Thursday, March 19, 2015

Mystery Guests on the Seder Plate: Charoset, Lettuce and Egg

The complex ritual of the Seder provides many opportunities for occult interpretations (see my earlier entry, The Ritual Mysticism and Magic of Passover ). Rabban Gamliel, for example, requires at a minimum that we explain the symbolism of three objects at the seder: The Pesach (shankbone) Matzah (unleavened bread) and Maror (bitter herb). But there are many more objects and gestures that get little or no explicit explanation. These are the "objects that don't know how to explain themselves."

For example - we always say the charoset (the fruit and nut compote) represents the mortar with which our ancestors set the bricks during their slavery. Yet this interpretation feels a little contrived. Why would the mortar binding us to misery be sweet? Art Waskow finally offered a drash on charoset that makes perfect sense to me. Waskow posits that the ingredients are drawn directly from foods mentioned in the Song of Songs - apples, wine, nuts, and spices. Since the early mystics understand the S of S to be God's inner thoughts at the time of Exodus, this garden of metaphors signifies the divine passion ("Your kisses are sweeter than wine") for the people Israel. The charoset then is not a reminder of concrete, but a concrete reminder of God's love for us at the time of Pesach. I think this insight is the right one and reaches back to the true roots of this minhag (custom).

Then there is the lettuce (hazeret). People are forever puzzled as to why there needs to be a second herb on the seder plate besides the horseradish. While a Mishna on the seder mentions hazeret as well as maror, many treated the terms as synonymous. Early seder plates only had five spots, while virtually all made today have six to accommodate this second herb. The lettuce has its roots in Sefardic mysticism, which insists on this added component. Why? In order to better represent the sefirot, the mystical divine structure. By having the lettuce as well as the horseradish, there are then ten components (three matzot, zaroa, carpas, maror, beitzah, charoset, hazeret and the seder plate) to the seder that parallel the ten sefirotic elements (Keter, Chokhmah, Binah, Gevurah, Hesed, Tiferet, Hod, Netzach, Yesod, and Malchut).

Finally, there is the roasted egg. Forget the "symbol of spring" or "cycle of the year" explanation. Even the "It symbolizes the birth of a nation" interpretation is a latecomer, though it makes me smile. The actual origin is not really esoteric. It's there to remind us of (that's why it's roasted) but not replace (that's why it's an egg, not a lamb) the Chagigah (festival) offering made in the Temple at Pesach. Don't confuse that offering with the Pesach lamb once eaten as part of the seder - in ancient times lambs were offered both at home and in the Temple.

But the egg in particular seems to attract funky and novel interpretations. A new drash I've heard is on the widespread Ashkenazi custom of starting the Pesach dinner by dipping a boiled egg in salt water and eating it. Earlier explanations I have heard is that it meant to remind us of Sodom, for the city was supposedly destroyed in the month of Nisan (yeah, I don't quite get it either). Then this year someone assured me it was a "Kabbalistic ritual" in commemoration of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. While we started out walking on dry land, as the Torah and Midrash says, according to this new explanation, the sea started to rise again until the Israelites had their male genitalia dipping in the salty waters.

I had to have that one explained to me twice. The person was quite insistent that this was the true meaning of the ritual. My first reaction was, "...and this is supposed to teach us -- what?" The question I should have asked was, "Since it's an egg, isn't it commemorating how the salty waters touched the genitalia of our female ancestors?" But there you have it - yet another Jewish ritual that seemingly neglects the female experience.*

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

*For the record, I do not think for one moment this is the correct explanation. I have yet to find any evidence in the Mesorah or the Kabbalah that we dip our boiled eggs in honor of our ancestors' eggs, male or female. But now that many Jews understand that Kabbalah is built around an erotic theology, it seems some folks see sex everywhere in Jewish tradition. I welcome any source material that would further expand on the esoteric nature of the seder. One reader suggested it's a Purim drash, a silly homily composed during the prior holiday of Purim, where farce, satire, and the outrageous reigns. That works for me. There is always someone out there who seea a parody and mistakes it for documentary.