by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
Passover starts at sundown tonight, and in Jewish homes across the world the holiday will be celebrated with a Seder. The Haggadah, which means “telling” in Hebrew, is the written guide to the Passover Seder, which commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah includes various prayers, blessings, rituals, fables, songs and information for how the Seder should be performed.
The Haggadah, very relevant for today, directs us to wash our hands during the course of the service. Preparing for Passover in the home includes an extensive eliminating of all “hamatz,” the fermented products of five grains: wheat, rye, spelt, barley and oats. The Haggadah begins with the youngest person at the Seder asking the Four Questions (Mah Nishtanah). These questions provide the impetus for telling why this night is different from all other nights. Passover this year, in light of the pandemic, will be very different and in many cases the number that have assembled will be smaller and the preparation of the dinnerwill have been done with an abundance of caution.
The Jewish holiday of Passover (in Hebrew, Pesach) commemorates the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. (Watch the movie The Ten Commandments) The word Pesach refers to the ancient Passover sacrifice (known as the Paschal Lamb); it is also said to refer to the idea that God “passed over” the houses of the Jews during the 10th plague on the Egyptians, the slaying of the first born.
The Seder plate is the focal point of the proceedings on the first (two) night(s) of Passover. The traditional Seder plate has a designated space for each of the ceremonial foods around which the service and dinner is based: matzah, the z’roa (shankbone), egg, bitter herbs, charoset and karpas vegetable.
On the Seder plate, the five or six different Passover foods each symbolize a unique element of the Exodus story. At various points in the Seder (which means ‘order’ in Hebrew), participants partake of these different foods as we tell the events of the Exodus. While the main course at the Passover Seder varies from family to family and country to country, the five or six elements of the Seder plate are universal.
Matzah, also spelled matzoh and matza, is the unleavened bread eaten. When the Israelites learned that the pharaoh had agreed to let them leave Egypt, they did not have time to bake bread for their journey and they quickly made unleavened dough.
In addition to enjoying matzah at the Seder meal, Jewish people eat this unleavened bread throughout the eight-day holiday. Traditionally, Jews are prohibited from eating any leavened product (including pasta, cereal and wheat crackers and of course bread) during the week of Passover.
Karpas is one of the six Passover foods on the Seder plate. It is a green leafy vegetable, usually parsley, used to symbolize the initial flourishing of the Israelites in Egypt. During the Seder we dip the karpas into bitter salt water, representing the tears shed by the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. Karpas also symbolizes springtime
Maror, or bitter herbs, symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. Different families use different foods to represent the maror, but it is most typically horseradish or romaine lettuce. Like the Israelites’ time in Egypt, romaine lettuce is sweet at first, but becomes more and more bitter as time goes on.
Charoset is a paste-like mixture of fruits, nuts and sweet wine or honey. Charoset (also spelled haroset) is symbolic of the mortar used by the Israelite slaves when they laid bricks for Pharaoh’s monuments. Jews from Eastern European descent (referred to as Ashkenazi) make their charoset from apples, walnuts, sweet red wine and a generous dash of cinnamon. Families from Sephardic descent (Spain and Portugal) use dates, figs, almonds and honey to make charoset.
The Shank Bone or z’roa in Hebrew, represents the Paschal sacrifice offered by the Israelites on the eve of their exodus from Egypt. While a roasted lamb bone is traditionally used to represent the z’roa, any piece of roasted meat may be used. Some families use chicken or turkey neck. Unlike the other foods on the Seder plate, the shank bone is never eaten.
Some vegetarian families substitute a roasted beet for the shank bone, alluding to a passage in the Talmud (the compilation of Jewish Law) which refers to the blood red beet as one of the vegetables originally partaken of in the first Seder.
Egg, or beitzah in Hebrew, stands in for a holiday sacrifice once offered at the Holy Temple. The egg is also a universal symbol of springtime, new beginnings and rebirth, all themes that are echoed in the story of the Exodus.
The Passover Seder is a richly symbolic and sensory experience. The foods that are eaten during Passover serve as tangible reminders of the hardship of slavery and the Exodus. From matzah and maror to charoset, Passover foods reconnect Seder participants with historical events.
Midway through the reading of the Haggadah, a traditional meal is served. Specific dishes vary based on family traditions. Aside from matzah, other foods traditionally served during Passover include gefilte fish (a mixture of ground deboned fish such as carp, whitefish or pike), roasted chicken, brisket, potato kugel (similar to a casserole), sweet potatoes and matzah ball soup.
During the Seder, four glasses of wine are consumed. Each glass symbolizes a different theme. A fifth, called Elijah’s cup, is left untouched in honor of the prophet Elijah, who according to tradition, will arrive one day to “herald the advent of the Messiah.”
Friends ask me what is the appropriate greeting for Passover. Wishing someone a “Happy Passover” or “Happy Pesach” is perfect and appreciated. Passover for our family this year will be very different. Normally, our entire family and friends gather in our living room. This year with bans on travel and following social distancing recommendations, our family Seder will be very small. The Seder ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem,’” a wish for all Jews to be together in the holy city. This year we will say, ‘Next year, let’s all be together again, healthy and safe. “
My thanks to Springfield Jewish Federation Director Nancy Sage for the recipe below.
1 cup grated apple
1 cup grated peeled sweet potato
1 cup matzah meal. (5/8 cup of flower)
1/4 pound, margarine (or butter)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 cup sugar
Using a food processor makes this an easy recipe
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees and grease a 10 inch casserole or two 12-cup muffin tins
2. Mix all ingredients together well
3. Pour into casserole or muffin tins. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 45 minutes. If you are using muffin tins, bake 30 minutes.
4. Raise heat to 350 degrees; remove the cover, and bake an additional 15 minutes. Slice and serve.