As I brush up on the details of the Seder, one thing keeps bothering me. We always have an egg on the Seder plate, and we eat it without any pomp and circumstance during the Seder. I know all about the reasons for the matzah and maror (bitter herbs), but why an egg?
You’re actually asking about two separate, albeit related, customs regarding the egg: a) having it on the Seder plate; and b) eating it.
Let’s start with the Seder plate.
In Memory of the Sacrifices
In addition to the paschal lamb (korban pesach) that was brought for Passover, there was an offering called a korban chagigah (festival sacrifice).
On each of the three festivals—Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot—there was a mitzvah to go to Jerusalem and celebrate in G‑d’s House. Since it would be inappropriate for one to come emptyhanded, there was a special mitzvah to bring a a festival offering to be enjoyed during the holiday.
On Passover, the korban chagigah was (usually) offered on the fourteenth of Nissan, along with the korban pesach. In commemoration of these two offerings, the sages instituted that there be two cooked dishes at the Seder.
Others explain that these two dishes are meant to correspond to the two messengers, Moses and Aaron, whom G‑d sent to take the Jews out of Egypt.
These two cooked foods are traditionally the shank or neck of a chicken, and an egg. Why the egg? Some say because it is very easy to cook. But there are deeper explanations as well.
Food As Prayer
The classic explanation given in the name of the Jerusalem Talmud is that it is customary that one dish be a zero’a (usually a shankbone) to correspond to the korban pesach, because the word zero’a literally means “arm,” alluding to the verse which states, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm . . .”; and that the other, corresponding to the korban chagigah, should be an egg. In Aramaic, an egg is called bey’a, which also means “pray” or “please.” Thus, the foods silently plead, “May it please the Merciful G‑d to redeem us with an outstretched arm.”
Eggs in Mourning
Others explain that an egg—a traditional food of mourning, since its rounded shape symbolizes the cycle of life—expresses our mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple and the lack of these sacrifices.
Consolation in Egypt
Along with mourning comes with consolation. Thus, some say that the egg evokes the suffering and subsequent consolation from G‑d that the Israelites experienced. This is in line with what we say in the Haggadah, “Therefore, it is our duty to thank and praise . . . He who did all these miracles for our fathers and for us. He took us out from slavery to freedom . . . and from mourning to festivity . . .”
Free from Paganism
Many of the ancient Egyptians held religious beliefs that prevented them from consuming meat, fish or eggs. On the night that we celebrate being taken out of Egyptian bondage, we make sure to have both meat and eggs on the Seder plate, showing that we are not bound by their pagan beliefs.
The Mouths of Our Enemies
We use an egg, which has no opening, for on this day “the mouths of our enemies became sealed shut” like the smooth, closed egg. When witnessing the miracles of Exodus, it became clear to all that G‑d was protecting the Israelites, His favored people.
Eating the Egg at the Seder
The following reasons, although similar to the above reasons for the egg placement, were specifically given by various commentaries regarding the eating of the egg (with other reasons given for the egg placement), so I have therefore distinguished them:
Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema) explains that the custom of eating the egg at the Seder is an outgrowth of having an egg on the Seder plate, and it is eaten as a way of mourning the destruction of the Temple and the lack of the korban pesach. Others explain that while the egg is placed on the Seder plate in commemoration of the korban chagigah, it is eaten as a sign of mourning.
Rabbi Isserles points out that the night of the Seder has a unique connection to the destruction of the Temple, as the first day of Passover always falls out on the same day of the week as the Ninth of Av, the day of the destruction of the Temple.
According to others, there is a tradition that Abraham passed away on the night of Passover, and the egg is eaten to mourn his passing.
Egg With an Eye to the Future
While many of the explanations about the egg have to do with mourning our past, the egg also symbolizes our hope and prayer for the future. When a chicken lays an egg, the egg appears to be a completed object. Yet in truth it isn’t complete, and the egg is just a preparation for the live creature that will emerge from it later. So too the Exodus from Egypt, while at first appearing to be an end in itself, in truth is only a preparation for the Final Redemption, with the coming of Moshiach—may it be speedily in our days!