Many have at least heard of Passover, but it’s safe to say that most people who aren’t Jewish don’t know what the eight-day festival really is. And in order to fully grasp the important holiday that celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, you need to know the meaning behind the Passover Seder plate.
The Seder is a symbolic meal that marks the passage of the Jewish people from a time of bondage to a time of freedom. This traditional meal typifies different parts of the Passover story using different foods. During the Seder, the haggadah is read to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. Children are often called upon to explain the meaning of each item on the Seder plate and also to read the four questions, which begin with, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
On the Seder plate, customarily presented on a beautiful silver dish, you’ll find six spaces, each with its own unique meaning.
Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, represent the bitterness of slavery. Grated horseradish root or jarred horseradish can be used and typically eaten on a piece of matzo.
Often only one bitter herb (horseradish) is used on Passover, but there are two places on the seder plate. In the U.S., people typically use romaine lettuce as the second bitter herb.
A sweet mixture of roughly chopped apples, walnuts, cinnamon and red wine, charoset represents the mortar that was used to construct the storehouses by the Jewish people when they were slaves in ancient Egypt.
Here, parsley or another green vegetable symbolizes the coming of spring. In the Ashkenazi tradition, it is dipped in salt water, which represents the tears of the Jewish people when they were slaves.
The lamb shank bone is the one part of the Seder plate that is not eaten during the dinner. Instead, it serves as a visual reminder of the special Passover sacrificial lamb offered at the temple in Jerusalem before its destruction.
Often eaten with salt water, hard-boiled eggs are a symbol of life. It is also said to represent the second offerings presented at the temple in Jerusalem, sorrow at its destruction and the hope that it will be rebuilt.
A version of this article was originally published in March 2012.