Celebrating Passover, millions of observing Jewish people have gone to great lengths to put out their mouth-watering spreads on the Seder table during the eight-day festival.
Jewish Passover, an annual festival of the faith, commemorates Moses leading thousands of Jewish people out of Egypt to the “promised land” of Canaan, following years of slavery.
This year the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach as it is known in Hebrew, started on the evening of 27 March and is set to end at sunset on 4 April. The last day of Passover celebrates the deliverance of Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and is marked with a feast.
Jewish South African culinary queen and renowned cookbook author Sharon Lurie tells Food For Mzansi that every year Jewish families celebrate the first two nights of the festival by sitting around the Seder table, eating foods that symbolise the plight of their ancestors.
This includes Matzah or Matzo which represents unleavened bread the Jewish people took with them as they embarked on a 40-year journey through the desert.
“We start celebrating Pesach with the Seder meal where Matzo makes its debut and our own home-grown vintage wine takes centre stage,” says Lurie.
‘Pesach is anything but eight days. It is an intense five weeks of hard labour, scrubbing and cleaning like an obsessive maniac!’
“Year after year we come together at the Seder table where we tell the story of our Exodus from Egypt, and lively songs and beautiful thoughts are shared.
“Times such as these, in which we connect to our past, keep us united so that we may continue to celebrate from generation to generation.”
The calm before, after and during the storm
When Lurie married husband Ian, a fourth-generation Johannesburg-based kosher butcher, she embarked on a mission to prove meats from the forequarter of the animal do not always have to be tough, dry, or boring.
Her mission inspired a series of books, with her first, Cooking with the Kosher Butcher’s Wife in 2006, becoming a go-to guide for Jewish South African cooking.
Seder means “order”, which Lurie adds is ironic that on this particular night of freedom, “We still have to follow an ordered, 15-step Seder! Thank God it has an order, otherwise we would still be arguing at the Red Sea,” she quips.
While Pesach is celebrated as an eight-day festival, Lurie has a different perspective.
“Pesach is anything but eight days. It is an intense five weeks of hard labour, scrubbing and cleaning like an obsessive maniac! When I start scrubbing those curtains and carpets, believe me I am one with the matriarchs. I might also have worked at the Pharoah’s Palace!”
Lurie does admit that there is a sense of peace that follows the chaos. “When I sit at the Seder table, I breathe a sigh of relief, because mind, body and home have come out of a spiritual cleansing like no other and I am ready to face the year with a certain amount of positivity; wiping a slate clean.”
Lurie likens childhood Seders to a surgical scrub that would unfold every year. Some of her warmest childhood memories she says were borne out of strict preparations for Pesach.
“Every pot, pan and teaspoon used during the year had been packed away in cupboards and sealed, not even Houdini’s plates could attempt to escape when you bring down Pesach kitchenware.
“Up would go the ladder and down from the cupboards would come the crockery and cutlery, unpacked to the beat of a military drum. All this just for eight days of the year. And the cooking hadn’t even begun…
“No wonder we called it, ‘Meshugas (crazy) impossible.’
“The observation of these meticulous laws and customs which have been observed for thousands of years is still happening in our homes today and hopefully will continue in our children and grandchildren’s lives too.”
So, what is on the Seder plate?
Fundamental to the Seder table is the Seder plate, which has on it the following items:
- Zeroah, a lamb’s shank bone symbolises the ancient Passover sacrifice.
- Beitzah, a roasted egg symbolising the temple sacrifice and the continuing cycle of life.
- Haroset, a paste of fruit and nuts symbolising the mortar used to build the pyramid of the pharaohs.
- Mar’or, a bitter herb (like horseradish) to represent the bitterness of slavery.
- Karpas, a green vegetable (usually parsley) representing spring.
- A bowl of salt water to dip the karpas, symbolising the slaves’ tears.
- Matzah/Matzo or unleavened bread which is symbolic of the haste in flight of slaves from Egypt.