The Passover plate: Temple Beth-El’s ceremonial Seder plate holds the foods of remembrance
by Eddie Burkhalter
Mar 31, 2012 | 3648 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
When Sherry Blanton went shopping for a new Seder plate for her synagogue, Temple Beth-El in Anniston, she kept things simple.

She didn’t choose a glass plate embellished with crystals, or an elaborately painted plate from Bloomingdale’s. Blanton bought a simple, solid, yet beautiful pewter plate.

Because the Seder meal at the synagogue on Friday — which marks the beginning of the eight days of Passover — won’t be about plates at all.

As the congregation gathers together, they will eat six foods, carefully separated on the plates, each food symbolizing an event in the story of Exodus. And they will remember the suffering of the Israelites under slavery in Egypt, and their freedom in the wilderness of Sinai.

“The plates are ceremonial, but yet they have a religious value. They’re an integral part of the ceremony because the story is told through the plate,” Blanton said.

For more than 75 years, Rabbi David Baylinson has led the Seder. As he does every year, he will read from the Haggadah, Hebrew for “telling.”

It is a familiar story, but for Baylinson it is timeless, and its telling is something he relishes each year.

“Each year is brand new but very old at the same time,” said Baylinson, reflecting on the tradition of the Seder, which has changed little in 3,000 years.

The unleavened bread and matzo balls and parsley they will eat is meant to make Jews do more than remember, Baylinson said. It is also to make them feel as if they, too, have suffered and triumphed.

Temple member Rena Schoenberg and a crew of volunteers will prepare the food for Friday’s meal. Tables will be set with fine linens and china, and at each setting the assorted foods will be carefully placed.

Baylinson will lead the meal from the front of the room using the pewter Seder plate, as each person follows along with their own setting. During the meal, typically a child will ask four questions, and in the answers, the story of Exodus is told.

In a recent survey, a majority said that Passover was their first and best Jewish memory. It is a time like no other Jewish holiday for families to come together.

“They want to have the affiliation with the Seder. It’s a religious ceremony, but it’s a time for families to gather,” Blanton said.

Baylinson’s own children will travel from their homes in Washington, D.C., and Maryland and Atlanta to be with their father and hear him tell the familiar story.

Many families hold Seders in their own homes in what is called the second Seder, on the second night of Passover. But among Anniston’s dwindling Jewish population, most will meet at the synagogue to share each other’s company.

“There are not many (Jewish) families left, so the congregation is the family,” Baylinson said.

White House Seder

President Barack Obama is the first sitting president to have hosted or attended a Seder in the White House. The tradition began when, during his 2008 campaign, Obama and a small group of his staffers gathered in the basement of a hotel in Harrisburg, Pa., for an impromptu Seder.

Every year since, President Obama has held a Seder at the White House. Rather than inviting important dignitaries and religious leaders, the ceremonies are kept small, often with the same people who attended that first Seder in 2008.

Symbolic foods of the Seder

Matzo: (Matzo is placed on a separate plate.) Three unleavened matzos are placed in the folds of a napkin as a reminder of the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt, leaving before allowing the bread dough to rise. Two are eaten during the service, and one is hidden for the children to find so they can receive a prize.

Maror: Bitter herbs, typically horseradish or lettuce, symbolize the bitterness of slavery.

Charoses: A mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, as a reminder of the mortar used by the Jews in the construction of buildings as slaves.

Beitzah: A roasted egg, as a symbol of life. The roundness of the egg resembles the Earth and life, which is constantly moving in a circle.

Karpas: A vegetable, preferably parsley or celery, represents hope and redemption. It is usually served with a bowl of salted water to represent the tears shed by the slaves.

Zeroah: Traditionally a piece of roasted lamb shankbone, symbolizing the paschal sacrificial offering.

Chazeret: An additional bitter herb, which some people choose not to use. (Some Seder plates use only five separate bowls.)

Wine: Four glasses of wine are consumed during the meal, which represent the four-fold promise of redemption — with a special glass left for Elijah the prophet.