Stories are important, especially stories about the Jewish past. They help us reach out over the centuries and, in a sense, take part in the experiences of our ancestors. They also generate an awareness of our heritage and enable us to draw inspiration to face our own situations as Jews.

But how many ways are there to tell a story?

The obvious way is to tell it in words, and in this the story told at the Seder meal is no exception. Indeed, the whole purpose of the Seder is to tell the story of our ancestors' slavery and release form Egypt. The very word Haggadah means "a telling".

Yet there is another, non-verbal, method of telling the same story.

The items of food on the Seder table tell their story too, for they are not only things to be eaten.

Each one is a symbol calling to mind certain core ideas. As we refer to these symbols in our Haggadah and eat them at certain key points during the narrative, they reinforce for us, each in its own unique way, the central concepts of the Passover message.

The core ideas of Passover are slavery and freedom. People often say that Passover is the time for celebrating freedom; this is not entirely accurate.

On Passover we are actually celebrating the transition from slavery to freedom.

This is eloquently expressed in the items of food on the table since they have associations with both slavery and freedom.


The Seder begins with Kiddush recited over wine. It is usually red wine, since that is the color of blood (only during the Middle Ages, when Jews were accused of using the blood of murdered Christians in the Seder, did they use white wine). Blood has obvious associations with slavery; our ancestors were beaten and they bled.

But there is also the blood of freedom. On the night preceding the Exodus, our ancestors were commanded to kill a sheep or goat and to smear its blood upon the door posts of their houses. This was to be a sign that the plague of the death of all the first-born sons of the Egyptians would not affect any of the Israelite homes. Shortly after that, our ancestors left Egypt.


The second item taken at the Seder is Carpas (usually onion, parsley or potato) dipped in salt-water. Salt-water calls to mind the tears of the slaves and so has associations with slavery.

When our ancestors stepped over the border into the desert they were not yet entirely free. There was always the possibility of the Egyptians chasing after them and hauling them back into slavery, which is exactly what they attempted to do. Only after our ancestors crossed the Sea of Reeds, and the Egyptian army was drowned, were they entirely free. It was, therefore, the sea, symbolized by the salt-water, which was instrumental in finally freeing the Jews from Egyptian slavery.


After eating Karpas we break the middle matzah. Matzah is the food which our ancestors ate during their long slavery in Egypt. We even say at the beginning of the Hagadah, "This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt...".

Visitors to the British Museum can see loaves of Egyptian bread preserved in the tomb of some king or noble, and it looks surprisingly like the round, hand-baked, Shemurah matzah which many people use at the Seder. The bread in the museum is rather thick, since it was the food of the wealthy; the round matzah, being thin and much less substantial, is the bread which was given to slaves. It took very little time to bake and very little time to eat, and so allowed the task-masters to get the maximum working time from the slaves.

But our ancestors not only ate matzah while they were slaves. After the slaying of the first-born Egyptian sons, the Egyptians were so anxious to drive the Jews out of Egypt that they did not have time to bake proper bread. Ironically, on the way out of Egypt into freedom, they found themselves eating the same matzah bread that they had eaten during the years of slavery. This time, however, it was the bread of freedom.

Bitter Herbs

The ideal substance to use for bitter herbs is lettuce. This might surprise some people, but there is a reason for it; it is in the lettuce that we find expressed a very important relationship between slavery and freedom.

The leaves of a lettuce are, of course, not bitter at all. In a young fresh lettuce they are crisp and sweet. Nonetheless, the lettuce grows from a green-white stalk which is very bitter indeed. Clearly, the crisp, sweet leaves represent freedom and the bitter stalk represents slavery.

But here a new insight is communicated. Freedom can only really be appreciated when it is rooted in slavery. We who are born free often take our freedom for granted; we do not wake up each morning and say to ourselves, "I am free! How wonderful!" Yet someone who has been in prison would do exactly this. So it was when our ancestors left Egypt, hence the use of lettuce.


When Charoset is made properly it has the appearance and texture of river mud. It was from this mud that our ancestors made bricks. Again, visitors to the British Museum can see a mud brick (with the straw still em-bedded in it) stamped with the royal seal of Rameses II, the Pharaoh of the slavery. The appearance of the Charoset clearly calls to mind the harsh servitude to which our ancestors were subjected. But when we put Charoset in our mouths, we experience something quite different. It has a sweet taste, a taste such as no slave ever experienced. Its sweetness is its association with freedom.

Bone and Egg

As well as the above items of food which are directly connected with the slavery - freedom dichotomy, we also have a burnt egg and a roasted bone (usually the neck of a chicken) on our Seder plate. These are not connected with slavery or freedom; rather they call to mind the Holy Temple where our ancestors used to offer the Passover lamb sacrifice.

It is characteristic of Jewish celebrations that there should be something to bring the Temple to mind. It might be the glass smashed under the foot of the bridegroom at a wedding or the salt on the table into which we dip our bread, or the egg and bone on our Seder table.

In this case, the egg represents the festive sacrifice which was offered on the three pilgrim festivals, Passover, Shavuot and Succoth. The bone represents the special Passover offering, and is usually roasted over an open flame as the original sacrifice was.

Symbols are a powerful way of making ideas tangible; they have an immediacy which the spoken word alone lacks. The significance of the Seder meal is, as our Sages tell us, that we should come to see ourselves as though we personally had left Egypt. There are, of course, many kinds of Egypts; material, psychological and spiritual, and ultimately the Jew must break out of all of them.

It is the visual and tactile force of the symbol which helps us come closer to our ancient roots, so that we can draw inspiration from them to break out of our own personal Egypts, what-ever form they might take.