In a few days, Jews around the world will sit around the table as families and friends for the Passover seder. We will tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, drink four cups of wine, eat matzah, and sing hymns of praise to God for His redemption of Israel, past and future alike.
During the long centuries of the Jewish exile, many customs were added to the Passover Seder by Jewish communities scattered across the globe. Many of these customs remain in practice only among those Jews who came from the lands where the customs began. Among the more peculiar customs is one that has been my favorite ever since I was a child. Many Ashkenazi Jews, those descended from European communities, will eat a hard-boiled egg just before the start of the main meal. The reason behind this custom is, at first glance, puzzling.
We find a discussion of this custom in the Code of Jewish Law known as the Shulchan Aruch, in a comment by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th century Poland), who remains today one of the most influential codifiers of Jewish law.
It is customary in some communities to eat an egg as a sign of mourning. It appears that the reason is that the night of the Ninth of Av is established on the same night as the Passover Seder. Furthermore, we recall the destruction of the Temple because that is where the Passover offering was brought. (Shulchan Aruch, O.C.476)
The Ninth of Av, known by its Hebrew name Tisha B’Av, is the anniversary of the destruction of both the first and second Temples of Jerusalem. Remarkably, both Temples were destroyed on this same Hebrew calendar date over 6 centuries apart. To this day, Tisha B’Av is the national day of mourning for these tragedies. It is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.
Rabbi Isserles tells us that the eve of Tisha B’Av, the beginning of the twenty-four-hour day of fasting and mourning, always falls out on the same day of the week as the Passover Seder. For example, this year the Seder is on Wednesday evening, April 5th, and Tisha B’Av eve is Wednesday, July 26th.
Because of the shared day of the week by the Passover Seder and Tisha B’Av, Rabbi Isserles explains, some Jewish communities have a custom of eating an egg. Why an egg? In Jewish tradition, hard-boiled eggs are considered the food of mourners. For example, eggs are commonly eaten by the mourning family as their first meal after a funeral.
The glaring question we must ask about this custom is this. According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to show any signs of mournfulness on a festival. Even the practices of mourning for recently passed family members are suspended when a festival arrives. How is it appropriate to commemorate the destruction of the Temple on Passover, a time for rejoicing and praising God? Does the peculiar coincidence of the days of the week of Passover and Tisha B’Av warrant such a strange departure from the celebration of the festival? It’s not like we engage in any kind of commemoration of the Exodus on the evening of Tisha B’Av as well. How are we to understand this odd custom?
To answer this question, we must first know exactly when in the Seder this egg-eating custom is practiced. First, a brief synopsis of the order of the Seder.
After declaring the sanctity of the festival over a cup of wine, the Seder progresses through a few other short rituals to the telling of the Exodus story. After the telling of the story, the Seder moves to the eating of the ritually mandated foods, matzah – the unleavened bread – and maror – the bitter herbs. First, each of these is eaten alone. Then, the matzah and maror are combined in a sandwich and eaten together.
The basis for eating the matzah and maror together is a verse in the Bible from the instructions for the eating of the Passover offering.
They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. – Numbers 9:11
The word for “with” in this verse is al, which usually means “on” rather than “with.” Based on this verse, the roasted meat of the Passover offering was eaten in a sandwich together with matzah and maror. Because we no longer have a Temple in Jerusalem and no longer bring the Passover offering, we are left with only the matzah and the bitter herbs. And so, we eat these two items together as a way of recalling what was done in Temple times.
After this matzah and maror sandwich is eaten, it is time for the main meal of the Seder to be served. And that is exactly when the custom to eat the egg is practiced.
Imagine that you are a Jew living at the time of the destruction of the Temple. In previous years, we slaughtered, roasted, and ate the Passover lamb at the Seder. Now there is no Temple. Passover has arrived. Imagine sitting at the Seder that night. For the first time in memory, we have a Seder with no roasted lamb. We tell the story. We arrive at the moment of the Seder when we would be eating the Passover offering. What are we going to do? We have no Passover lamb. Imagine now taking matzah and bitter herbs and eating them together for the first time without any delicious roasted lamb meat. What would be going through your mind as you ate this sandwich?
To illustrate this point, imagine being offered a hamburger. You gladly accept the offer. You are then given a hamburger bun with lettuce and tomato, but no burger. When you bite into this “burger” what is your first thought? There is no doubt that you would be thinking only one thought, “Where’s the beef?”
In other words, in such a situation, the primary sensory experience is not of what you are tasting, but of what you are not tasting, of what is missing.
When we eat a sandwich of matzah and maror at the Seder we are eating a roasted lamb sandwich without the roasted lamb. Like those Jews who sat down for that first Passover after the destruction of the Temple, we are supposed to taste what is missing, what is lacking. Simply put, without a Temple in Jerusalem, we are left eating a hamburger without the hamburger, a lamb sandwich without the lamb.
With this in mind, we can now fully understand the strange custom of eating the egg. After telling the Exodus story and rejoicing in God’s redemption, we take matzah and bitter herbs and eat them in a way that reminds us of what we are still lacking; the Temple in Jerusalem. In that moment, we literally taste the fact that God’s temple lies in ruins. In that moment, we pause and mourn what is missing from the world and from our spiritual lives.
Even as we rejoice this Passover in God’s salvation and redemptive acts in history, we must also take a moment to remind ourselves that we live in a broken world, and that we yearn for the day when we will once again give thanks and praise to God in the Temple in Jerusalem.