Origins of the Seder Plate

Today the Seder Plate seems like a logical way of organizing the key elements of the Passover Sedar together in one place.   However beyond being an organizational tool, the origins of the Seder plate are actually rooted in the key question, “Why is this night different than all other nights?”   

In Mishnaic and Talmudic times when Jews had their Seders they ate off small tables while reclining on couches. When a course was finished, the table was removed and the next course was brought in on a new table. Even when eating habits changed, the rabbis retained the custom of removing the table. As it explains in the Talmud:

Why do they remove the table?

They said in the the house of R. Yannai: so that the children will see and ask.

Abbaye was sitting in front of Rabbah.  He saw that they were taking the table away.  He said to them:  “We still haven’t eaten, why are they taking the table away?”  Rabbah said to him, “You have exempted us from reciting ‘Mah Nishtanah.’”

                – Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 115b

In Europe in the Middle Ages people ate off tables similar to those we eat off of today. Such tables were cumbersome to remove. This led to the practice of putting the main seder foods on a plate, as is noted by Rashbam (12th century France) in the following comment:

 [Those who lived during the Talmudic period] had small tables placed in front of the one who led the seder and in front of everyone else as well. But today we move the [Seder] plate…[at an early point in the meal] and we place it on the corner of the table as if the foods had already been eaten so that children will recognize [that something strange is being done] and they will ask a question, for this is similar to removing the table.

From this history we can see that it is not just the items on the Seder Plate that are symbolic, but in fact the Seder Plate itself is deeply connected to the meaning of Passover.   

A specail thanks to Josh Kulp, our summer scholar-in-residence, for helping put together these source materials.

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