As Pesach approaches I will offer a series of five blogs beginning here exploring different aspects of the Seder, the historical roots of many of our customs and rites, the religious and spiritual significance of the Seder parts, and suggestions to enhance your family Seder.
The Seder Plate contains six ritual elements: the egg (beitzah), bone (z’ro-a), parsley (karpas), bitter herb (maror), apples/nuts/honey/wine mixture (charoset), lettuce (?). There is a debate among the sages about whether there should be five or six items. The Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) said that there needs to be six items because of the mystical resemblance to the Star of David, a symbol of redemption.
The Symbolism of the Foods:
Egg = birth and rebirth (personal and national)
Bone = God’s strong outstretched arm that redeemed the slaves
Parsley = Spring time (salt water – tears of slavery)
Bitter Herb = hardship of slavery
Charoset = mortar that held bricks together
Lettuce = unknown, but possibly representing the sacrifice in the Temple
The 3 Matzot on the Traditional Platter – Originally they represented the 3 sacrifices brought to the Temple; the Pascal offering (lamb), the Tamid offering (daily), and the Maaser Sheini (tithing). The number 3 also represents the three classes of Israelites, all of whom are present at the Seder; the Priests (Kohanim), the Vice-Priests (Levi-im – Levites), and the Israelites (Yis’ra-elim).
The Matzah – Sometimes called the “bread of affliction” or the “poor bread” in the Ha Lachma Anya (Aramaic) section of the Seder, the Matzah is a salvationary substance that points to God’s redeeming power. The midrash (rabbinic legend) speaks of bread hanging from trees in the Garden of Eden. The mannah of the desert is thought to be the food of the hosts of heaven, much as Greek ambrosia was the food of the gods. In any event, the matzah (or bread) not only sustains life, but is directly linked to God’s redemptive power.
Afikoman– The last item eaten in the Seder, the Afikoman is the middle matzah on the ceremonial matzah plate and is broken off and hidden (tzafun) before the Seder begins to be found by the children/adults at the end of the meal. Since it is impossible to evenly break the Afikoman, the larger half is hidden symbolizing the larger hope the Jewish people hold out for our future. Afikoman is sometimes translated “dessert,” but in all probability it is an Aramaic word originally derived from the Greek “afikomenos,” meaning Ha-ba, the “Coming one” or Messiah (Professor David Daube, 1909-1999). Breaking the middle matzah symbolizes the broken state of the Jewish people in slavery and the brokenness of the world badly in need of healing. It also symbolizes the kabbalistic idea of the sh’virat ha-kei-lim (the breaking of the vessels) and the introduction of the sitra achra (the “other side” of God, or the dark aspect of the universe) into reality. Finding the Afikoman at the end, we restore it to the other half symbolizing the redemption of the individual, the people Israel, the world, and God’s own name (YHVH) that split apart when the universe began at the time of the “breaking of the vessels.” In effect, the Jewish people are charged with effecting tikun (the restoration of the world – the reclaiming of the Garden of Eden – the reunification of God’s Name YHVH). Then all Seder participants eat the Afikoman together. Prizes are given to those who participate in the hunt.
The Number 4 – The number 4 is repeated many times in the Seder (e.g. 4 cups of wine, 4 sons, 4 sages, 4 questions). Cross-culturally, the number 4 is symbolic of wholeness, integrity and completion, a principle goal of Passover and of Jewish life (Hebrew – Shleimut).
To be continued…