Among the characteristic foods eaten on Pesach, eggs figure prominently. There is a roasted egg on the Seder plate, representing the chagigah or festival offering; and many families have the custom of eating hard-boiled eggs at the beginning of the meal, though no-one is certain as to the reason.
The egg is a religious symbol in almost every culture. In Judaism it figures in many contexts from the exalted to the everyday.
It is mentioned only once in the Torah: “If you come across a bird’s nest on any tree or on the ground, and it contains baby birds or eggs, then, if the mother is sitting on the chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with her young” (Deut. 22:6). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says this law stresses respect for motherhood; if you need to take eggs or a young bird, the mother’s feelings must be spared and she must be allowed to go free.
The Talmud has a tractate called Betzah or Egg, dealing with the use of an egg laid on a festival. It gives facts about chickens and eggs, but deals mostly with the laws of Yom-Tov.
Naturally eggs figure in the laws of Kashrut, and the halachah often uses the size or value of an egg as a convenient measure. Thus a Kiddush cup must have the capacity of one and a half eggs; and in Poland people would shop for a betzah of salt or oil.
Eggs are served at the meal after a funeral. Being round with no opening, the egg is a symbol of mourning which, say the rabbis, “is like a wheel which continually revolves in the world, and one must not open one’s mouth in complaint.”
On Tishah B’av we are all mourners, and eggs are eaten at the final meal before the fast.
But Pesach is the best-known occasion when eggs feature in a religious ceremony. The roasted egg stands for the festival offering brought in Temple times by the pilgrim worshipper. Why an egg? Some link the Aramaic word for egg, beya, with a root meaning “desire”; the beya sums up our prayer that God may desire to redeem us from all bondage.
The roasted egg is separate from the hard-boiled eggs which some eat during the Seder meal; these suggest a comparison with the Jewish people, for an egg gets harder the more you boil it, and the more that we suffer oppression the more determined we are to remain Jewish.
The egg is also a symbol of creation. There is a link with the spring festival with its renewal of life for nature and for the people of Israel who on Pesach emerged to new life and hope.
May this Pesach see the end of oppression everywhere, the emergence of all who are downtrodden from slavery to freedom, and the spread of the spirit of hope for all mankind.