Symbolism of Jewish Seder
The Seder ritual that celebrates the Jewish holiday of Passover is about the telling of a story. It is a story about transformation and symbols, the telling of which is intended to be transformative and symbolic. Although the maggid, the ‘telling’, is only one of the 14 components of the Seder (literally: order), it is by far the largest and longest portion, and the story is meant to be directly meaningful to every person at the seder table.
Even those things that are not a telling (the ritual foods, ritual objects, and ritual actions) reinforce the immediacy of the story as each participant is exhorted to personally re/live the experience of coming out of Egypt. This paper looks into the symbolic interpretation of the Jewish Seder: what does it mean, in what contexts is it used, how does it perform as a summarizing and elaborating symbol.
Until recently, the study of rituals was primarily descriptive and unidisciplinary.
Anthropologists studied the ‘exotic’ rituals of ‘others’, while religionists analyzed the evolution of textual liturgies. As Ron Grimes (1982) outlines them, the various approaches adopted by scholars have been to describe phenomenology; identify underlying structures; consider a ritual’s social functions; focus on individual and group psychology; explain a given ritual as an ecological operation; trace historical and theological precedents and consequences; and concentrate on the use of ritual in constructing life-worlds and ultimate realities.
As to the limited approach of religionists in particular, Grimes (1982) goes on to posit that “religious studies has generally avoided theorizing about ritual in favor of the classification or history of it…, because it fears explaining ritual away.”(pp.38-39) As he points out, all of these are primarily methods for either charting historical developments or for classifying. They yield results but they calcify the rituals.
In the 1960s, the study, and even the understanding, of rituals began to change. Grimes suggests that this was due to reciprocal shifts in popular culture and academic studies, especially in the work of Victor Turner. Turner “reinvented ritual”, highlighting and bringing into the field the concepts of “liminality, communitas, ritual process, and social drama.”(Grimes, 1982, p.22).
On the other hand, many scholars examined symbolic meaning of ritual. As Sherry Orthner (1973) asserts, “anything by definition can be a symbol, i.e., a vehicle for cultural meaning, that almost anything can be key,” the ritual is category of key symbols:
Symbols with great conceptual elaborating power are what Stephen Pepper has called “root metaphors,” and indeed in this realm the basic mechanism is the metaphor. It is felt in the culture that many aspects of experience can be likened to, and illuminated by the comparison with, the symbol itself…the symbol provides a set of categories for conceptualizing other aspects of experience, or, if this point is stated too unidirectionally for some tastes, we may say that the root metaphor formulates the unity of cultural orientation underlying many aspects of experience, by virtue of the fact that those many aspects of experience can be likened to it. (p.1340)
In Turner’s formulation, the liminal phase is anything but passive. It is the central and most effective moment, both dangerous and creative. Turner sees those in the liminal state, those who are ‘polluting bodies’, as inhabiting a literal and/or symbolic space where the structures of society do not exist. The liminal state can serve as a source of great creativity because it is “a condition … of ambiguity and paradox, a confusion of all the customary categories.”( Turner, 1967, p.97)
Ritual is, for him, one of the paths to the liminal state, but it must be authentic ritual with all its “richness, flexibility, and symbolic wealth” and not simply ceremony: “In Turner’s theory— perhaps more accurately, in his vision—ritual is subversive, the opposite of ceremony, the staunch conservator of culture and guardian of the status quo.” (Grimes, 1982, p.122) Here, ritual as a part of the system can elaborate a symbolic sense and,
derives not so much from the status of its particular substantive meanings, but from its formal or organizational role in relation to the system; that is, we say such a symbol is “key” to the system insofar as it extensively and systematically formulates relationships parallels, isomorphisms, complementarities, and so forth-between a wide range of diverse cultural elements. (Ortner, 1973, p.1341)
The Seder fits the category and, at the same time, expands it. The ritual is simultaneously traditional and invented, collective and individual, pre-critical and self-conscious, and involves ritualizers who create their own referential meanings. Thus the traditional criteria are present, but they are continually challenged. There are many ways in which rituals and rites can be and have been documented. Grimes (1982) proposes a method for “mapping the field of ritual”:
If we are to understand a rite adequately, the first prerequisite is as fall a description as possible…Full descriptions of rites are both hard to produce and difficult to interpret… We must work with full, evocative descriptions, not mere summaries of the values and beliefs implicit in them. (p. 48)
Grimes’ (1982) mapping deconstructs the rite into six components, each of which is described separately: ritual space, ritual objects, ritual time, ritual sound and language, ritual identity, and ritual action (pp. 45-57). This paper follows his categories in the description of Seder and elaborates its symbolic meaning at the same time.
Passover is a major holiday in the Jewish ritual calendar. Although the holiday is seven or eight days long, for many Jews the Seder ritual of the first, and sometimes second, night is Passover. And, as Ruth Cernea (1995) notes, for all kinds of Jews it has become the primary, or even only, Jewish ritual expression:
Seders are observed in every country where Jews reside, among every social class, in one form or another, in even the most difficult circumstances of war, poverty, physical danger. Those who come to the Seder share little except their self-identification as “Jew.” Although some participants are extremely pious and learned in the biblical stories and commentaries that provide the rationale for the Seder and a code for daily living, others openly disavow belief in the teachings and exclude themselves from all other ritual participation. Still, these disbelievers come, and the Seder continues to be celebrated. (p. 1)
Most Seders share certain attributes, including a ritualized liturgical portion and an extensive meal. Following Ron Grimes’ (1982) suggestion for mapping rituals, the regular Seder has been deconstructed into six components: ritual space, objects, time, sound and language, identity, and actions (pp. 45-57). The result is a description of a ‘generic’ seder that is not intended to be definitive, but, rather, to serve as a background.
The Seder is enacted in the home, which has previously been ritually cleansed of leavening, often with a gathering of extended family and friends. The center of the ritual arena is the table, around which the participants gather. On the table are placed the ritual objects and the food with its accompanying utensils. The table and house are often decorated in a festive manner, with special dishes and table linen that are used only on holiday occasions. In many traditionally observant Jewish households, the dishes used at the Seder are kept for use only at Passover (Cernea, 1995).
The symbolic foods for this ritual are: matzah (unleavened bread), wine, salt water or vinegar, greens (karpas), bitter herb (maror), a shank bone (zeroa), an egg (beitzah), haroset (a paste made from fruits, nuts, fruit syrups, and/or wine), and sometimes a second bitter herb (hazeret). The last six are placed on a special Seder plate; the matzahs are also placed on their own special dish and covered, often with a specially embroidered cloth. An extra wine glass is placed on the table for Elijah the Prophet. The hagaddah is the ritual text, and copies are usually available for every participant (Cernea, 1995).
Passover begins on the 15th of Nisan according to the Jewish calendar, and lasts either seven or eight days, depending on geographic location and denominational affiliation. (Cernea, 1995) In the State of Israel, Passover is observed for seven days. Elsewhere in the world, it is observed as a seven day holiday by Reform Jews and some Conservative Jews, but as an eight day holiday by most other Jews. The eight day version is an adaptation that was instituted because of Jewish migration and the resulting uncertainty as to when the holiday actually started in any given year (Bokser, 2002).
The seder is enacted on the first and, optionally, the second evening, depending on whether the holiday is observed as a seven or eight day event. The ritual, especially in traditionally observant households, lasts many hours. The eating of the meal, which is part of the ritual, typically occurs fairly late in the evening, and can be quite lengthy (Cernea, 1995).
Ritual Sound and Language
Most Seders include the reading of the haggadah, although the extent of the reading varies from traditionally observant practitioners who read the entire text to those who read selected excerpts. The haggadahs themselves also vary. The traditional version of the text is a mixture of ancient and more recent passages in Hebrew and Aramaic; many of the contemporary North American versions also use varying amounts of English text. Many Seders include the singing of songs associated with the holiday of Passover and/or the theme of liberation. These songs can be in Hebrew, English, or any of the other contemporary Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Arabic, French, etc. In this way singing serves as a symbol of liberation (Strassfeld, 2001).
The seder offers participants a number of possible roles: (co-)leader, reader, discusser, questioner, storyteller, singer, audience, cook, food server, person cleaning up; each of these may be taken on by one or more persons, and each person may play more than one role. The first seven roles are focused on the liturgical portion of the ritual; the last three are concerned with the traditional festive foods. All the attendees, adults and children, participate to varying degrees, depending on the particular rite and their level of interest (Cernea, 1995).
The sequence of events is dictated by the haggadah, which lays out the order of the evening. The liturgical actions, which are performed before and after the meal, include reading, discussing, questioning, reciting blessings, and singing. Some of these are taken directly from the haggadah; others are improvised or taken from supplementary texts. During the course of the ritual four glasses of wine are drunk, the symbolic foods are blessed and tasted, and the festive meal, usually a large and extensive meal with many courses, is eaten. Children are encouraged to participate; there are actions for them specifically to perform, such as asking the ‘Four Questions’ and, in some traditions, searching for the afikomen, the missing piece of matzah required to end the meal (Cernea, 1995).
Historical and Symbolical Meaning of Seder
It is necessary to discuss the symbolic foods, as their history highlights the adaptive nature of the Seder. Looking at the way this has been accomplished is particularly useful to understanding how the Seder follows in the tradition.
The Seder as we know it began in mishnaic times, although its roots lie in the Hebrew Bible. Exodus 12:1-27 describes precisely how Passover is to be observed: details of clothing and bodily comportment, foods and method of preparation, where the food is to be consumed, and with whom and within what time period it must be eaten; the roasting of an unblemished lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs are all specified (Bokser, 2002). In Hebrew, these three foods are called pesach, matzah, and maror, and they are critical elements of the seder. The pesach serves as a symbol of paschal sacrifice here. The holiday is explicitly commanded as one of remembrance lasting seven days, during which time no leavened bread is to be eaten (Strassfeld, 2001).
Passover, appropriated from a pre-biblical spring festival, was initially celebrated by family groups in their own environments:
Pesach was originally a nature festival, an observance of the coming of spring. Later, as time went on, it became a historic and national holiday, the festival of the deliverance from Egypt, and it thus assumed a newer and higher meaning” (Schauss, 2005, p. 39).
During the Second Temple period (538 BCE-70 CE) it became a pilgrimage festival and entire families gathered outside the Temple in Jerusalem to eat their sacrificed animals. According to Schauss (2005), the groups had to consist of at least 10 people, because “it takes that many to eat an entire sheep at one sitting” (p. 51). This eating of the entire animal was one of the requirements of the ritual practice. While women may not necessarily have come to Jerusalem for the other two pilgrimage festivals (Snavuot and Sukkot), they did so for Passover because they, along with the men, were required to eat the paschal lamb.
With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, it was no longer possible to continue this practice. The rabbis invented an alternative ritual for the holiday, one that was derived from and linked to the Temple practice, but that, like the biblical observance, could be celebrated by a dispersed population. The one thing that could be neither preserved nor abandoned was the sacrificial lamb: “The impetus for recasting the celebration lay in the need for continuity with the past and for overcoming the loss of the paschal lamb.”(Bokser, 2002, p. 53)
With the enactment of the sacrifice no longer available to serve as the focus of the celebration, the rabbis substituted symbolic foods together with ritual acts and liturgy, hi order to do this, they drew on other rituals and celebrations, some Internal and some external. Today, there are six symbolic foods on the Seder plate; karpas (greens), maror (bitter herb), haroset, hazeret (second bitter herb—this is not always present in contemporary seders), the zeroa (shank bone), and the beitzah (egg). The other symbolic food, the matzah, sits on its own plate (Cooper, 1993).
The greens (karpas) with which the ritual commences, not mentioned in the Bible, may be tied to the spring festival that pre-dated the Exodus theme. Some of the other foods and customs are linked to the Greco-Roman world within which Palestine was situated. Nahum Glatzer (1989) notes that, during the first and second centuries CE, a typical Roman festive meal “usually began with wine and hors d’oeuvre.” (p. 6) He hypothesizes that these evolved into the raw greens and the first cup of wine of the Seder.
John Cooper (1993) adds that the Roman hors d’oeuvre may account for the presence of the ritual egg as well: “Among the Romans the hors d’oeuvre called gustatio often consisted of eggs.” (p. 74) These Roman origins are not accepted by all scholars. Baruch Bokser (2002) concedes that the origin of the sexier was a feast but argues that there were also Jewish, models to provide precedents, and that the rabbis of the period expanded on existing indigenous forms (p. 56).
The Mishnah, compiled in the second century GE, defines the basic format of the Passover ritual, and describes a Seder similar to the one outlined in the haggadah and still practiced today. Over the course of the ritual, the participant drinks four cups of wine, “dips the lettuce in vinegar”, and eats “unleavened bread and lettuce and the harosef (Mishnah Pesahim 10:3). The passage also mandates the obligation to declare “pesach, matzah and maror” (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5), and gives reasons for their inclusion: “pesach—because God passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt; matzah—because our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt; and maror—because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt” (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5) (Kasher, 1950). Here, the symbolic meaning of ritual foods becomes more obvious. As Orthner argues:
This category of key symbols include individual elements of rituals-objects, roles, action sequences-insofar as they refer to or epitomize the ritual as a whole, which is why one can have actions, objects, and whole events in the same category. Further, scenarios as key symbols may include not only formal, usually named events, but also all those cultural sequences of action which we can observe enacted and reenacted according to unarticulated formulae in the normal course of daily life. (p. 1342)
The key symbols of haggadah are closely interlinked with root metaphors of Jewish Exodus from Egypt and ritual foods provide symbolic meaning as scenarios for descendants.
Although the Mishnah requires the presence of maror, i.e. a bitter herb, it is the Babylonian Talmud that first lists the various vegetables that qualify, and from which contemporaneous authorities selected a romaine-like lettuce—hazeret (Pesahim 39a-b) (Kasher, 1950). In the 14th century, the German Rabbi Alexander Suslin allowed horseradish where lettuce was not available, and today horseradish is frequently used at the seders of Jews of European origin. Some ritualizers place only one bitter herb on their table, referring to it as maror, and omit the hazeret. (Cooper, 1993, p. 116)
Haroset is first mentioned in the Mishnah but not described, nor is its religious and symbolic significance established. The Mishnaic ambivalence as to whether haroset is obligatory is taken up in the Talmud (Kasher, 1950). The position that it is only customary is explained as its being used “on account of the kappa” which is explained in the commentary as “a poisonous substance in the hazereth”. Bokser (2002) expands the talmudic explanation by saying that the haroset is, “required … by etiquette, as a standard concoction in which to dip hors d’oeuvres to remove insects from the vegetables or to counteract a poisonous substance on the vegetables” (pp. 453-454).
The rabbis who defend it as obligatory present religious allusions: “In memory of the apple-tree”; “In memory of the clay”; and “In memory of the straw”. That is, with the transformation of the feast into a ritual, a relevant symbolic meaning was attached to the dip. The Talmud even gives a basic recipe for the haroset (apples, spices, acrid or acidic taste, and thick consistency) (Guggenheimer, 1995).
Throughout the ages, many different ingredients have been used, and the composition of the haroset is often a differentiator between various Jewish groups: Sephardi recipes tend to use dried fruits, as opposed to the chopped apples of Ashkenazi versions (Steingroot, 1996). Ira Steingroot’s Keeping Passover (1996) contains fifteen different recipes from geographically and culturally diverse groups. The haroset is eaten in combination with the matzah and bitter herbs as a ‘Hillel sandwich’.
This act of koreikh (literally: combining) is attributed to Hillel, a sage of the Mishnaic period, who apparently derived the requirement to eat these foods together from Numbers 9:11: “They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” Many people today eat two sandwiches, the first with only maror and matzah, and the second with haroset as well. When the second bitter herb, hazeret, is present, it replaces the maror in the Hillel sandwich (Steingroot, 1996).
As a definite ritual requirement rather than a customary hors d’oeuvre, the greens on the Seder plate are a later addition: something to dip into the haroset. In the earliest known haggadah, composed in the ninth century, celery (karpas in Hebrew) is listed as the first choice for the green vegetable that was now required (Steingroot, 1996). A 15th-century explanation for the choice is that the Hebrew letters of the word karpas, read in reverse order, spell out ’60 forced’, which was taken as a reference to the 600,000 Israelites who did forced labor in Egypt. (Kasher, 1950, p. 31) Alternatives in case celery was not available were leeks, parsley, or, failing these, any other raw vegetable. In late medieval times, due to a lack of green vegetables, Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe substituted a cooked potato, with the explanation that “its green shoots conferred greenness on the whole plant.”(Steingroot, 1996, p. 35.)
During the medieval period, the custom of dipping the karpas into the haroset also changed, and the greens were dipped into either salt water (Ashkenazi) or vinegar (Sephardi). The 16th-century Shulhan Arukh explains that this change was intended to save the haroset for later in the ritual. This change followed the mandate of earlier rabbinic authorities. According to Heinrich Guggenheimer, it was originally initiated by Rashi’s grandsons Shemuel (Rashbam) and Jacob (Rabbenu Tarn) before being codified (Guggenheimer, 1995). A symbolic meaning was attached to the salt water, which came to represent the bitter tears of the slaves in Egypt (Strassfeld, 2001, p. 20)
The last two symbolic foods, the shank bone and the egg, were also introduced in post-mishnaic times, and their symbolic assignment is intentionally and explicitly attached to a change in the historical circumstances of the Jews. The Talmudic rabbis were unable to fulfill the biblical mandate to offer and eat the sacrificial lamb, but, unwilling to ignore it, they decided to devise a substitute. To the mishnaic text that specifies, “They bring before him unleavened bread and lettuce and the haroset” (Mishnah Pesahim 10:3), they added the phrase: “and two cooked foods”, and then gave several suggestions as to what these should be, one of which was “a fish and the egg on it” (BT Pesahim 114b).
Controversy regarding the composition of the substitute continued until the time of the Shulhan Arukh, when Joseph Karo, the author, and Moses Isserles, whose glosses adapted it to the usage of European Jews, both agreed that the two foods should be a shank bone and an egg. Cooper (1993) believes that the surrounding Christian culture may have played a part in their choice of an egg: “it may have been a creative response to the challenge of medieval Christianity at Easter.” (p.115)
According to Menachem Kasher (1950), the egg was chosen to represent the sacrifice because it is called be’ah in Aramaic, “which also means desire, alluding to the thought ‘The Eternal Be Willing and Redeem Us’.” (p. 29) Guggenheimer (1995) suggests that the choice of the shank bone may have been influenced by the fact that “the Hebrew name zeroa also means ‘arm’ and therefore is a symbol of God’s ‘outstretched arm’.”(p. 202) The egg and the shank bone are not usually given symbolic meanings other than their representation of the sacrifice, but they are there as an eternal reminder that Jews once had a Temple at which they offered the paschal sacrifice, and that the seder is a substitution for the ancient ritual.
In early instances of the Seder, a small table was used to hold the ritual foods. This was eventually replaced by a special plate placed on the large table. By the time of the 16th-century Shulhan Arukh, this was the mandated practice. Different arrangements of the foods on the seder plate have been proposed; the most popular one today is that of Isaac Luria, whose arrangement is connected to a kabalistic interpretation of the foods in which the ten sefirot, or divine emanations, are symbolized by the six foods on the seder plate, the three matzahs, and the plate itself (Guggenheimer, 1995, p. 202).
Thus, we can see that Seder traditions have changed over time and in response to changing circumstances, often by combining contemporaneous symbols with symbolic interpretations that link them to the tradition. Of the six foods on the Seder plate, four act as symbols of the ancient biblical celebration of the festival: the shank bone, the egg, and the two kinds of bitter herbs. Along with the matzah, these foods fulfill the biblical symbolic commandment expressed in Exodus 12:8, either directly or through substitution.
The haroset is also linked to the paradigmatic biblical story of the Exodus, serving as a reminder symbol of the state of slavery. The greens, perhaps the least symbolic and weighty of the foods, are made significant by being dipped in salt water or vinegar (the tears of slavery). Together, these six foods are a constant reminder of the struggles and the wrestlings of the Israelites, the ancestors of today’s Jews. They are the result of a process initiated by the mishnaic rabbis, who transformed a pilgrimage festival into “an opportunity to reaffirm that the message of redemption was ongoing.” (Bokser, p.443)
Perhaps because of its theme of liberation from slavery, the holiday of Passover and Seder, in particular, has been seen as an appropriate key symbol for understanding root metaphors and addressing key scenario of Jewish haggadah. Various metaphors and scenarios have appeared throughout this paper, with focuses ranging from the particular liberation of the Jews in Egypt to the general theme of freedom from oppression for all peoples at all times. The paper concludes that ancient rabbis had wise ritual and symbolic approaches to dealing with changing circumstances in their communities.
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Cernea, R. (1995). Passover Seder. Rowman & Littlefield.
Cooper, J. (1993). Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food. N.J.: Northvale.
Glatzer, H. (1989). The Passover Haggadah. 4th edition, Schocken.
Grimes R. (1982). Beginnings in Ritual Studies. University Press of America.
Guggenheimer, H. (1995) The Scholar’s Haggadah: Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Oriental Versions : With a Historical Literary Commentary. Jason Aronson.
Kasher, R. (1950). Israel Passover Haggadah. American Biblical Society.
Ortner, S. (1973). On Key Symbols, American Anthropologist, 75 (5), 1338-1346.
Steingroot, I. (1996). Keeping Passover. New York: HarperCollins.
Strassfeld, M. (2001). The Jewish Holidays – A Guide and Commentary. New York: HarperCollins.
Schauss, H. (2005). The Jewish Festival. Kessinger Publishing.
Turner, V. (1967). “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage”, in The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
 Mishnaic times refer to the first and second centuries CE, the time of the tannaitic rabbis who created the Mishnah (Kasher, 1950).
 The Israelite women gave birth to their children under the apple trees (presumably this allowed them to hide their activity); the clay was used to make bricks; and the straw was kneaded into the clay (Kasher, 1950).
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