The 7 Symbolic Foods of Passover
My confirmation class has excellent attendance. But I suspect the regular Israeli cuisine helps immensely. As much as the content keeps them coming, the food does as well.
The same is true when it comes to the holiday of Passover. Passover centers around the food. Each of the foods has a profound meaning. Here the seven foods of Passover.
Matzah: Matzah is unleavened bread. It is unfermented grains. It tastes crunchy rather than smooth. The reason we eat it is the Israelites did not have time to let their bread rise. Pharaoh and his troops were closing in.
Had they waited, they might still be enslaved. Eating the Matzah reminds us of that experience of fear. Freedom is precious. If we are not vigilant, we can lose it.
Bitter Herbs: Most of the world does not experience physical slavery. But on Passover we are commanded to put ourselves in the shoes of the ancient Israelite slaves. Eating the bitter herbs is one of the ways we do so. Tasting that bitterness ignites our sense of justice. We are determined to rid the world of remaining physical, mental and spiritual slavery.
Charoset: A pasty mixture of nuts of apples, Charoset symbolizes the making of mortar. The Israelite slave used the mortar to make bricks. The Egyptians valued bricks so much that they were willing to enslave others to produce them. Their society valued people as means, not ends. Other civilizations have done the same.
A famous Jewish legend imagines the building of a tower. Bricks are passed up a ladder man. If a man falls down to his death, people don’t care. A man is easily replaced. But when a brick falls, everyone cries out because of how much work it would take to produce another. Such a society lacks all human dignity and decency.
Parsley: This green vegetable symbolizes the arrival of Spring. Spring is a time of rebirth. Passover marks the rebirth of the Jewish people.
In crossing the Red Sea, they transformed themselves from a nation of slaves into a free people. Just as nature renews itself, so each of us can find redemption and renewal. Alas, even though Passover usually happens at the onset of Spring, here in Chicago it isoften accompanied by snowfall.
Saltwater: Slavery is not just an abstract idea. It involves real pain. The saltwater represents the tears of the Israelite slaves. It reminds us of the many who have lost throughout history because of wicked tyrants and oppressors. It leads us to ask how we can prevent more tears in our future.
Shankbone: Passover began with the sacrifice of a lamb. The Israelites placed the blood of that lamb on their doorposts so God would “pass over” the Israelite homes.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was constructed, the Passover holiday was accompanied by the offering a lamb.
The Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E., and animal sacrifice ended. We replaced it with prayer, the offerings of our hearts. But we remember the history of the Temple with the shankbone.
The Egg: The egg symbolizes memory and renewal. We remember the life of the temple that was lost.But the egg also symbolizes renewal. Like the Israelites who left Egypt, we are renewed on Passover
The Power of Memory
Memory reminds us of our connection with generations past. When we forget, we stray. We leave the ways of our ancestors and fall into the trap of, as the Book of Proverbs puts it, “following only our own heart and desires.”
The Passover ritual reminds of the journey from slavery to freedom. We preserve our freedom by remembering and retelling that story. Memory makes the past present.
Two Memorable Evenings
One powerful experience drove home this truth for me. I was early in my rabbinic career, and I had the opportunity to lead two Passover seders on consecutive evenings.
One took place at an upscale dining club. The men wore suits and most of the women wore dresses. The catered meal was brought to us, and a choir helped us sing the Passover songs. It was powerful and reminded me of the blessings of living and succeeding in America.
The next evening I led a Passover seder at a recovery center. Some of the folks came in from local homeless shelters. Many had experienced severe alcohol and drug addictions.
It was an equally powerful evening, reminding me that slavery is not always physical. It can take the form of mental, spiritual and psychological entrapment.
Wherever and whoever we are, Passover can add meaning and a spiritual depth to our lives.