When I think of Passover, I immediately picture family and food. The real significance of Passover, or
in Hebrew, is the celebration of the exodus and freedom of the Israelites from the Pharaoh's command in ancient Egypt.
The holiday lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). The Seder, or ritual meal, occurs on the first and second night of Passover, and is designed to take place at home rather than at a synagogue.
Passover officially begins at sundown -- when all Jewish holidays traditionally commence -- on April 2 this year.
As families and friends gather around the dinner table, each guest will have a
, the ancient text that contains the telling of the Passover story. Recitations, as well as a series of questions and answers, last throughout the meal.
It takes many years of study to master all the nuances of the highly codified holiday; it's not surprising to see some guests staying at the table for hours after the meal, debating the details of specific customs.
The most notable dietary feature of Passover is the avoidance of leavened bread.
During the holiday, Jews eat matzo -- an unleavened flatbread of just flour and water -- which serves as a reminder of how quickly their Israelite ancestors had to escape Egypt: There wasn't enough time to wait for bread to rise before it had to be baked.
The word "Seder" itself is derived from the Hebrew word meaning order, and the entire meal consists of symbolic dishes and prescribed placement.
Six ritual foods are served on the Passover Seder plate:
, a roasted shank bone, which represents a sacrificed lamb;
, a bitter herb (usually horseradish) and romaine lettuce, to recall the bitterness of slavery under the Pharaoh;
, a mixture of nuts, fruit and wine, symbolizing the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build Egyptian storehouses;
, a vegetable dipped into salt water, representing the tears shed by the enslaved Israelites; and
, a roasted egg that represents a festival sacrifice.
The seventh food, matzo, has its own place, separate from the plate.
As essential as the symbolic foods are the traditional four questions, which are asked during the meal, usually by the youngest child at the table. The questions relate to various aspects of the holiday and why some of the foods are eaten and customs are celebrated in a special manner.
Serve on This
It's possible to use traditional plates or your finest china for the six holy foods, but it adds an extra element of design and creativity to use platters designed specifically for the Seder.
Manhattan's Jewish Museum shop offers a variety of innovative and attractive Seder plates. These stylish plates use unique ways to create sections for each of the six holy foods.
"The new trend in Seder plates is floral-like patterns," says Stacey Zaleski, director of merchandizing at the museum.
Floral Garden Seder Plate ($350) is colorfully hand-painted, and comes with six cups shaped as different flowers for each Passover element.
For a dish that's truly a piece of art, check out the limited edition
Amy Reichert Seder Plate ($8,500; at right).
This platter is completely handcrafted by the artist, and features sterling-silver sections that have imprints of the six different holy foods. A rich mahogany wood box frames the dish. The original plate resides in The Jewish Museum's permanent collection.
Why get such a high-end plate? The Passover Seder is an important annual family celebration. "When you have a really nice Seder plate, you can use it year after year
and also pass the plates onto your children," Zaleski notes.
If you're looking for more of a traditional Seder plate, try the
Louvre ($330), designed by French porcelain maker Bernardaud. The set also includes six delicate dishes, with the Hebrew word for each one of the six foods hand-painted in gold.
For a more modern look, try the
Aluminum Seder Plate with Hidden Drawers by Jerusalem artist Zelig Segal ($1,350; at left). Each drawer holds one of the six ritual foods and can slide into the plate, so that after the meal it becomes a perfect square. The plate is indeed a piece of art; it too is in the museum's permanent collection.
Or try the beautiful, folk-art inspired
Lion and Lamb Seder Plate ($575). This plate was designed by a husband-and-wife team -- he makes the plates and she paints traditional images on them.
This Passover, take the opportunity to recall ancient traditions among family and friends, and add some creativity and flair to the table with these stunning, artistic Seder plates.
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