Two of the most important holidays in Christianity and Judaism coincided this weekend, a rare occurrence. After celebrating Easter with my family in Roanoke, I went to my first Passover Seder with my friend Robyn, hosted by the Jewish Student Association at the University of Mary Washington. (She wrote a story about it for the Free Lance-Star.) A Passover Seder is essentially a ceremonial, drawn out meal, with many symbolic foods and prayers.
The eight-day Passover, which goes April 6-14 this year, begins with the evening Seder. The holiday commemorates the Exodus of from Egypt after generations of slavery—or the Moses and Red Sea story that we’re all familiar with. (I’ve copied the full story that was read at our Seder at the bottom of this post.)
A Seder meal recognizes many symbolic foods. And as I discovered, Jews can get creative with uses for matzah during Passover, when unleavened foods are cut from meals. Robyn and I have been talking a lot about Seder, so I was excited to go with her and learn about this holiday. (We had already celebrated Hanukkah last winter, eating latkes after lighting her mini menorahs.)
Six foods are represented on a Seder plate:
Matzah is one of the foods most commonly identified with Passover. The Torah says that when Jews left Egypt, they had to leave so quickly that they couldn’t allow bread to rise. The flat, unleavened bread is a reminder of this. One ritual during the meal is to break one matzoh in half; one piece is the Afikomen, or dessert. A spirit may hide this piece for children to find.
Karpas, a green vegetable, is a reminder that Passover coincides with the arrival of spring. The holiday is also historically an agricultural festival, an occasion to give thanks for the earth’s bounties. “We now dip this green vegetable into the salt water. The salt water symbolizes the tears of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt.” Our plate featured parsley.
The Egg, hardboiled, stands for many things during the Seder: the roundness of the Earth that is constantly moving; we are all born from an egg; it’s the traditional food for mourners and was brought to Jerusalam after the destruction of the temple; and it’s a symbol of Spring.
Lamb Shank serves as a reminder that God “pasach” — passed over — the homes of Jews when he was slaying the firstborn sons of the Egyptians.
Moror is the bitter herb, a symbol of the bitterness of slavery. Horseradish filled this role. It was quite potent!
Charoset is a mix of nuts, fruit and wine. It’s made to resemble the mortar that Israelites used while slaves to make the bricks for building Egyptian cities.
After the symbolic Seder foods, we were served an actual meal, starting with matzoh ball soup. It’s simply a broth with with balls made of matzah meal. These were dense and spongey.
Then Gefilte fish, made from a poached mixture of ground white fish and served as an appetizer. (As a vegetarian, I did not try this.)
My favorite part of the meal was a creative dish made of matzah (of course), apples, nuts and raisins—almost like a bread pudding.
Dessert was also great, consisting of dessert versions of matzah (covered with chocolate and caramel), chocolate covered strawberries, coconut macaroons and candied fruits.
The Story of Passover:
The Hebrews came to Egypt long ago and their numbers slowly increased. They also grew in strength and became a mighty people. The Egyptians came to fear them for, they reasoned, if there came a time of war they might join with enemy nations and become a threatening force. They, therefore, decided to subdue them with forced labor, and to reduce their numbers by casting male children into the river. Taskmasters were placed over the Hebrews, they whip and torture them, compelling them to make bricks and build great cities for Pharaoh.
The task was inhumane and too great to bear. The Jewish people called out to G-d, and G-d heard their cry. G-d called to Moses, charging him to appear before Pharaoh to demand that the Hebrews be released. Pharaoh was obstinate and would not heed the word of G-d. It was then that Moses foretold the punishment, which the Almighty would bring upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians: Plagues would be cast upon the land of Egypt, in which many would perish. Pharaoh defied G-d and placed his trust in his own powers. He refused to free the Jewish people. As Moses predicted, the plagues descended upon Egypt. Many perished and the suffering was great. Pharaoh, nonetheless, remained obstinate; he would not yield. When the tenth plague was cast upon them, the death of firstborn sons of Egyptians, a great cry went up throughout Egypt. Finally Pharaoh ordered Moses to take his people out of the land. Moses then parted the Red Sea and led the Israelites to freedom. This is known as the Exodus.
— Read during UMW’s Passover Seder