c. 2002 Religion News Service

BALTIMORE -- In 1981, Susan Vick purchased a ceramic Seder platefrom a shop in New Jersey dealing in Judaica, or Jewish religious art.The plate had a curvilinear edging and a floral pattern, and came withsmall glass cups about the size of shot glasses to hold the ritual fooditems used during the traditional Passover meal.

The plate, said Vick, a Baltimore resident, is by no means acollector'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 thosethings that ties the years together when we bring it out. It's a smallplate, not much bigger than a regular dinner plate. But it's very prettyto us," she said.

Jill Levin's Seder plate was purchased nine years ago in Israelduring a family visit. "We found it in a little shop, I think it mayhave been an Arab shop, and I like it because of its floral pattern andbright colors. It's made of copper and brass and is silver-plated," saidLevin, who displays the plate year-round on a wall in her Baltimorehome.

"We use it at Seders because it reminds us of a really special timeas a family," said Levin, "Plus it's practical. There's indented placeslabeled in English and Hebrew on the plate for all the items that go onit, so it's sort of a blueprint for the Seder. This way I don't forgetanything."

As Vick and Levin attest, Seder plates are more than mere ceremonialartifacts. Rather, they are links to the past for Jewish families thatwill come together for the ritual Seder meals held the first two nightsof the eight-day Passover holiday (seven for Reform Jews) that beginsWednesday evening (March 27). The holiday commemorates the ancientIsraelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt. Surveys show that festiveSeder meal to be the most widely celebrated of all Jewish rituals.

The Encyclopedia Judaica calls Seder plates "the most important itemon the Passover table" because they hold the ritual foods that symbolizethe holiday. They are the roasted shank bone representing the ancientPassover sacrifice, a green vegetable symbolizing rebirth, a bitter herbsymbolizing the bitterness of slavery, a roasted egg also evocative ofthe Passover sacrifice, and a mix of chopped apples or dates, nuts, wineand spices representing the mortar used by the Israelite slaves to makebricks.

Some Jewish traditions also call for a second portion of bitterherbs on the plate. In addition, more elaborate plates also hold cups ofwine, salt water (symbolizing tears) and matzo, the unleavened breadthat is the quintessential Passover food.

Seder plates can sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars,depending upon their historical or artistic merit. But few Jews use suchplates. Far more use plates whose importance is strictly personal."There is the outside beauty and the beauty of history," said RabbiHayyim Kassorla, who leads Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Great Neck, N.Y."But at the Seder, the most important beauty is the inner beauty of theplate's significance to the family. Passover is, after all, celebratedin the home above all else."

Traditional Jewish law is silent on Seder plate requirements. Freeof that restraint, the plates reflect a seemingly infinite variety ofartistic trends and Jewish cultural differences.

While the use of Seder plates is first mentioned in 3rd-centuryJewish writing, the oldest surviving plates date from 14th- and15th-century Spain. Many of the plates from that era sported designmotifs 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 wealthiestfamilies used special Seder plates.

The oldest surviving Seder plates from Central and Eastern EuropeanJewish communities date from the 18th century, Mann said. German Jewstransformed common pewter dishes into Seder plates by adding engravedillustrations of the Passover story, the Seder meal, the ritual foods,or Holy Land scenes-motifs that came to be regarded as traditional forthe plates. Three-tiered plates with added shelves for matzo firstappeared at this time.

The late 19th century marked the advent of commercially manufacturedSeder plates in Europe and the United States. But not until the early20th century did artists stray widely from traditional styles, saidMann, who also directs the master's program in Jewish art at New York'sJewish Theological Seminary.

Grace Cohen Grossman, chief curator at the Skirball Cultural Centerin Los Angeles, which specializes in American Jewish culture, noted therecent resurgence of interest in Jewish art that has given rise towildly creative, and decidedly untraditional, Seder plates.

"For many years, there was no separate evolution of the Seder platein the United States, except for the proliferation of commerciallyproduced plates," she said. "That all changed in the last few decades aspart of the worldwide renaissance of Jewish artists making Jewish artthat has revolutionized the field.