The orange on the seder plate is a newer tradition in the Passover seder, which especially speaks of the balance between the old and the new. This tradition has come to symbolize for some feminism and the equality of women in Judaism.
I remember the first time my aunt put an orange on the seder plate. I think I was in rabbinical school at the time, and it was a powerful symbol, as we perceived at the time, of women in the rabbinate. I was extremely appreciative of the gesture at the time—and that my family was embracing the idea (and not just when I insisted on my parents putting one there when the seder was at our house). And I’ve come to be increasingly appreciative of the orange on the seder plate, even as I’ve learned more about how it came to be—and what it truly symbolizes.
The story, though, is not as we first heard it. The actual tale, from Susannah Heschel’s point of view, comes from an experience she had at Oberlin College in the 1980’s, where she was shown an early feminist Haggadah which suggested including a crust of bread on the seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians. She changed the tradition to an orange—symbolizing the fruitfulness of Jewish life when all are included and contribute to the community—and also the pits of hate that should be spit out. She broadened the definition to include all who are marginalized in Jewish life. To her, the crust of bread implied that those who were other were somehow chameitz—that they violated the spirit of Judaism like bread is forbidden on Pesach.
Over time, the story itself transformed into the legend of a women speaking in Florida, at which a man heckled from the audience, saying, “A woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange on the seder plate.”
As Heschel reflects, “A woman’s words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn’t that precisely what’s happened over the centuries to women’s ideas?”
But the story of this story gets even more interesting—the women who wrote that Haggadah at Oberlin wrote recently about their version, in which they shared that they had never put the bread on the seder plate.
Instead, they took the crust of bread concept from a short story, and transformed it into leaving a blank space on the seder plate, “A Makom (place) on our seder plate for all who have been condemned and excluded because of fear or ignorance.”
In Heschel’s telling of the story, the act of the students was erased, even in an act of attempting to be inclusive. And so this orange becomes a symbol of those who have been erased…and also the idea of how stories change over time…a symbol, perhaps, of the very idea of the balance of our sacred obligation not to change and that which demands change.
Rabbi Elisa Koppel serves Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE.