Pesach is hands down the most eagerly anticipated Jewish holiday of the year. More Jews observe this festival than any other in the calendar. What's not to like about Passover? There is so much to enjoy: gathering with family and friends; reciting the ancient tale of our people's liberation from slavery; we sing and tell stories, and ask many questions. Whether you are young or old, Passover involves every age group. There is something for everyone to enjoy at Pesach time.
Of course food is a major part of the observance of Pesach. A primary commandment of this festival is the consumption of unleavened bread - matzah. During the Seder the leader holds up the matzah and proclaims: "This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt." Due to the haste by which the Israelites fled Egypt, they did not have time for their bread to rise. Hence it is a mitzvah to remember our ancestor’s plight by eating only matzah during Pesach.
During the Seder other food items help us tell the Passover story. There is charoset: the mixture of fruits and nuts that represents the mortar used by the Israelites when building pyramids; salt water, symbolizing the tears of the slaves; maror; usually horseradish, and chazeret, a second herb which remind us of the bitterness of slavery. There is the shank bone, in remembrance of the Paschal lamb that was slaughtered and whose blood was spread on the doorposts of the Israelite homes to ward off the Angel of Death. On our Seder table there is karpas, a sprig of parsley symbolizing how Pesach takes place during the springtime. Whenever the above mentioned items appear in the Haggadah, we are invited to comment upon their significance. Indeed, before matzah or karpas or maror is consumed, we are required to say a bracha, a blessing before eating it.
But there is one item on the Seder table that I have not mentioned - and no, it is not gefilte fish or matzah ball soup or Aunt Edith's tzimmes. What have I left out? The egg.
Yes, the incredible edible egg. Such a common, everyday feature for the Seder table! Unlike many treasured family recipes that may take days to prepare, or the charoset or shank bone that take hours, it really is no big deal to put an egg on the Seder plate. What, it's 20 minutes to boil, 5 minutes to cool down in water, and voila, we have one of the essentials for Pesach.
Somehow it does not seem right.
Perhaps because of its everydayness, the rabbis do not give the egg much credit in the Haggadah. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any reference whatsoever to the egg in any Haggadah. Eggs are just kind of there. Unlike the Hillel sandwich that is eaten right before the main meal, there is no set time to eat eggs during the Seder. Nor is it prescribed that you must say a blessing before eating the egg. Nothing prevents you early on in the Seder from popping the egg in your mouth and saying quietly: thank God for a little nosh before we get to the main course.
In truth, being a nosh, an appetizer, is the reason why there is an egg on the Seder plate. The rabbis who first established an order to the evening of Passover modeled their meal after a Roman banquet. The rabbis were familiar with the practice of Roman dignitaries gathering for a festive evening meal, eating and drinking to excess, and engaging in philosophical discussions that would last long into the night. Feasting, drinking, questioning, discussing were all incorporated into the rabbi's model of a Seder. Oh and by the way, according to historians, how did the Romans begin their banquets? With an egg eaten as an appetizer.
And so, eggs made it onto the Seder plate. Later, the rabbis tried to connect eggs to Passover. Some rabbis proclaimed that eggs remind us of spring because they symbolize fertility. But that position is lacking for after all, we have karpas, parsley to remind us of spring. Who looks at an egg and thinks of flowering and renewal?
Other rabbis suggest that roasting the egg reminds us of Korban Pesach, the Paschal sacrifice. But isn’t that what the shank bone is for?
So what more compelling reason can we find for eating eggs on Passover? I think I have come up with a new interpretation. And it is this: eggs are a way for Jews to observe Passover, without letting others know you are doing so. Think about it. The most obvious form of Pesach observance is eating matzah. Eating matzah at home can be accomplished easily, but eating matzah outside the home is a challenge. You have to remember to take it with you. More so, it can be an issue when you are a youngster. As a child I remember during Passover eating a matzah sandwich at my public school and every year kids would ask me, What is that stuff? As one of only three Jewish kids in my class I was shy about being Jewish and talking about what Jews do during our festival. If my friends asked to try eating matzah, well, it was no great taste treat to offer. They would sample it, crinkle up their faces, and make fun of me for having to eat it all week long.
Now don't get me wrong. Standing up for your beliefs is a good thing. Being different is positive, and educational and we should all have the courage to be proud of who we are. During Passover we should be Matzah Jews.
But not everyone has the guts. Not everyone can crunch matzah in the school cafeteria. Not everyone can go into a restaurant and order salad -- oh and hold the croutons. Not everyone can order spaghetti and meatballs -- hold the spaghetti. Not everyone can be a Matzah Jew during Passover.
But at least everyone can be an Egg Jew during Pesach. While eating eggs you can be a member of the larger society and still be Passover observant. Kids can eat hard-boiled eggs at lunchtime. Adults can order egg salad with some nice greens. Perhaps this trend of consuming eggs during Pesach is already occurring. For all we know Denny's and IHOP already are experiencing a startling rise in the consumption of omelets in anticipation of the upcoming Jewish festival. For as an Egg Jew in America, it is possible to Pass Over in the larger society without really being noticed.
So maybe that's the real significance to having an egg on the Seder plate. It represents an option for Jewish observance during Passover. It does not take great effort. It does not single you out. It does not require a blessing. Eggs represent the part of us that wants to opt out of Jewish observance. To not stand out from others. To blend in with greater society.
Of course eating matzah takes greater commitment. You have to acquire matzah. You have to make an effort to bring it with you, if you eat away from home. Eating matzah automatically singles you out as a Jew. Even if you eat it by yourself, locked in your office, there is no way other your coworkers are not going to know you are doing something different. There is no way to eat matzah quietly. Each crunch identifies you as a Jew. And even when you are done eating, you will leave behind traces of Judaism in the scattered crumbs which matzah inevitably produces.
So during Pesach, you can be an Egg Jew -- and blend in; or a Matzah Jew and stand out. That's the choice that is presented on our Seder Table each Passover. How much do you want to practice a Judaism that at times puts you at odds with society? How much do you wish to be distinguished from others who are not Jewish? Obviously my preference is for Jews who are proud and self-confident and who articulate Jewish values and practices wherever and whenever.
Ultimately, we all face the same dilemma living as Jews in America. We all stand out/blend in to some degree. We all try to strike a balance between Judaism and America; tradition and modernity; matzah and eggs. Perhaps because of our constant attempt to mix the two together that we American Jews are so fond of one special dish we eat during this holiday of Pesach. It is, of course, Matzah Brei. Now that is a dish worthy of being placed on the Seder Plate! For Matzah Brei is not merely the mixture of matzah and eggs, fried and served immediately from the pan. Matzah Brei is the quintessential dish of the Modern Jew. It is a blending of the unleavened bread of the Jews and the eggs of the Romans. Matzah Brei is a synthesis of being both a Matzah Jew and an Egg Jew.
As you celebrate Passover, may you take note of the egg and relish the opportunity to enjoy this simple and humble food. May you also embrace the commandment to eat matzah, recalling the hardships of our ancestors and how we should take pride in our distinct identity as Jews. May you enjoy a beautiful Passover and may it be filled with love and meaning and celebration.
Previously shared at a Shabbat Service on April 8, 2011.