Friday, April 14, 2017

Passover Seder and the Act of Ritualistic Memory

Sometimes the only purpose of a holiday is to remember. Of course there is the larger reason to gather people together or even the economical such as selling large amounts of (fill in the blank: candy, gifts, transportation, etc). Sometimes the economical far outweighs the purpose of remembering. Through the years especially holidays once attached to religion are losing track of this meaning. Nevertheless, memories continue to pile up.

The Passover Seder is one clearly identified with memory. Jews come together to share a meal where each of the elements are meant to cause members to recall—the exodus or journey out of Egypt of the early Hebrews. During the Seder, Jews all over the world come together to eat, drink, and read the Haggadah, the ritual text that sets out the order of the night. This scripted occasion — not only the text but also the ritual foods and the glasses of wine to be consumed are prescribed. Josef Yerushalmi, an expert on memory and Judaism, poignantly calls the Passover Seder ‘the quintessential exercise in Jewish group memory.

From Wiki: The six traditional items on the Seder Plate are as follows:

Maror and chazeret — Bitter herbs symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of the slavery the Hebrews endured in Egypt. In Ashkenazi tradition, either horseradish or romaine lettuce may be eaten in the fulfillment of the mitzvah of eating bitter herbs during the Seder. Sephardic Jews often use curly parsley, green onion, or celery leaves.

Charoset — A sweet, brown mixture representing the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves to build the storehouses or pyramids of Egypt. In Ashkenazi Jewish homes, Charoset is traditionally made from chopped nuts, grated apples, cinnamon, and sweet red wine
Seder Plate.jpg

Karpas — A vegetable other than bitter herbs, which is dipped into salt water at the beginning of the Seder. Parsley, celery or boiled potato is usually used. The dipping of a simple vegetable into salt water, and the resulting dripping of water off of said vegetables visually represents tears and is a symbolic reminder of the pain felt by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Usually in a Shabbat or holiday meal, the first thing to be eaten after the kiddush over wine is bread. At the Seder table, however, the first thing to be eaten after the kiddush is a vegetable. This leads immediately to the recital of the famous question, Ma Nishtana — "Why is this night different from all other nights?" It also symbolizes the spring time, because Jews celebrate Passover in the spring.

Zeroa — Also called Z'roa , it is special as it is the only element of meat on the Seder Plate. A roasted lamb or goat shankbone, chicken wing, or chicken neck; symbolizing the korban Pesach (Pesach sacrifice), which was a lamb that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, then roasted and eaten as part of the meal on Seder night. Since the destruction of the Temple, the z'roa serves as a visual reminder of the Pesach sacrifice; it is not eaten or handled during the Seder. Vegetarians often substitute a beet, quoting Pesachim 114b as justification; other vegetarians substitute a sweet potato, allowing a "Paschal yam" to represent the Paschal lamb.

Beitzah — A roasted hard-boiled egg, symbolizing the korban chagigah (festival sacrifice) that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and roasted and eaten as part of the meal on Seder night. Although both the Pesach sacrifice and the chagigah were meat offerings, the chagigah is commemorated by an egg, a symbol of mourning (as eggs are the first thing served to mourners after a funeral), evoking the idea of mourning over the destruction of the Temple and our inability to offer any kind of sacrifices in honor of the Pesach holiday. Since the destruction of the Temple, the beitzah serves as a visual reminder of the chagigah; it is not used during the formal part of the seder, but some people eat a regular hard-boiled egg dipped in saltwater as the first course of the meal.

Then there are the jokes. The collective memory. The memories associates with big families coming together to annoy each other.

This weekend I listened to a podcast on PRX entitled We’ll be Here All Night: Stories on Passover at if you just want to jump to 49 minutes in you’ll pick up on journalist Jonathan Groubert as he recounts the old-school joke his Sheepshead dad used to tell at the Seder year after year.

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