Stepping up to the Seder Plate: Rabbis Consider Unconventional Passover Foods

A silver seder plate displays the traditional Passover foods.
Some Philadelphia-area rabbis argue that additions to the seder plate, such as oranges or chocolate, can enhance the meaning of the seder to some attendees. | photovs / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Over the past few decades, new seder plate foods have joined some Passover tables.

Next to the maror, charoset, karpas and other symbolic snacks sit oranges, artichokes, olives, chocolate and others.

Beginning with the practice of Oberlin College Professor Susannah Heschel, who, in the 1980s, put an orange on her seder plate to represent LGBT people and women’s fight for equality, some Jews have started the practice of adding objects to the seder table to represent their Jewish values or struggles: Artichokes represent an interfaith family; olives show a desire for peace between Israelis and Palestinians; chocolate or cocoa beans are for the free trade labor movement. In theory, any food could make its way onto the seder plate, representing whatever the seder’s guests willed it to.

Just as with any Jewish tradition, old and new, the additions to the seder plate have garnered supporters and skeptics, seder plate pessimists and purists. Philadelphia-area rabbis have thoughts on the issue.

“The whole idea of the seder plate is to provoke questioning, to make us ask, ‘Why are those things there?’” Germantown Jewish Centre Rabbi Adam Zeff said. “When we’re confronted with things that are new, then we have to think about that.”

The mitzvah of the seder is to evoke lively discussion and curiosity, and novelty, such as an orange on a seder plate, helps to do this, Zeff argued. He recalled a Chasidic story about a rabbi preparing for the Passover seder, who told his servants to remove everything from the dinner table. When the rabbi’s son comes down for dinner, he asks, befuddled, why nothing is on the table.

“Aha!” the rabbis says, per Zeff’s retelling. “Now we can start the seder.”

Seder plate traditionalists who opt out of additions argue that the seder’s novelty is already built into Passover tradition.

Philadelphia Chabad Rabbi Menachem Schmidt thought about the role of maror, horseradish, on the seder plate. Usually a condiment used sensibly, on Passover, maror is eaten by the spoonful, prompting the watering of eyes and the sticking out of tongues  — unpleasant feelings that force seder attendees to address their discomfort.

“Bitterness is something which is used very sparingly and strategically and creates a spiritual or emotional movement,” he said.

Judaism has also long used symbols that have many meanings, and the seder plate is no exception, Congregation Beth Hamedrosh Rabbi Yonah Gross said.

Gross used the example of the holidays of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem. Many Orthodox Jews don’t observe Yom HaShoah, not because they don’t believe in commemorating the Holocaust, but rather because they believe that Tisha B’Av is a holiday already designed to encompass dates of Jewish tragedy. Similarly, additional foods don’t need to be added to the seder plate because the items already there represent broad enough themes to accommodate the struggles of both today and biblical times.

“There is a middle ground,” Gross said.

However, traditions and holidays evolve, Mishkan Shalom Rabbi Shawn Zevit said. Seder plates and Haggadot were not always around for the holiday, and new Passover foods and traditions are as inherent to the holiday as the seder plate itself.

“Even the seder plate itself didn’t just pop into being one night. … Even the four questions which we sort of treat as though they came down with the Big Bang, they have evolved, too,” Zevit said.

Newness helps keep younger Jews engaged and, in the case of new seder plate foods, helps Jews who may not have felt included in Jewish tradition — such as Jews by choice or Jews of color — have a place at the table.

For Har Zion Temple Rabbi Seth Haaz, whether to add new foods to the seder plate comes down to the balance between new and old. 

Haaz, like Zevit and Zeff, has had his seder plate and table change over the years. He believes that “a traditional seder is one that evolves.” However, he still thinks there’s something important about having those core foods on the plate. It’s special to imagine every other Jewish family around the world having those items on their table, taking part in the same tradition.

“Our Jewish culture binds us together as a people on that night,” he said.

Though Rabbi Nathan Weiner of Marlton, New Jersey’s Congregation Beth Tikvah doesn’t add anything new to his seder plate, he takes no offense from those who do, believing that any seder plate with meaning to those around the seder table is good enough.

“I’m all for whatever it takes to make the seder deeply relevant and personal to the people who are experiencing it,” he said.

[email protected]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here