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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

NEW IDEAS FOR OUR SEDER PLATES

It might surprise some of you to learn that Passover is the most observed Jewish holiday in the world. More people participate in a Seder than celebrate the fall holidays or even Chanukah! I believe that the source of much of its popularity is rooted in two related features of the Seder; that it re-creates the legendary origins of the Jewish people and that it does so in the context of recognizing that the pursuit of universal justice and human rights is never finished.


These values are the bedrock of true freedom and a Seder serves as a ritual reminder that they are the birthright of every human being. For the past five or so decades, more and more people have taken personal ownership of their celebration. They’ve dispensed with their old Maxwell House Haggadahs in favor of creative offerings, some from established Jewish movements and organizations and others borrowed from or created with the wonderful website haggadot.com.


My personal favorite innovation has been the addition of new items to the Seder Plate and table. Some of these newcomers have been around long enough to be canonized by inclusion in best-selling Haggadahs. These include the Cup of Miriam that mirrors the Cup of Elijah. The latter, of course, is filled with untasted wine to symbolize a better future. Miriam’s cup, on the other hand, is filled with water, reminding us of the legend of Miriam’s Well, mythical source of Israelite water during their flight through the Wilderness. More to the point, it draws attention to the contributions of women to Jewish and world history.


Perhaps the most famous modern addition to the Seder Plate is an orange. It’s been around long enough to have generated its own legendary origins. The version I first heard was about a rabbi who, when questioned about the place of LGBTQ people in Judaism, replied, “They have no place; they are as undesired as an orange on a Seder Plate.” It was actually inspired by a 1980s feminist Haggadah that included a (completely fictional) story about a girl who asks a rabbi about the place in Judaism for a lesbian. The angry rabbi answers, “There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate.” When prominent Judaic scholar Dr. Susannah Heschel saw the Haggadah, she was inspired to put something new – but not something totally forbidden – on her plate. She later said that she chose an orange for the way it “suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.” Today it represents feminist and LGBTQ inclusiveness.


While these days you will find these two items in many liberal Haggadahs, other additions are just now becoming popular. Among these are a roasted beet which some use as vegan substitute for the shank bone (perhaps because it kind of “bleeds” like the ancient sacrifices). Recently, olives have appeared on Seder Plates as a symbol of hope for a just resolution – a permanent olive branch of peace – in the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.


Yet another one was completely new to me this year. To honor the interfaith experiences of so many Jewish people, Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael has suggested using an artichoke. She writes, “Like the artichoke, which has thistles protecting its heart, the Jewish people have been thorny about this question ….”


The list of new suggestions for our Seder Plates also includes a tomato to represent farm workers’ rights, okra for Black Lives, cocoa beans for fair-trade justice, potatoes for Ethiopian Jews, and many, many more symbols. If you feel like you would need a whole second Seder Plate for all of these new ritual objects, that’s okay too.


There is precedent for this. Consider the humble egg, an indispensable item on every Seder Plate. Despite this, it’s completely unmentioned in any traditional Haggadah. In fact, it’s not referred to at all in any Jewish source until the sixteenth century's Shulchan Aruch. There it is said to represent a certain type of ancient celebratory sacrifice. This is ahistorical. I think it’s more closely related to our Christian neighbors’ use of the same item to symbolize spring. Passover eggs, however, have always been presented in nature’s colors.


This year our congregational Seder will once again feature a Miriam’s Cup and an orange. We’ll also be adding a selection of olives to our repertoire. And, as a non-meat eater I usually have a beet on my own table’s Seder Plate.


It’s hard to predict what will catch on in the years to come, but I can safely predict that as long as the Jewish world is capable of this kind of creativity — so relevant to the meaning of the Seder — Passover will continue to reign as the most popular holiday on our calendar.

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