Friday, May 03, 2024

Passover 2024: Really Digging This Year's Seder

Passover ended earlier this week, and while I'm still making my way through two remaining boxes of matza, it's quickly becoming a distant memory. Like past years, I thought I'd jot down some experiences from the seder as well as some prep material that I found helpful. Enjoy!

This podcast episode: 19th Century Raisin Wine in America, featuring Professor Jonathan Sarna, was filled with interesting bits of Jewish Americana. Including the mind-blowing fact that while the Bible was translated to English in the 1500s, it wasn't until the mid-1800s that a Jewish translation of the Torah was published. Professor Sarna touches on this in the podcast and explains why an American was uniquely positioned to create this first translation.

Speaking of raisin wine, I made a batch for the first time this year. In the melee that was our hosted seder, I forgot to serve it. The 'wine' tasted so-so, but the process of making it was, for someone who's never attempted this before, unique. The recipe calls for combining boiling water, raisins, sugar, and a lemon. You then stir the concoction for 7 days. For the first three days, the 'wine' was what I expected: raisin-colored water. But by the fourth day, the mixture started to be carbonated. By the seventh day, the mixture was a frothy, living thing. It was remarkable.

The podcast above also highlighted the story of Kedem. And what a story it is. I'll never look at a bottle of Kedem grape juice the same way again.

Before the seder, we did a bit of crafting to decorate our seder plate. Combining small glass bowls and stick-on jewels made for a quick and beautiful project that we could immediately put to use. At least we didn't have a repeat of last year's glue gun incident.

While watching this video on seder plates, I was reminded of the amazing fact that the seder of 1865 happened one day after the surrender at Appomattox. Jews were literally toasting their freedom at the moment that American slaves were being freed. This article explains the Jewish perspective on this moment well.

Speaking of the seder plate, I picked up four new facts about it. First, we used to feast on the foods present on the seder plate. The egg and shankbone that are now symbolic used to correspond to the meal's main course.

The Jerusalem Talmud (compiled around 400 CE) requires two unspecified cooked dishes to be eaten as part of the Passover meal. Some 200 years later, The Babylonian Talmud asks, what are these two dishes? And it offers several answers that resemble neither lamb nor eggs. ...
For most of our history, the dishes, no matter what they symbolized, were the main dishes of the meal. Today, the egg and the shank-bone are symbolic and are not part of the meal, but initially they were the meal. Only much later, as some Jews refrained from eating roasted meat at all during the Seder, the egg and the shank-bone were merely ritually placed on a Seder Plate and were left untouched.

Second, around the year 1000, Sherira bar Hanina suggested that the egg on the seder plate was a nod to Miriam.

Rav Sherira continues with a second custom, ostensibly unknown to his questioners in Kairouan:

And there are those who add another cooked dish in memory of Miriam, as it is written, “And I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).
And these three dishes consist of fish, meat and egg to correspond with the types of foods that Israel will eat in the future world to come: fish to correspond with the Leviathan, egg to correspond with ziz saddai (Psalms 50:11) and meat to correspond with shor habor (see Rashi on Psalms 50:10).

While women are featured prominently in the story of the Exodus, there's not any mention of women at the seder itself. That's why I was so struck by Rav Sherira's explanation.

Third, the oldest known seder plate, from the 1400's, has spelling errors in its text.

his plate, the earliest known Seder plate in existence, belongs to a small group of Jewish ceremonial objects that survived the expulsion from Spain. The inscription in the center refers to the main components of the festival: pesah (Paschal lamb), matzah, maror (bitter herbs), and seder. The errors in the Hebrew inscription may be the result of its having been copied by a non-Jewish artist who was unfamiliar with Hebrew letters.

So next time your creation doesn't come out quite as perfect as you'd like, know that you're in good company.

Fourth, the seder plate predates plates:

That’s right. The first seder plate wasn’t made of china or ceramic, pewter or silver – it was more like a wicker basket. And it most likely wasn’t round. In fact historians tell us that the actual name was “ke’arah” which is the Hebrew word, not for “plate” but for “tray.”

The use of a basket matches up symbolically with both the experience of baby Moses and brings to mind the first fruits ceremony. While seemingly esoteric, this ceremony provides the core text the haggadah uses to tell the story of the Exodus. A basket also fits better with the materials that our ancestors would have on hand. I've been looking for a reason to do some basket weaving with the invasive English Ivy in our backyard. Maybe next year I'll finally get it together and craft myself a seder plate.

Speaking of stuff growing in our backyard, one notable moment from the seder was when I took the littlest kids into our backyard, and they helped me harvest the horseradish I'd grown from last year's seder. Sure, the kids were in their seder clothes and we were digging in the dirt, but boy was it fun. Here's a fragment of this horseradish; you can see it's already sprouted again and will be ready to be planted soon. I'm looking forward to harvesting it next year!

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