Reconnecting to Passover's Roots

Spring greening.

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One of the dirty little secrets about the Jewish calendar is that many of the holidays have agricultural subtexts, which over time have been muted or lost completely under the historical and religious themes that were layered on top of them. Two of these holidays, Sukkot and Shavuot, have maintained a relatively transparent relationship to their earthy roots. But finding the natural themes of Passover takes a bit more digging.

The first step is to forget about Moses--for now anyway--and recall that Passover, also known as Hag Ha-Aviv (holiday of spring), is one of the Torah’s three mandated pilgrimage festivals. It is inextricably linked to the beginning of the barley harvest in Israel. Leviticus 23:10-11 describes the omer (sheaf) offering of barley (the first grain to ripen in the spring) that took place in the Temple on the second day of Passover: 

When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.  He shall elevate the sheaf before the Lord for acceptance on your behalf.

This priestly grain dance symbolized prosperity and was the official green light that the season’s harvest could be consumed. Today, Jews count the Omer for 49 days, starting on the second night of Passover--to coincide with the date of the omer offering--and continuing through Shavuot (the beginning of the wheat harvest). In most cases, however, Omer practices have been almost completely disembodied--stripped of their connections to grain and ground.

The Seder Plate is Already Green

Contemporary Jews are, of course, forbidden to bring sheaves of just-picked barley, which is hametz, to our seder tables. Still, if one is willing to look, signs of spring and nature’s rejuvenation abound throughout Passover. This is especially true of the seder plate, which weaves together the historical and agricultural in one eating ritual.

The roasted lamb bone (z'roa), which commemorates lamb sacrifices made at the Temple is taken from one of spring’s most iconic babies. The green vegetable (karpas) sitting next to it that gets dipped in saltwater is a symbol of the first sprouts that peak bravely out of the just-thawed ground in early spring. The roasted egg (beitzah) recalls both the sacrifices made at the Temple and also spring’s fertility and rebirth.

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Leah Koenig

Leah Koenig is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Gastronomica, Jewish Living, Lilith, Culinate, Beliefnet and other publications.