fashion. Vegetarian punsters in the English language are fond of using a “paschal yam”. And for the greatly squeamish a model bone – be it fashioned from craft putty or from paper – can stand in symbolically.
The zeroa also represents the “outstretched arm” with which the bible tells us God first promised redemption from slavery (Ex.6:6) and then took us out of Egypt (Deut 26:8). It resonates and possibly also references Moses’ outstretched arm over the sea of reeds which caused the waters to part and then to return, although a different verb us used here (Exodus 14)
The maror – the bitter herb – is actually only one of two bitter herbs on most plates, the other being the hazeret. Hazeret was usually the bitter leaves of romaine lettuce, and the maror is generally represented by grated horseradish root. However the Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) gives us five different vegetables that could be used: as well as hazeret and maror there is olshin, tamcha, and char’chavina. Such a lot of bitterness we can sample! According to Talmud, it is the hazeret rather than the maror which is preferred, though somehow we have reversed the order, and often the hazeret remains on the plate to puzzle the seder participants as to its purpose. Some mix the two for each time we eat the bitter herbs, some use one for the maror and the other for the Hillel Sandwich, some leave the hazeret untouched….. The bitter taste is in memory of the bitterness of the slavery – and yet we mix it with the sweet charoset, or eat it with the matza
And then there is the Karpas. Often described as the hors d’oeuvres to turn a meal into a banquet (with the afikomen functioning as dessert), it is eaten dipped into the salt water early in the seder ritual. The word Karpas is not used in the Talmud, which mentions only yerakot – (green) vegetables. Indeed the word only appears in bible once –in the book of Esther – where it means fine linen cloth. It has, one assumes, come into the haggadah through the Greek “karpos” – a raw vegetable – but its connection to the fine linen and its place at the beginning of the seder makes it possible to see it as referencing the coat of Joseph dipped in blood by his brothers – the beginning of the connection with Egypt which will lead us eventually to the exodus and the seder.
The word and the food is open to much speculation. One drash I like plays on each letter of the word: When we look at the four letters of this word kaf, reish, peh and samech, we discover an encoded message of four words which teaches a basic lesson about how to develop our capacity for giving.
The first letter “chaf” means the palm of the hand. The second letter “reish” denotes a person bent down in poverty. When taken together these two letter/words speak of a benevolent hand opened for the needy.
But what if you are a person of limited means, with precious little to give? Look at the second half of the word Karpas. The letter “peh” means mouth, while the final letter “samech” means to support. True, you may not be capable of giving in the material sense, but you can always give support with your words.
Seen in this way, the Karpas is a reminder not just of the springtime with its fresh green leaves, but of our ability to show compassion for others and to support them whatever our circumstances. We dip the Karpas into salt water – which represents the tears shed by the slaves as they worked, and also maybe the water of the Reed Sea which presented a terrible obstacle to the fleeing slaves as the army of Pharaoh charged behind them to recapture them – so the ritual of dipping the Karpas reminds us that however much grief today brings, however painful our circumstances and great our fear of what is happening to us, the ability to empathise and to support others is the quality that will help us in our daily living.
The Karpas is for me the Pesach symbol par excellence, because it combines most powerfully both distress and hope. As a token of the new green of springtime, the bright taste of the parsley awakens a delicious sense of fresh hopefulness. Dipped into the salt water, that hopefulness is immersed in grief – and yet its taste still comes through. While each of the Seder plate symbols – along with the matza which is both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation – is a potent combination of both pain and joy, the Karpas is the clearest encapsulation of this lesson. Coming right at the beginning of the Seder, it is a harbinger of the Pesach story and reminds us that hope survives through tears and through difficult times. And hope is the prerequisite for survival.
My teacher Rabbi Hugo Gryn wrote that his father taught him that one can survive without food for three weeks and with no water for three days, but one cannot survive without hope for even three minutes. The Pesach Seder begins with the encoded lesson – hope survives. We can tell the story of the slavery, of the plagues, of the fearful night of the angel of death, of the darkness and uncertainty, of the panicked leaving without knowing the destination and the crossing of the sea while pursued by the horses and chariots of the vengeful army. We can tell the story of the failed rebellion against Rome and the many oppressions over the generations. We can tell the story and taste the bitterness without fear or distress because the first thing we do after blessing the wine and washing our hands is to dip a fresh vegetable into salt water, bless the creator of the fruit from the ground, and taste the hope even through its coating of misery and grief.
This year has been a Seder like no other for most of us. Alone or separated from loved ones in lockdown, unable to source some of the usual Pesach foodstuffs or anxious about supplies, the story of the plagues has been thrown into sharp relief, no longer in the realm of fairy-tale but bluntly and frighteningly here. We cannot know yet how this story will end. Whether our masks and sheltering in place will keep us safe; whether we or our loved ones will hear the swoop of the wings of the Angel of Death. Everything is up-ended, but the message of the Seder supports us. Amidst fear and distress, through grief and terror, we hold on to hope. Hope is the beginning of our journey and it is our companion through life. The Hebrew word “tikvah” – hope – comes from the word for a cord or a rope. Threaded through the Seder, threaded through the generations who come to the Seder, binding us together through time and space, hope is what holds us in life and to life.
While the Haggadah is often described as the story from slavery to redemption, it is far more importantly the book that imbues us with hope – however long the redemption will take. And it ends with the hope “Next year in Jerusalem” – not necessarily a literal expectation, but a hope for new horizons, new possibilities, a hope for a better world.