A Word from Rabbi Schulman - 4/10/15
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.