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The Symbolism of the Seder Plate

April 22, 2024

The Passover Seder is a generational affirmation, a transmission of the story of God’s miraculous redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt. In this context, the Seder plate, as the centerpiece of the Seder table, is a visual aid, containing symbolic foods that are eaten or displayed at the Passover Seder

There are six items arranged on the plate with special significance to the retelling of the story of the Exodus. A seventh symbolic item used during the meal — the three matzot — is not considered part of the Seder plate.

Here is a brief overview of the items found on the seder plate and what they represent:

Maror and Chazeret Maror (bitter herbs) and chazeret (horseradish) symbolize the bitterness and harshness of the slavery that the Jews endured in Egypt. In Ashkenazi tradition, this would be fresh romaine lettuce or endives and/or horseradish. Romaine is preferred over horseradish, and many have the custom to use both kinds together. 

The Hillel Sandwich, matzah and maror (Photo: R. Roth / Shutterstock)

Charoset – A sweet, brown mixture representing the mortar and brick used by the Hebrew slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt. In Ashkenazi tradition, charoset is made from chopped nuts, grated apples, cinnamon, and sweet red wine. 

Charoset (Shutterstock.com)

Karpas – A vegetable other than bitter herbs that is dipped into salt water at the beginning of the Seder. The salt water symbolizes the tears the Jews shed during their servitude. This vegetable is often parsley or another green vegetable, while some have the custom of using boiled potatoes. 

A piece of parsley is to be dipped in the salt water. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Zeroah – Also transliterated as Z’roa, this is typically a roasted lamb shank bone, though many communities have the custom to use a roasted chicken bone. It is special, as it is the only item of meat on the Seder Plate, representing the Korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice). It symbolizes the sacrifice of the lamb whose blood was painted on the doorways of the enslaved Israelites’ houses so that God would pass over their homes during the plague of the killing of the firstborn. The zeroah is not eaten at the Seder.

Shank bone on the Passover seder plate (Shutterstock.com)

Beitzah – A roasted egg, symbolizing the Korban Chagigah (festival sacrifice) which was offered at the Temple on the holiday, is also included on the Seder plate. Although both the Passover sacrifice and the Festival Sacrifice were meat offerings, the chagigah is commemorated by an egg, a symbol of mourning. This evokes the idea of mourning over the destruction of the Temple and the inability to offer the biblically mandated sacrifices for the Passover holiday. The round egg also represents the circle of life: birth, reproduction, and death.

Salt water– A bowl of salt water, which is used for the first “dipping” of the Seder, is not traditionally part of the Seder plate but is placed on the table beside it. However, it sometimes is used as one of the six items, in which case the chazeret is omitted. The salt water represents tears and sweat, and is a symbolic reminder of the pain felt by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. German and Persian Jews traditionally include vinegar on the Seder plate. For those who have this tradition, the karpas is dipped in vinegar rather than salt water during the Seder.

Three Matzot –Three whole matzot are stacked and separated from each other by cloth or napkins. The middle matzah will be broken and half of it put aside for the afikoman, eaten at the end of the Passover meal. The top and another half of the middle matzot will be used for the blessing over bread, and the bottom matzah will be used for korech (Hillel sandwich). The three matzot are symbolic of the three groups of Jews: Priests, Levites and Israelites. They also commemorate the three measures of fine flour that Abraham told Sarah to bake into matzah when they were visited by the three angels (Genesis 18:6).

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Eliyahu Berkowitz

Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz is a senior reporter for Israel365News. He made Aliyah in 1991 and served in the IDF as a combat medic. Berkowitz studied Jewish law and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He has worked as a freelance writer and his books, The Hope Merchant and Dolphins on the Moon, are available on Amazon.

Eliyahu Berkowitz

Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz is a senior reporter for Israel365News. He made Aliyah in 1991 and served in the IDF as a combat medic. Berkowitz studied Jewish law and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He has worked as a freelance writer and his books, The Hope Merchant and Dolphins on the Moon, are available on Amazon.

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