Pesach and the Seder Plate: the lesson of hope

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.


Mikketz: raising up the light and keeping hope alive

Rabbi Hugo Gryn famously told a story of his father in the winter of 1944, while they were together in a concentration camp called Lieberose. Having announced that it was the eve of Chanukah, he took a homemade clay bowl and lit a wick immersed in is precious, now melted ration of margarine. Before he could recite the blessing, Hugo looked at his father and protested “we need the food – we can’t afford to waste it on a candle” his father looked at Hugo then His father looked at Hugo-and then at the lamp—and responded, “You and I have seen that it is impossible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water; but you can’t live at all without hope.”

Rabbi Moshe Prager told the story of a young boy in Auschwitz whose Barmitzvah fell on the first day of Chanukah. He too painstakingly collected scraps of oil to craft a makeshift candle and invited a small group to celebrate with him late at night in his ‘bunk’. In the blackness of the night in Auschwitz, a small band of hungry and frightened Jews huddled together to watch the Barmitzvah light the candle and intone the blessings when a Nazi guard entered the hut and shouted at the lad at the centre of the activity to put out the candle. The Barmitzvah looked at the Nazi and said “we Jews do not extinguish light, we make light”

What both the stories have in common is the importance of retaining identity, and that in holding on to who we essentially are, we keep alive not only ourselves and our hope, but also God’s place in our world.

At the very beginning of creation God commands y’hee or – let there be light. Long before the sun and moon have been created, even before night and day have been differentiated, even before the division into light and darkness, the command booms out in the Universe – y’hee or. God, who commands us to walk in God’s way and emulate God’s actions as best we can, enters the tohu va’vohu, the confusion and blackness of the deep and brings light. It is a command for us to do the same.

In the sidra Mikketz, which is always read on Shabbat Chanukah, Joseph, the arrogant young boy who had been sold into slavery by his brothers and who had, by his own efforts, survived Egyptian imprisonment and become a noted interpreter of dreams, seems to shed his own Hebrew identity and becomes an officer of Pharaoh’s court. His name is changed to an Egyptian one – Zaphenat Parnea, he marries an Egyptian woman Asenat, the daughter of an Egyptian priest and wears the clothing of Egyptian nobility.

Nachum Sarna explains the etymology of the new name – Zaphenat Parnea in this way:

“Traditional exegesis connects the name with Joseph’s penchant for interpreting dreams, seeing in the first element a derivation from the Hebrew stem ts-f-n to hide, and rendering the second contextually as “to elucidate”. The name would thus mean “The revealer of hidden things”. However an Egyptian origin is evident and a widely held view regards it as the transcription “God speaks; he lives” … In choosing this name, Pharaoh finds a title for Joseph as the one in whom God speaks, and the people live

So even Joseph, the assimilated one, the one who leaves home and family and chooses never to go back; even Joseph, who marries out and whose children are adopted back into the family as half-tribes; Joseph who gives his sons Hebrew names even while describing them as the ones who will help him forget his own past; with all of this, even Joseph retains his essential identity, keeping alive hope, keeping alive God’s place in the world, bringing light into the world through his management of resources and his conduit to God’s speaking.

We always read Mikketz in Chanukah. We always read of the name change on a day we will be lighting the candles of witnessing to God’s continuing care for us. We always face the tensions embedded in Jewish identity, in Jewish historical experience at this time. We read about Pharaoh’s description of the most assimilated of our ancestors as “a man in whom there is the spirit of God”. The story reminds us – as do the two Chanukah stories of the holocaust with which I began – that no matter how dark, how distressing our world, God is not really hidden far away. Maybe hidden, but not far away, and we can bring forth light for ourselves and so reveal the divine that is all around us.

The world is a very narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid




I have just returned from a solidarity visit with a local Islamic boys’ boarding school set in a peaceful, leafy and suburban area, which had suffered a hate crime. Last week someone had entered the school grounds late in the night, and had set a fire by the classroom block. It was only the good fortune that a boy was up and revising for examinations in the area,  that the fire service were alerted quickly as was the dormitory wing of the school where most of the pupils were sleeping. It could have been a much more horrible fire had it not been caught early.

Along with the local Vicar and a member of the Borough Council I visited the school in order to be with them, to show them that they are not alone and that the local community is supportive and warm. We wanted to be there in order to demonstrate that the perpetrators of this hostile act were not representative of the local community, that the world in which they were living was horrified by what had happened, and that they had many friends who would stand with them.

The Councillor, the Vicar and I joined the boys and teachers in the school hall. Each of us spoke and then the floor was opened for questions. One boy stood and asked how we would bring racial harmony into the world. From the panel we spoke of building bridges, of creating relationships between people as individuals and between peoples with different identities. Joint football matches between the youth of Church, Synagogue and School were suggested. Again and again we talked of finding ways of meeting the other with open hearts and minds, so that we would recognise how like us they are, we would divest ourselves of some of our prejudice and fear.

We talked of the bridge building we could actually engage in together in small and possible ways. We talked of choosing to leave the safety of our known community and risk meeting people who didn’t think like we are used to people thinking. We talked of the fear of others and their fear of us. Heartbreaking stories were shared of racist comments by passersby of the sports field, and at the local supermarket when doing the weekly shop.  In an apparently unfriendly world, it is easier and better to stay with the friendly and known.

I told them the story of my teacher, Rabbi Hugo Gryn who, late in life, visiting the place of his birth and looking back on his youth in Berehovo, before the holocaust demolished his world and most of his family, wrote “On my visit [to Berehovo] I could not help but think that although Jews there were involved in the community over such a long time and although… they really had full legal equality – Jews owned land and worked in businesses and professions – the fact is that while the Jews and non-Jews depended on each other for many of the essentials in life, and we lived in the same society, we were not really part of the same community. There was hardly any visiting, sharing or gossiping. I realise now that of Berehovo’s three big and beautiful churches, I had never been inside any of them, and the chances are that none of the Christians ever set foot in any of our synagogues….” (from “Chasing Shadows” by Hugo Gryn p257).  For Hugo, the building of bridges between communities became his life’s work, and this was drummed into all of his students as a vital part of rabbinic work.

As we talked, I began to hear the in my head the words of Hasidic teacher Rebbe Nachman “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, veha’ikar lo lefached klal – All the world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid”.

For years when I thought of this bridge as an image, it was as if our whole world, our whole life, is like a narrow unstable bridge swinging over a yawning chasm. That our life is lived on a tightrope, and we walk upon it through the years and are never entirely sure or secure, we are just trusting that the bridge will ultimately take us to where we should be going, as long as we are brave enough to continue.

But today the image that came to mind was quite different. The bridge of Rebbe Nachman was not over a void of years or lives, a bridge whose length measures our lives in time – instead it came into focus as the bridge we make between people and between peoples each time we meet, one that we have to make and remake in every generation, at each encounter with the other. It requires trust for us to reach out our feet and step towards each other, for we are never certain where such a fragile path might take us and whether we may fall at the first obstacle we encounter, or the second, or the third. Will the other want to reach out to us? Will they be open to our tentative moving towards them? Will they fear us and brush us aside?

As Rebbe Nachman wrote, the important thing is not to be afraid at all – or at least not to let our fear stop us creating and walking along that bridge.



Image from Wikimedia Commons, File:Pedestrian Suspension Bridge near the Inn at Narrow Passage.jpg