L: This is gonna explain the Passover plate in the middle, not all things are on it ‘cause we have a big bowl of charoset and um, and we don’t have a lamb’s shank bone because yenno, where you gonna find those? Not really, so we’ll just break something else and uh..
S: For reference, my, uh, my family uses the same lamb shank bone every year.
L: That’s terrifying.
E: Do you actually break it or is it just symbolic?
S: No, it’s just symbolic.
L: So there’s the egg, symbolizes, uh, new life, uh, new beginnings, that sort of thing. A little bit of the karpas which is the vegetables, spring new life, that sort of thing. Uh, the egg is more of a new life for you as person and the culture, spring is the vegetable. There’s the charoset, um, and the maror, that’s the herbs and the bitterness. Um, and the salt water, which is supposed to represent the tears of our ancestors and how much they suffered! Yaaay! Um, it’s all- this is all pretty much about remembrance. Um, and being- welcome to Judaism, pretty much everything is remembering the troubles you went through in the past so that you, uh you know, remembering your past. Don’t, you know, take things for granted. Uh, think about how fortunate you are now that you’re not building pyramids
S: Be afraid of Egyptians and Christians and everyone.
L: But it’s also like, you know, new birth, rememb- like you know, it’s not all bleh. Um, which comes across in the charoset, which is the mortar between the bricks that we built. Um, yeah, why is mortar made out of apples and walnuts? I don’t know, it tastes good though. And we’ll get to that later with the Hillel sandwich. But that’s what the plate in the middle is supposed to represent. Um, so karpas! Which is the herbs, pretty much this is the parsley and the salt water. The herbs, which is the little bitter, dip it into the salt water to remember the tears of our ancestors and the sweat of all the hard work they did when they were enslaved in Egypt. Hahum, once again. Tha- this is gonna be a reoccurring theme guys!
L: So um, we all take a little bit of the parsley… [distributes parsley] and do you typically say the prayer before or after you eat it?
L: Before? Okay, I did- somebody did it after, and I was like [makes a confused face]. I know, I was confused as well. Alright so, um, this is to remember the tears of our ancestors and all the hardships they went through.
All: Blessed are You Lord our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the earth.
L: And then we dip it in the salt water.
L: Yachatz. Matzah! What is matzah? It’s unleavened bread, because when we left Egypt, we didn’t have time to let our bread rise, um, ‘cause we were in such a hurry. So we left Egypt in a hurry and the bread baked on the backs of the Jews who were walking through the desert, um, on their long journey. So that’s what matzah is, we don’t eat any bread with wheat, or basically leavened bread this night, um, to signify that.. um, and we will break it in half. So what we do is we break it in half, and hide the smaller piece, uh, and this is the Afikomen which is our “dessert” for the Passover uh, but yenno real dessert, it’s- it’s a modern thing. But what we do is we hide this somewhere in the area and then all the children go and find it and a lot of the time if you find it, you get a prize or something like that, um, I was thinking the people who could find it are the people who have not participated in Passover before.
S: In case you were wondering, as the oldest cousin, I did find the Afikomen every year.
L: I never found the Afikomen!
S: My grandma got dollar coins. So it was a dollar, but it was a special dollar.
[Continuation of the Seder dinner, primarily the telling of the Story of Passover]
L: The pesach, which is the lamb bone that we don’t have. No one actually uses roasted beets
S: That’s true
L: So that’s why I didn’t even think about it. It’s the sacrifice that God passed over the Israelites’ houses with the tenth plague, um, what they did is they painted lamb’s blood on their doorways so that God would pass over their doorway and not kill their firstborn. So that’s what the shank bone is for, the blood of the- the sacrifice of both the firstborns of the Egyptians also the lambs that we painted blood with.
[Second Glass of Wine]
[The Second Urchatz – Washing of Hands]
L: Blessing over matzah, so now we get to eat the matzah. This is eating the unleavened bread so you can crack off a little piece.
All: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His laws and commanded us to eat matzah.
S: Whenever you make matzah at home, it’s circular.
L: It’s supposed to look like this ‘cause that’s how they made it back in the day. However, you know, factory processed matzah.
S: This is in fact why you have matzah that’s not Kosher for Passover ‘cause they were too lazy to get a rabbi in there. Or too cheap.
L: The maror, okay the bitter herbs. Here’s the horseradish. This is the bitter herbs, um, remembering the bitterness and pain, again, of our ancestors. Yep. It sucked being slave so what you do is take a little bit of the horseradish. If you’re feeling the pain of your ancestors, you get a big ol’ glob on there but if you’re not really feeling the pain of the ancestors. This- this would also be a competition. Whoever could eat the most bitter- the most maror, would be the most remember-y Jew.
S: What my family does is we’d chop up the horseradish and take a teeny tiny little bite.
All: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His laws and commanded us to eat bitter herbs.
L: Yaay, the best part, the charoset. So charoset, anyone remember?
Participant: It’s the spackle and the mortar!
L: Yeah! Cool. So what we do is that we make a Hillel sandwich. Hillel was a famous, ah, um.. is he a rabbi?
S: He was a rabbi, they’re all rabbis.
L: Yeah, he was a famous religious figure in Judaism who made the- who would- this is what we name after, Hillel.
L: So what we do is we take the mortar, there’s no prayer for this funny enough, you take – if you want, you don’t have to – a little bit of the radish, the bitter.
S: You kinda have to.
L: You do.
S: You kinda have to, but you drown it out with the charoset.
L: Now the charoset, oh so we take it ‘cause we still remember the bitterness, but we put in the charoset ‘cause we- because it’s also the hope of the future and the- the taste of the joys of life. So there’s the sweetness outweighs the bitter, but you still need the bitter to remember.
S: In case you were wondering, for this and the previous thing, most people take like a teeny teeny little bite.
L: Oh yeah, no- no one ever really goes super hard. That was just the first time ‘cause someti- it’s always a competition, especially if there are kids.
This recorded excerpt is only parts of the Seder dinner I attended that reveal the symbolism of food at Passover. I collected this piece as the leader of the Seder, denoted by ‘L’ in the excerpts above, was going through the ritual agenda. That being said, it should be noted that these excerpts were not consecutive in the procession. In some locations there are brackets with the rituals that came in between certain sections.
The primary informants of the Seder dinner were two students from the University of Southern California. They are both Jewish and both grew up celebrating Passover and attending Seders with their families. As such, throughout the transcription, there are places where one of the informants may have an additional comment regarding something their family did specifically or what their family may have changed from the a more traditional Seder as prescribed by a guide book called the Haggadah. For example, typically three days of Seder are observed, on Friday, Saturday, then Sunday, but both informants mentioned how their families typically only did one. Both the informants also talked about the Haggadah they used in their families, but the guide book was not a means of learning the rituals or the traditions by far. It served as amore of a refresher and catalog of knowledge on the stories that are told through the night. People would actually learn about the rich symbolism and reasoning behind Seder as they experience it and partake in it.
The Passover Seder is very rich in food symbolism, as seen in the excerpt of the dinner I attended above. The food itself does not inherently hold meaning, but it is the context in which it is presented and consumed in which the meaning arises. The choice of a particular food to hold meaning may have different origins as well. Whereas matzah is a literal representation of the unleavened bread that baked on the backs of the Jewish people as they traveled through the desert, some of the other items on the plate have physical connections to their intended meaning. For example, the bitterness of the horseradish, or the maror, was meant to parallel the bitterness and pain of suffering in Egypt. The charoset, though, a delicious mixture of apples and walnuts, is supposed to represent the mortar and spackle between the bricks of the pyramids. There is not quite any apparent connection here as opposed to the other items whose taste or appearance is the basis of their symbolism. On the other hand, though, later on one the informants mentioned how the charoset also represents the joys from life and hopes of the future, and this has more of a direct connection because delicious food can be a joy of life. Children or non-Jewish participants in Seder are able to very quickly identify the symbolism of foods during Seder because some of the spoken rituals are about explaining them as well.
Not only is the symbolism of the food important at Seder, but the ritual interactions with these foods are significant as well. The most prominent example of this would be having to eat the maror, or the bitter herbs. As ‘L’ mentioned, those who really strive to experience the bitterness and pain of the Jewish ancestors would go for a large amount of it (though on the flip side, it may just be a competition). If the foods hold the essence of some state of being, then eating the food could nurture that same essence within an individual by means of contagion. I think this is part of the reason why such emphasis is placed on food symbolism during Seder. Whether the resulting state of being is negative or positive, it provides a means to remember the events of the past. By continuing to ritually reenact Seder dinner, during which the suffering of the Jewish ancestors is remembered and God is thanked for freeing the Jewish people of their slavery, the story of Passover for the Jewish people will continue to perpetuate and thus preserving this aspect of Jewish culture.
For additional examples of familial variations in celebrating the Passover Seder, please refer to Sharon R. Sherman’s essay titled “The Passover Seder: Ritual Dynamics, Foodways, and Family Folklore” in Chapter 14 (pages 193 – 204) of Food in the USA: A Reader.
Sherman, Sharon R. “The Passover Seder: Ritual Dynamics, Foodways, and Family Folklore.” Food in the USA: A Reader, edited by Carole M. Counihan, Routledge, 2002, pp. 193-204.
Additional Informant Data:
The informant data for the leader of the Seder is included in the section above the item. The same information is included for the other informant below:
‘S’ – Nationality: USA; Age: 26; Occupation: Ph.D. Student; Residence: Los Angeles, CA; Primary Language: English; Other Languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew