New Understanding of the Enduring Holiday Symbols… Plus an Orange


From The Liberated Haggadah by Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer, published by the Center for Cultural Judaism.

What do all these symbols mean? There are many answers. Some are preserved as part of our tradition and are explained by the legend we have told. Others are provided by biblical scholars who remind us of the origins of the spring festival that are the root of this celebration. And finally there are the modern interpretations that we write ourselves. These give voice to our own imagination and creativity in keeping with the idea that the haggadah is forever new.

Pesach—To remind ourselves that we were passed over (pasach) and saved when the Egyptians were plagued and ruined. And to teach us that the lamb, newly born in the spring, is a reminder that at this season we celebrate the joy of birth, new life, and continued sustenance.  And to remind us, too, that we have not always been passed over, but too often have met with the same fate of slaughter as the innocent lamb.

Matzoh—To remind us that when our ancestors fled Egypt they had no time to bake their bread. They could not wait for the yeast to rise. And to remind us that matzoh is the bread of new life. In ancient Israel, flat bread was baked from the unfermented grain of the new spring harvest to celebrate the newness of the reborn earth. And to teach us, too, that we will gladly give up the fleshpots of Egypt with its pretense of luxury for the simplicity of liberty and the bread of freedom.

Maror—To remind us of the bitterness of our slavery and the gift of our freedom that we too often take for granted. And to remind us that our ancestors ate bitter herbs at the time of the spring festival. The sharpness of the taste reawakened their senses and made them feel as one with the revival of nature. And to teach us, too, that not all know the taste of freedom. Let us also remember the embittered lives of all those in the world who remain in bondage, physically and mentally, and continue to suffer without relief.

Haroset—To remind us of our bondage in Egypt when we mixed clay to make mortar and bricks for Pharaoh. And to remind us that our foremothers took risks for freedom and acted courageously when they gave birth to the next generation under the shade of the Egyptian apple trees. And to teach us, too, that just as the parsley is dipped in salt water to sharpen its flavor, so do we dip the unleavened bread and bitter herb into the haroset to sweeten our taste. In this season of lie, we remember the goodness of life.

Baytsa—To remind us of the special festival offering by which the priests, in Temple days, expressed their gratitude for the well-being of the people. And to remind us that eggs are the symbol of life, of birth and rebirth. As all around us nature dances with new life, so may this season stir within us new strength, new hope, and new joy. And to teach us, too, that the egg, which becomes harder and tougher when heat is applied, symbolizes the toughness of the Jewish people to endure and persevere despite our suffering.

Orange—To remind us that the Seder is always growing and that new symbols can be included in our celebration with evolving messages of their own. And to remind us that all people have a legitimate place in Jewish life, no less than an orange on the Seder plate, regardless of gender or sexual identity. And to teach us, too, how absurd it is to exclude anyone who wants to sit at our table, partake of our meal, and celebrate with us the gift of life and the gift of freedom.