The Passover Haggadah demands that each person see him or herself as having personally come forth out of Egypt. Accordingly, the seder is one of the most sensory-heavy rituals of the Jewish year. During the seder, we don’t just tell the story of the Exodus, we see, smell, feel, and taste liberation.
Many of the elements of this sensory experience appear on the seder plate (k’arah), which serves as the centerpiece of the seder table. The seder plate traditionally holds five or six items, each of which symbolizes a part (or multiple parts) of the Passover story:
Karpas–a green vegetable, most often parsley. Karpas represents the initial flourishing of the Israelites during the first years in Egypt. At the end of the biblical book of Genesis, Joseph moves his family to Egypt, where he becomes the second-in-command to Pharaoh. Protected by Joseph’s exalted status, the family lives safely for several generations and proliferate greatly, becoming a great nation. The size of this growing population frightens the new Pharaoh, who enslaves the Israelites, lest they make war on Egypt. Even under slave conditions, the Israelites continue to reproduce, and Pharaoh eventually decrees that all baby boys be killed. In the course of the seder, we dip the karpas in salt water (Ashkenazi custom) or vinegar (Sephardi custom) in order to taste both the hope of new birth and the tears that the Israelite slaves shed over their condition.
Karpas also symbolizes the new spring. One of the names for Passover is Hag Ha-Aviv or the “holiday of spring.” Right around Passover the first buds emerge, and we look forward to the warmth and sense of possibility that accompany the beginning of spring.
Some Ashkenazi Jews use a potato for karpas, as green vegetables were not readily available in Eastern Europe.
Haroset–This mix of fruits, wine or honey, and nuts symbolizes the mortar that the Israelite slaves used to construct buildings for Pharaoh. The name itself comes from the Hebrew word cheres or clay. Ashkenazi Jews generally include apples in haroset, a nod to the midrashic tradition that the Israelite women would go into the fields and seduce their husbands under the apple trees, in defiance of the Egyptian attempts to prevent reproduction by separating men and women.
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