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    The Seder: The culinary & cultural dimensions

    “Passover” by Arthur Szyk

    The Seder meal has both culinary and cultural dimensions.

    There are Biblical precedents for both, beginning in the 12th chapter of Sh’mot.

    The Seder meal began the first year after the exodus from Egypt, developed accretions as it went, was added to in the days of the Greeks and Romans, and became what Cecil Roth called “a fossilised domestic feast of twenty centuries ago”.

    There are two ranks of Seder foods.

    Top priority goes to the Biblically-ordained pesach (roasted lamb), matzah and maror (bitter herbs). Without them a Seder is incomplete, and Rabban Gamli’el says that one who does not expound these three items has not done his duty.

    Now that the Temple service is in limbo, the Passover offering is no longer possible, and Judaism and Christianity handle the problem differently.

    Judaism leaves the list unchanged but moves up the other two foods, with matzah now receiving top billing and the lamb left symbolically to the z’ro’a (bone). Christianity avers that the sacrifice remains, though in a new form with Jesus as the “lamb of God”.

    This is not the only problem. What should we use for maror?

    The Talmud uses the Hebrew name chazeret (Pesachim 39a), which many writers (e.g. Mishnah B’rurah 203:10) identify with chrain, horseradish. However, it is chassa in Aramaic (lettuce in modern Hebrew). Rashi calls it letuga, akin to lettuce.

    What ranking do we give to the wine? Though not Biblically-ordained at Seder, we consider it highly important. Its role is not unique to Pesach. It is part of every happy event: Psalm 104 says, “Wine gladdens the heart of man”.

    The second-level foods – egg (betzah), sweet paste (charoset), vegetable (karpas) and salt water (mei melach) emerge from the history of Pesach.

    The egg represents the festival offering, the charoset recalls the mortar binding the bricks used by the slaves, the salt water symbolises the tears which the Israelites wept.

    The karpas is not important in itself but is needed for the dipping of sweet into sour (the sour is dipped into the sweet when we dip maror into charoset). The meal customs derived from the Roman gentry include appetisers dipped in condiment.

    There is a range of theories about karpas, focussing on its name, its nature and its purpose.

    The name is Greek or Persian and is found in Megillat Esther. Karpas is sometimes explained as a vegetable and sometimes as a fabric. In a drama that begins with Joseph and moves into and out of Egypt, either view has Biblical precedents in the dipping of Joseph’s coat or alternatively hyssop.

    There is a light-hearted thought that karpas is a notarikon: kartoffel (potato) / radish / parsley / celery.

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