The Meaning of Passover and the Seder Plate

Zingerman's Passover Seder Plate

 

If you’ve found yourself asking: What is the meaning of the observance of Passover? What’s the significance of a seder plate? What food is served at Passover? Why is bread not served at Passover? What are Passover desserts?

You’ve come to the right place for answers

At Zingerman’s Delicatessen, we believe in the value of knowing the history behind our food traditions and keeping them alive. We think it’s our duty to pass those traditional recipes and stories of food origins with our community of guests, staff and food lovers. In addition of course, to making the best food we can imagine and serving it with style and great care.

This is especially true when it comes to our Jewish roots. Some of our Passover recipes come from the grandmothers of our co-founders, Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig. Read on for the story of Passover and the meaning of the six foods of the seder plate. And if you’re looking for help with cooking or serving a Passover seder meal, we can do that too!

The Story of Passover

Passover, known as Pesach in Hebrew, literally “passing over,” commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from their enslavement in ancient Egypt and their subsequent journey into the wilderness, as documented in the Book of Exodus in the Bible. According to Exodus, to persuade the Egyptian Pharaoh to release his people from bondage, the Jewish God visited upon Egypt ten plagues. The tenth, and most sinister, of these involved the death of every firstborn male. The Angel of Death, however, “passed over” Jewish households, identified by a mark of sacrificial lamb’s blood on their doorposts. Upon the Pharaoh’s decision to free his captives, the fleeing Jews ate a celebratory meal of the roasted sacrificial lamb, unleavened bread (they didn’t have time to wait for the dough to rise) and bitter herbs, before they returned to their homeland. The annual observance of Passover, which occurs in the early spring, is both a remembrance of the ancient Jewish experience of slavery and suffering, as well as a celebration of their liberation and hope for a better future.

Passover is observed by participating in ceremonial meals, called seders, that are rich in symbolism and ritual. Ancient Jews took young lambs to be sacrificed from the Temple in Jerusalem in an annual pilgrimage to celebrate their emancipation from slavery. Their seders would have been similar to the meals eaten on the night preceding the flight from Egypt; roasted lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE, Jews were banished from Jerusalem, forbidden from practicing their religion, and compelled to flee to North Africa, Europe and the Middle East in what is known as the Jewish Diaspora. Seders from then on took the form of family rituals held in private households. Over time the foods and customs of the various lands that Jews migrated to were incorporated into the dishes served during the meal. A constant throughout the Jewish world is the prohibition of leavening or ferment, called hametz, from one’s home during the holiday, a practice rooted in the inability of their ancestors fleeing Egypt to wait for their bread to rise before escaping slavery.

The Passover table, analogous to an altar at the Temple, is of great significance, and is set with the finest quality cloths, china, glassware, silver and candles a family can offer. Participants in the seder take turns reading of the Haggadah (literally “the telling of the story of Exodus”), which gives an account of God’s miraculous delivery of his people from slavery, and the birth of the ancient Jewish nation. Four cups of wine, each one symbolic of the promises God made during their liberation from Egypt (“I will bring you out…,” “I will deliver you…,” “I will redeem you…,” and “I will take you to me…,”) are consumed throughout the ceremony, signifying that the seder night is protected from evil. A fifth glass is poured for the prophet Elijah and is symbolic of the fifth divine promise, “I will bring you to the promised land,” signifying continued safety within their community. The Passover table is graced with the ceremonial seder plate, which includes the six symbolic foods of Jewish liberation:

The Seder Plate

Zeroa

The “forearm” is symbolic of both the outstretched arm of God delivering the Jews from Egypt, as well as of the sacrificial lamb’s blood smeared on Jewish households to identify their inhabitants so that the Angel of Death would pass them by. In most households the zeroa comes in the form of a lamb shank or chicken bone.

Karpas

A raw vegetable, usually a spring green, parsley or celery, that is dipped in salt water. The salt water symbolizes the tears shed by the Jews during their years of enslavement in Egypt. Interestingly, it also represents the compassion Jews should feel for the Egyptians killed by the Angel of Death during the tenth plague. Though karpas is associated with remembrance of a tragic past it is also a symbol of rebirth and springtime and the hope they bring for a better future.

Beitzah

A roasted egg, is again symbolic of a bitter and tragic past, as well as hope for a more promising future. It’s roundness evokes the cycle of life, from birth to death. For some it is emblematic of the destroyed Second Temple of Jerusalem, and the subsequent mourning of the prohibition of the Jewish religion, including Passover festival sacrifices. The egg is also a symbol of rebirth and new life, and engenders feelings of optimism and possibility.

Maror

Bitter herbs, often horseradish, romaine hearts or chicory, conjures memories of the bitterness of slavery. Bitter herbs were also part of the original Passover meal, eaten the night before the Jews were set free. Traditionally, ancient Jewry would have collected herbs that only grew in the early springtime, thus continuing the dichotomous theme of remembering a tragic past, coupled with renewal and a hopeful future.

Charoset

Stemming from the Hebrew word “cheres,” or clay, is a paste-like mixture of fruit, nuts, wine or vinegar, and represents the mortar the Jews used to build the Egyptian pyramids. Not a part of the original Seder, charoset probably first appeared during the Greco-Roman period. It can be made of a variety of ingredients and often reflects the culinary influences of the adopted lands Jews migrated to during their Diaspora. Jews of the Ashkenazi tradition, rooted in Eastern Europe, often use apples, nuts, sweet wine and cinnamon. Jews from the Middle East and North Africa would instead incorporate fruits, both dried and fresh, like dates, raisins, and oranges, that are native to their regions.

Matzah

This represents the bread the Jews ate during their last night of bondage in Egypt. In their haste to flee they didn’t have time to wait for their dough to rise before baking so the bread they ate was flat and hard, called matzah. Eating matzah, “the bread of affliction,” reminds Jews of their past enslavement, the urgency of their liberation, and the importance of being humble in light of their redemption from suffering.

Passover Specialties at Zingerman’s Deli

For those local to Ann Arbor, Michigan, Zingerman’s Deli offers an impressive Passover menu. While the menu is not kosher, it does feature ceremonial seder plates and complete seder meals with all the fixings and plenty of a la carte options, too. There’s also some very special desserts from our friends at Zingerman’s Bakehouse and Zingerman’s Creamery.

Our Passover menu features many familiar dishes in the Ashkenazi cooking traditional style—dishes like beef brisket, noodle kugel and handmade gefilte fish (this is where those family recipes come in), but we also delve into Sephardic recipes.

Our Yemenite charoset, for example, draws from the Arabian Peninsula and includes fresh ginger, almonds, apples, dates, raisins, and sweet kosher wine. We also serve the Ashkenazi recipe with apples and toasted walnuts that more commonly appears on the Jewish American table.

“We enjoy paying homage to the two culinary traditions,” says Deli sous chef Andrew Wilhelme, adding that he prefers the “yummy” Yemenite.

It wouldn’t be Passover without matzo balls, and ours are better than ever—we’re making them with matzo from The Matzo Project. The company is the work of Brooklyn-based duo Ashley Albert and Kevin Rodriguez, who set out to bake a new take on the Jewish food staple. We love the flavor and texture their Matzo Ball Mix adds to our matzo balls, which we craft with schmaltz (chicken fat), eggs, and spices. Even our notoriously discerning master matzo ball maker was surprised at the difference!

Just like matzo, desserts for Passover are made without leavening. We have everything from the traditional toasted coconut macaroons, to a twist on that classic, macaroon gelato from Zingerman’s Creamery. Zingerman’s Bakehouse creates light and luscious fruit Pavlova, and bright lemon meringue sponge cake. The star just might be the Chocolate Orange Torte. The torte has endured for decades.

“No sacrifice necessary when enjoying this Passover dessert—rich chocolate cake made with matzo meal, ground toasted almonds, orange zest and fine chocolate with a rich chocolate ganache icing. Most of our guests don’t even know it’s for Passover. They enjoy it all month long,” says Amy Emberling, the co-managing partner of Zingerman’s Bakehouse.

We look forward every year to being a special part of our guest’s Passover celebrations.  Whether we cook the whole meal or you just look to us for that something special to add to the table, we thank you for allowing us to be part of it.  Sending love and peace from our kitchen to yours 💛