This year, Passover begins on the evening of Saturday, March 27, and will continue until the evening of Sunday, April 4. The eight-day Jewish holiday commemorates the Biblical story of the Jewish people being freed from slavery in Egypt. The centerpiece of the observance is the Passover seder, a ritual feast that takes place on the first night (and, for some families, again on the second night) and incorporates food, storytelling, religious rituals, and singing.
At the Passover seder, the seder plate is the star of the show. The partitioned dish contains small amounts of very specific foods, with each food representing its own part of the holiday. The seder plate is largely ceremonial and symbolic — as the reading of the Haggadah, which tells the story of Exodus, unfolds throughout the dinner, the items on the plate are discussed and occasionally eaten, but primarily serve as tangible symbols of Jewish liberation.
The Seder Plate
The seder plate itself was not originally the ornate, partitioned serving dish we know today. It actually originated as a wicker basket; its earliest mention was in 1000 A.D., and it was known then as a ke’arah (Hebrew for tray). It wasn’t until the 15th and 16th centuries that a round, decorative plate containing illustrations emerged. Over time, the plate was redesigned to include a separate tier for holding matzo bread, as well as individual sections for the various symbolic Passover foods.
The foods on a modern seder plate are arranged in a certain order; it loosely follows the telling of Exodus as read from the Haggadah throughout the dinner. One of the earliest traces of this custom dates back to the 16th century, when the Kabbalists, and most notably Rabbi Isaac Luria, were influential in the realm of Jewish mysticism, including the configuration of the objects on the plate.
To this day, there are differing opinions on how the foods should be placed. As the seder plate continues to evolve to include new foods and customs symbolic of ongoing marginalization — such as an orange, to represent women and LGBTQ+ members in the Jewish community — it’s important to remember that the plate is not a strict guide (in fact, it’s not even necessary to use a specific plate) but is primarily intended as a visual aid for the telling of the story of Exodus.
Customs vary from family to family, but the six items and their order of presentation on the seder plate are commonly found as follows: the beitzah (an egg) is in the top left corner of the plate; the zeroa (a shank bone) is placed at the top right corner; the maror (horseradish) sits in the top middle; the karpas (usually parsley) is on the lower left; the charoset (a sweet paste made of fruit and nuts) is on the lower right; and the chazeret (usually romaine lettuce) is at the bottom middle of the plate.
The seder table should also have some salt water, which is used during the ritual meal and symbolizes the tears of the enslaved people. Three pieces of matzo bread are an integral part of the meal as well, and are typically found underneath or beside the plate.
Beitzah: A Hard-Boiled and/or Roasted Egg
The seder plate egg is most commonly hard-boiled, but is also sometimes roasted. While there are no specific instructions throughout the dinner’s proceedings to do so, the egg can be eaten during the seder. (Not only does the egg represent fertility and the cycle of life, but it is a symbol of a sacrificial offering that was common in the days of the Holy Temple. Some say the egg also represents the mourning of the destruction of the Temple.
Zeroah: Roasted Shank Bone
This is most often a lamb shank, although some households use chicken, and it doesn’t always consist of meat — sometimes, just the charred bone is placed on the plate. The shank bone represents the ancient Passover sacrifice, during which a lamb was slaughtered and eaten the following day, which is also believed to be the night the Jewish people left Egypt. The shank is not consumed during most seders. And worry not, vegetarians — herbivores typically opt for roasted beet.
The maror is a bitter herb, and is most often served in the form of grated horseradish. This symbolizes the harshness and bitterness the Jewish people endured during their enslavement in Egypt. During the seder, a blessing is said right before the horseradish is dipped into the charoset (the sweet fruit and nut paste); the excess is shaken off, and the horseradish is eaten right away. This symbolizes both the bitterness of slavery and all the work that was done by the Jewish slaves to build cities for the Egyptians, as the charoset represents the cement used in this labor.
Karpas is a fresh green vegetable, most often parsley (although sometimes celery is used). This is the first food eaten during the Passover seder ritual. The bright parsley is symbolic of spring; it’s a time of rebirth, and the Jewish Exodus from Egypt was exactly that for the Israelites after hundreds of years of slavery. During the seder, the parsley is dipped in salt water before being eaten so that the participants may taste the tears of the enslaved people.
Charoset: Sweet Fruit Past Made of Apples, Nuts, and Wine
This sweet mix of apples, nuts, spices, and sweet red kosher wine or honey is a reminder of the mortar used in the buildings the Jewish slaves were forced to construct for Pharaoh in Egypt. The name itself comes from the Hebrew word cheres, or clay. Charoset is used alongside the bitter herbs on the seder plate; the horseradish (or maror) is dipped into the charoset before being eaten, although the excess is shaken off. (This is done in order to taste, but not consume, the full misery of the ancient Israelites' circumstances.) Some also use charoset in the Hillel sandwich, a part of the seder when horseradish is sandwiched between two small pieces of matzo.
Chazeret: Romaine Lettuce
The second bitter herb on the seder plate is usually represented by romaine lettuce. Some families use one of either horseradish or lettuce as the bitter herb and eliminate the use of a second one; some use the same herb in two spots; and some use both horseradish and lettuce in separate sections of the plate. Like the maror (horseradish), the chazeret symbolizes the Jewish people's bitter life in slavery. Many who choose to use both herbs on their plate also use both between small pieces of matzo bread (along with some charoset) to make the Hillel sandwich. Whichever bitter herb ends up on the seder plate, both fulfill the seder ritual when it is time for them to be eaten.