BALTIMORE -- In 1981, Susan Vick purchased a ceramic Seder plate from a shop in New Jersey dealing in Judaica, or Jewish religious art. The plate had a curvilinear edging and a floral pattern, and came with small glass cups about the size of shot glasses to hold the ritual food items used during the traditional Passover meal.
The plate, said Vick, a Baltimore resident, is by no means a collector's item; its artistry is limited and its monetary value is nil. But it means a great deal to the Vick family. "It's just one of those things that ties the years together when we bring it out. It's a small plate, not much bigger than a regular dinner plate. But it's very pretty to us," she said.
Jill Levin's Seder plate was purchased nine years ago in Israel during a family visit. "We found it in a little shop, I think it may have been an Arab shop, and I like it because of its floral pattern and bright colors. It's made of copper and brass and is silver-plated," said Levin, who displays the plate year-round on a wall in her Baltimore home.
"We use it at Seders because it reminds us of a really special time as a family," said Levin, "Plus it's practical. There's indented places labeled in English and Hebrew on the plate for all the items that go on it, so it's sort of a blueprint for the Seder. This way I don't forget anything."
As Vick and Levin attest, Seder plates are more than mere ceremonial artifacts. Rather, they are links to the past for Jewish families that will come together for the ritual Seder meals held the first two nights of the eight-day Passover holiday (seven for Reform Jews) that begins Wednesday evening (March 27). The holiday commemorates the ancient Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt. Surveys show that festive Seder meal to be the most widely celebrated of all Jewish rituals.
The Encyclopedia Judaica calls Seder plates "the most important item on the Passover table" because they hold the ritual foods that symbolize the holiday. They are the roasted shank bone representing the ancient Passover sacrifice, a green vegetable symbolizing rebirth, a bitter herb symbolizing the bitterness of slavery, a roasted egg also evocative of the Passover sacrifice, and a mix of chopped apples or dates, nuts, wine and spices representing the mortar used by the Israelite slaves to make bricks.
Seder plates can sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars, depending upon their historical or artistic merit. But few Jews use such plates. Far more use plates whose importance is strictly personal. "There is the outside beauty and the beauty of history," said Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla, who leads Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Great Neck, N.Y. "But at the Seder, the most important beauty is the inner beauty of the plate's significance to the family. Passover is, after all, celebrated in the home above all else."
Traditional Jewish law is silent on Seder plate requirements. Free of that restraint, the plates reflect a seemingly infinite variety of artistic trends and Jewish cultural differences.
While the use of Seder plates is first mentioned in 3rd-century Jewish writing, the oldest surviving plates date from 14th- and 15th-century Spain. Many of the plates from that era sported design motifs common to Judaism as well as Islam.
Vivian B. Mann, senior curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, said most Spanish Jews of that era undoubtedly used everyday, undecorated plates converted to Passover use. Only the wealthiest families used special Seder plates.
The oldest surviving Seder plates from Central and Eastern European Jewish communities date from the 18th century, Mann said. German Jews transformed common pewter dishes into Seder plates by adding engraved illustrations of the Passover story, the Seder meal, the ritual foods, or Holy Land scenes-motifs that came to be regarded as traditional for the plates. Three-tiered plates with added shelves for matzo first appeared at this time.
The late 19th century marked the advent of commercially manufactured Seder plates in Europe and the United States. But not until the early 20th century did artists stray widely from traditional styles, said Mann, who also directs the master's program in Jewish art at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary.
Grace Cohen Grossman, chief curator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which specializes in American Jewish culture, noted the recent resurgence of interest in Jewish art that has given rise to wildly creative, and decidedly untraditional, Seder plates.
"Today, the range of plates, as with all Jewish ceremonial art, is amazing."
The extraordinary range of contemporary Seder plates noted by Grossman was evident in a 1996 Seder plate design contest sponsored by Chicago's Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. The catalogue for that competition, featuring the leading entries, makes clear that today's plates are limited only by artistic imagination.
Many of the plates also showed support for the heightened role women have assumed in Judaism's more liberal movements in recent years. They did so by reserving space on their plates for an orange and "Miriam's cup," both of which are recent feminist innovations.
The orange symbolizes the "fruitfulness" of all Jews -- women as well as homosexuals and others seen as having been marginalized by traditional Judaism. Miriam's cup, likewise, is meant as a female counterpart to the traditional "Elijah's cup" placed on the Seder table. The prophet Elijah symbolizes the eventual redemption that will come with the Messiah. Miriam's cup is named after the sister of Moses. Tradition holds that it was Miriam who led the Israelites into the parted Red Sea as they fled Pharaoh's advancing army. Instead of wine, water is put into Miriam's cup.
Terry Heller, owner of Artistic Judaic Productions, a Web-based dealer of Jewish ceremonial art, said she sells more feminist-themed Seder plates than any others. "People are into more egalitarian Judaism, and they want items that reflect that view," said Heller, whose Englewood, Colo., company is among the largest of the Web Judaica outlets.
Yet for all their popularity, Seder plates have never become collectors' items, as have other Jewish ceremonial art objects. "People collect Seder plates as part of general Judaica collections, but I've never come across a collection of just Seder plates," said Mann.
Perhaps, she said, that's because the plates are relatively large, or because their utilitarian purpose traditionally requires they be kept under wraps for most of the year to keep them ritually pure for Passover use.
Or perhaps, she added, the reason is simply that Seder plates are most often made of glass, ceramic or other breakable materials and don't survive very long. "Unfortunately, it's the cheap plastic ones that will outlast all the others," she added. "But of course if a cheap plastic plate has meaning to a family, ultimately that means more. Doesn't it?"