The centerpiece of the Seder night is the Seder plate, which contains six ceremonial items, most of which are (or at least may be) consumed during the course of the feast. The exception is the zeroa, which literally means “arm,” and refers to the piece of meat (traditionally a shank of a lamb, chicken thigh or chicken neck) that sits there all night long. The Chabad custom is to use a roasted chicken neck with most of its meat peeled off, and place it on the upper right side of the platter.

What is it, and why do we have it there?

The sages instituted that two cooked dishes be present at the Seder, one commemorating the Paschal sacrifice, and another to remind us of the Chagigah sacrifices that were brought before each holiday, including Passover.1

(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.2)

In Talmudic times, there were various customs as to what these dishes were. Rav Huna taught that they could be as humble as radish and rice. 3 Chizkiya taught that they could even be one dish made of two ingredients such as fish cooked with egg. Rav Yosef taught that they should be two types of meat (one cooked and one roasted),4 closely resembling the two sacrifices they commemorate.5

Following the tradition of the Jerusalem Talmud,6 the universal custom today is for these two dishes to be an egg and the zeroa. To learn more about the egg, its symbolism, and how it is eaten, click here.

Zeroa literally means an “arm,” reminiscent of the “outstretched arm” with which G‑d took us out of Egypt.7 Some use a lamb shank (arm), a fowl thigh, wing or a neck.8

Since the zeroa symbolizes the Paschal sacrifice, which was roasted, the custom is that the zeroa is roasted as well. However, since it is absolutely forbidden to sacrifice outside of the Temple Mount, and we do not want it to appear as if we are (heaven forbid) eating an actual Paschal sacrifice, we do not eat the zeroa. This is also the reason some prefer to use limb of a bird (which does not at all resemble the Passover offering, which was a lamb or a kid), and then strip much of the flesh from the bone.9 If you follow this custom, take care that some of the flesh should remain or it is not considered a zeroa.10

The fact that we do not consume the zeroa at the Seder brings us to an interesting complication. On (non-Shabbat) holidays, we do cook (with certain restrictions), provided that we will eat that food during that same day. So if you forgot to prepare the zeroa before Passover and wish to roast it during the holiday, make sure to eat it the following morning—but not at the Seder itself. We do not, however, cook food on Shabbat. So when the Seder coincides with Shabbat, you’ll need to have roasted your zeroa by Friday afternoon.