Discussion Starters from the Seder Plate

Apr 17, 2019 by

Discussion Starters from the Seder Plate

Just in case Miriam hasn’t stopped by to replenish your well lately.

The Two Cooked Dishes

Starter

Pesach 114b of the Babylonian Talmud mandates “two cooked dishes” (in addition to charoset and chazeret) be present on the seder plate. While Rav Huna advocated for the vegan options of cooked beets and rice, Rav Yosef insisted that each should be meat, one as a remembrance of the obligatory paschal sacrifice (usually interpreted as the shankbone) and the other, a voluntary commemoration our festive celebration (usually understood as the egg).[1]

Potential Discussion Directions

  • Out of the sacrifices on your proverbial plate, what is done out of obligation (the shank bone) and what is done out of voluntary joy (the egg)? How do we choose to spend our time and resources? Where is the balance between the two? Where is the integration between obligation and joy?
  • (Using two brave volunteers, or in teams) Debate Rav Huna’s position for a vegan seder plate versus Rav Yosef’s position for a sacrificial seder plate. What are the benefits to each? Why would so much of tradition weigh on the side of the sacrificial seder plate? How does what we know about modern agricultural sustainability inform this debate?
    • Potential supporting text for Rav Huna’s “side”: “For as soon as man ceases to look upon himself as the empowered guardian and administrator of the earth… For him the sun does not shine, nor the thunder roll, the lightning flash, or the earth deck itself in green…” Rabbi Samuel Raphael Hirsch, Nineteen Letters
  • Sherira Gaon (986-1006 CE) recorded that many added a third cooked dish to this list, in memory of Miriam (in reference to Micah 6:4, “I brought you from the Land of Egypt… I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam”) How are we working to include women’s voices today? In our religious practice? In our organizations?
  • It takes energy to cook a dish. As Passover marks the start of spring, let’s take a moment to reflect: where are you directing your energy? Is that direction aligned with your driving values? How is the holiday of Passover meant to help us realign how we spend our energy with our values? 

Matzah

Starter

“This is as the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt; let all those who are hungry, come and eat; and all who are in need, come and celebrate.” (Ha Lachmanya, Passover Haggadah)

Potential Discussion Directions

  • Many cultures – including our own Western one, especially when you look on social media – often hides any kind of affliction, as a source of shame or embarrassment. Yet here we are, holding it up and naming it honestly, as one of the centerpieces of tonight’s celebration. How can we work to highlight, rather than hide, today’s afflictions? What affliction do you wish was spoken about openly and honestly?
  • What can we do to mitigate affliction?
  • Some require that three matzot be on the table, in order to represent three different parts of ancient Israelite society, the Kohen, the Levi, and Israel. What different kinds of class systems exist in our society today? What can we do to ensure that all of us are able to experience not just sustenance but also celebration?
  • In Mishnah Pesachim 10:5, Rabban Gamliel states that matzah is also a symbol of redemption. When have you seen a failure or affliction be eventually turned into a learning experience and, if especially lucky, redemption?
  • Why do we say the blessing for matzah over the broken piece? Where can we find the holiness in the brokenness?

Maror

Starter

Midrash HaGadol on Exodus 1:14 reads “In four things there is said to be bitterness. The inability to conceive children… bereavement over children… a broken heart… and terrible illness. When the Egyptians enslaved Israel, they caused all of these.”[2]

Potential Discussion Directions

  • Depending on what is happening in your community and the context of your seder, you might want to discuss some deeply personal issues. There are organizations that can help you frame some of these discussions around infertility, child loss, the importance of therapy and other healing practices, and health issues.

D’var Acher: A different Starter

We eat maror, or bitter herbs, while reclining ceremoniously.

Potential Discussion Directions

  • Why is it important that we recline? Why do we express gratitude while reminding ourselves of bitterness?
  • Maror is a symbol of the bitterness of slavery. Modern day slavery exists; and in all its forms, it is still just as bitter. There are organizations that help. Let’s discuss.

Charoset

Starter

Mishnah Pesachim 10:3 lays out the different requirements for a seder plate. It lists matzah, chazeret (lettuce), charoset, and two cooked foods. However, in Pesachim 116a of the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis debate if eating charoset is truly a commandment, as it is not a symbol found within the Torah. Rabbi Levi connects charoset with remembering the sweetness of love, quoting Song of Songs 8:5. Additionally, Rabbi Yochanan associates charoset with the memory of the mortar used by Jews when they were slaves in Egypt.

Potential Discussion Directions

  • On the importance and beauty of diversity: Why would the rabbis have a single symbol seemingly hold such different meanings?
  • On memory: why would we need so many symbols to remind us of all the different parts of the Passover story? Why wouldn’t one symbol be enough?

Elijah’s Cup

Starter

While the idea of welcoming the prophet Elijah, as the harbinger of a more perfect age, is recorded in the third century, the placing of Elijah’s cup on our seder table cemented into tradition only by the early medieval period.

Potential Discussion Directions

  • Why would the yearning for a more perfect age be so strong as to change tradition in the Middle Ages? What imperfections about today’s age drive you to hope for (and maybe work towards) change?
    • What role does fear play in our lives today? How can we work to strengthen our hearts against the emotional slavery of today’s fears?
  • “‘Come out,’ called God [to Elijah], ‘and stand on the mountain before Adonai.’ And lo, Adonai passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but Adonai was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but Adonai was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but Adonai was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he covered his face.” (1 Kings 19:9-12) Where do you find the still, small divine voice?

[1] Hoffman and Arnow, ed., My People’s Passover Haggadah, vol 1, p. 38

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., lived in Tel Aviv, Israel until recently, and now resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

Related Posts

Share This

Leave a Reply