Symbolic food

Special foods have long been a part of human celebrations. Many societies have ceremonies around food and eating. In the church we regularly share communion, a kind of symbolic meal. The bread and cup are symbols and don’t constitute a complete meal. They are just a little taste and a remembrance of the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus told his disciples, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover meal with you before I suffer.” Being observant Jews, Jesus and the disciples were sharing a meal that was steeped in generations of tradition, dating back to the meal that the people of Israel ate on the eve of their departure from Egypt. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with specific instructions for teaching future generations about the Exodus, including what and how to eat.

It is a bit difficult to know the exact menu of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples. In modern times the seder plate holds symbolic foods that probably were a part of the meal. The ceremonial foods of the meal each have a role in the traditional liturgy that is spoken to educate all on the meaning of the passover.

Matzot, or unleavened bread, is an important item. It is traditional to have three matzot, covered with a napkin. One can be broken and two will remain whole. This is important because the Hamotzi blessing, required on all holidays, is to be pronounced over an unbroken piece. Some say the three pieces also symbolize the three Jewish groups: Priests, Levites and Israelites. Biblical accounts of Jesus and the disciples specifically mention Jesus offering the prayer over the matzot.

The shank bone of a lamb, with some of the meat on it, is also an important ceremonial food. It may be a reference to God’s promise to redeem the people with an outstretched arm. The meat is to be roasted over an open fire. Contemporary Jews, however, often do not use lamb for this offering. It is thought that the meal cannot be fully observed without the temple in Jerusalem and therefore a symbolic item, often a piece of chicken, is substituted for the lamb shank. The meat is not eaten as a part of the formal liturgy and so its role on a seder plate is symbolic.

A hard-boiled egg represents the offering that was made at the temple. The custom is to eat eggs with salt water, which is also a part of the meal. The offering of eggs as a symbolic substitute for the offering of birds for sacrifice dates back at leas as far as Roman times and probably was customary in the time of Jesus.

Bitter herbs to remind people of the bitterness of slavery. Freshly grated horseradish is often used. Grating the horseradish will bring tears to the eyes of the one preparing it. In some places the stems of romaine lettuce or endives are used. In modern times a food processor is often used to prepare the bitter herbs, reducing the discomfort of those preparing it. Its symbolic role, however, remains - to remind people of the suffering of slaves.

Charoset is a paste made of apples, pears, nuts and wine. It reminds those who participate in the meal of the mortar used by the slaves to build with bricks.

The vegetable, called karpas in Hebrew, has a more obscure role in the ritual. Parsley is often used in contemporary celebrations. Some say that it is a reminder of backbreaking work. The Hebrew letters of karpas can be arranged to spell the word perech if a single additional letter is added. Perech means backbreaking work. In some traditions a slice of onion or even a slice of potato is served. This is dipped in salt water and eaten.

There are also glasses of wine prescribed as a part of the meal.

The Christian tradition has moved far away from the traditional seder plate, however. In our observance only the bread (matzot) and the cup are used. In some congregations grape juice is substituted for wine in the cup. The traditional Hebrew prayers are not included in the Christian tradition. Rather words reminding worshipers of Jesus instructions to his disciples are used. The connection with the commandments to remember the Exodus are very obscure and many Christians share the communion observance without a thought of the story of the Exodus.

For the most part the connections between the Jewish seder and the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion are forgotten in contemporary observances. It can be meaningful for Christians to participate, when invited, in the seder meal as a reminder of the Jewish roots of our faith, and a way of learning about our sisters and brothers whose religious life is different from our own.

This understanding is critically important in the light of the many waves of antisemitism that have swept Christian communities and led to the horrors of the 20th Century Holocaust, in which Christians actively participated in an attempt at genocide base don the religion of the victims. The two faiths are inextricably connected and the failure to recognize those connections has led to unspeakable violence.

Sharing a meal together can be a deeply meaningful way of making human connections. Because we all need food to survive and because the fellowship of the table binds us together, the act of eating together can strengthen relationships and build understanding.

Few of us have direct experience with starvation and severe shortages of food. In fact many of us are guilty of overconsumption of food which not only leads to a lack of understanding of the importance of food, but also to health risks caused by overeating. Taking time to think carefully about food as we eat is one way to adopt a more healthy lifestyle. Symbolic foods and ritual meals can help us to change our attitude towards and relationship with food.

Eating is essential to survival, but it is so much more. Food and thinking about food can be a key to a deeper understanding of our story and the traditions of our faith.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!