First and foremost, Passover is a holiday, so don’t be shy about using a nice tablecloth and fancy china. On the other hand, some people keep their Passover meals extra-safe from chametz (the dreaded, forbidden leavening) by plates they only have for Passover. So if you want to use fancy paper goods instead of china, feel free, whether in the name of being extra-kosher or just not wanting to wash a million dishes after the seder.
Because the seder is all about conversation, avoid tall centerpieces – everyone should be able to see one another across the table! Plus, there’s not likely to be room for elaborate flower arrangements, thanks to some special additions to our table: the seder plate, the plate of matzah, and Elijah’s cup. In some homes, they’ll also add a couple of condiments that come in handy during the seder, such as a cup of salt water and a dish of horseradish.
The Seder Plate
The seder plate is your convenient holder of most of the main symbols we talk about during the seder. There’s sometimes a bit of variation on what appears on a seder plate – some have five items, others have six. Pictured here is the plate from JewishBoston.com’s Seder in a Box program. The circle that’s not indented says “Pesach,” the Hebrew name for Passover. Every other spot is labeled with both a picture and the name (in Hebrew and English) of the item that belongs there.
Roasted Egg: Yeah, that’s right – roasted. That means cooked inside the oven, not just boiled. Boil it first, then put it inside the oven (at about 350 degrees) and roast it until the shell starts to brown – be careful not to overcook. But if you use a simple boiled egg, no one is likely to know the difference.
Parsley (Karpas): This is the vegetable you’ll use for the Karpas part of the seder. Some people use celery, boiled potatoes, or onions instead.
Bitter Herb: Generally, this is horseradish. Traditionalists will tell you it must be the actual horseradish root. But many people use the chopped stuff from a jar, which can then do double-duty as a condiment for your gefilte fish. Note: Just a little horseradish goes on the seder plate, but everyone needs access to the bitter herb! Either put it on the individual plates or in a little bowl on the table.
Charoset: This is the delicious fruit-based mixture that’s supposed to be reminiscent of mortar. In the recipe section there are two sample recipes, one from the Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) tradition and another from the Yemenite Jewish tradition. Just about every Jewish community in the world has its own take on charoset, so if you’re feeling ambitious, check out some other recipes on the web and make a few! Note: Just like the horseradish, just a little charoset goes on the seder plate. Put the rest in a bowl on the table or on everyone’s individual plates.
Shank Bone: Ask your butcher for a piece of lamb shank bone. In the weeks leading up to Passover, most kosher specialty stores will have lots of these around. Before you put it on the plate, don’t forget to roast it – you wouldn’t want raw animal parts on your table! (Throw it in the oven with the egg.) If you miss out or forget to purchase an actual lamb shank bone, you wouldn’t be the first to substitute a chicken leg bone.
If you’re having an all-vegetarian seder, there are several alternative customs – broiled beets being the most popular. (Read more about the vegetarian options in this article from MyJewishLearning.com: http://j.mp/ShankBone.)
Lettuce (Chazeret): Really? Lettuce? This is the one that sometimes gets left off, but the idea here is to use Romaine or a similarly bitter green, which can therefore take on both the springtime symbolism of the parsley and the bitter symbolism of the bitter herb.
Other Items on the Table
Salt Water: This is one of those little condiments mentioned above. Since you need to dip the parsley in salt water, be sure to mix up little bowls of salt water and sprinkle them around the table.
Water for Hand Washing: If you’re so inclined, you may want to have a pitcher and a bowl on a side table for the ritual washing that takes place. If not, people can get up and go wash. For a contemporary riff on the ritual, pass around moist towelettes or hand sanitizer.
The Matzah: For the seder, you’ll need three pieces of matzah on a plate, under a cover. Unlike the items on the seder plate, you actually will eat these pieces of matzah at specific points in the seder. It’s traditional to use only plain (not egg, whole wheat, or otherwise flavored) matzah for these three pieces of matzah. Since everyone loves to munch on matzah, you’ll also need to have an additional plate of it on the table. Use any kind you want for this.
Elijah’s Cup and Miriam’s Cup: Some families have special, fancy wine goblets specifically made to be “Elijah’s Cup,” but any wine glass on the table, not assigned to a guest, will do. Some families fill Elijah’s cup at the start of the seder; others wait until the part of the seder that specifically mentions Elijah to do so. You could use the kiddush cup included in this box as Elijah’s Cup if you’d like.
The traditional text of the Haggadah talks about lots of men and barely ever mentions women. To help make the contributions of women more present at the seder, many families also include a second symbolic cup for Miriam, the sister of Moses. This cup is filled with water because Miriam was associated with the Jewish people’s ability to find water in the desert during their years of wandering, so filling her cup with water has double significance.
Individual Appetizer Plates
Many people pre-set appetizer plates for each person at the table, upon which they place a sprig of parsley, horseradish, a boiled egg, and some charoset. If you’re serving gefilte fish, these plates will come in handy!
David Levy is the marketing director of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. From 2010 to 2013, he was editor of JewishBoston.com.