By Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky
Online ordering and expedited shipping have prevented COVID-19 from stymying all Passover preparations. Still, the procurement of fresh products is not as easy without significant lead time — and now that window is just about closed. Worse yet, the contents of the seder plate are predicated on those fresh ingredients.
Two of those items traditionally represent two ancient sacrifices: The zeroa represents the Korban Pesach (the paschal offering) and betzah represents the Korban Chagigah (what the rabbis conceived of as the generic Holy Day offering). Because these two food items are merely symbolic, we don’t actually eat them.
Many use a roasted shankbone for zeroa, likely cemented by the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 473:4). About 150 years ago, the Mishnah Berurah clarified that one can take any meat, even without the bone, as long as there’s some meat there. Chabad’s interpretation, for example, is to use a roasted chicken neck (with most of the meat peeled off).
The kosher butcher (or grocer) often has shankbones ready during the pre-Passover season. Right now, that may seem like a fantasy.
How might we fulfill the mitzvah of zeroa without a shankbone this year?
There are two Talmuds — the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. Likely, the shankbone dates back to the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 10:3), suggesting that an egg and a shankbone fulfill the mitzvah. Most interesting, however, is the discussion in the later Babylonian Talmud — notably on Pesachim 114b — detailing the rabbis’ opinions about what can symbolize the two sacrifices.
For 25 years, my vegetarian family has used a “blood red” roasted beet for the zeroa, based on Rav Huna’s teaching. Some 1,700 years ago, Rav Huna was known as a financially comfortable and generous leader. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Ta’anit 20b), Rav Huna would throw his doors open wide at every meal, proclaiming the words we recite at the seder: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
It makes sense then that Rav Huna teaches that a beet and rice could serve as the symbols. Rav Huna had in mind the less fortunate, who did not have access to fresh meat. Perhaps this is the year when even carnivores will again use a beet.
Rav Huna’s rice suggestion is more challenging, since Ashkenazim have not eaten rice on Passover for nearly 800 years. Rabbi David Golinkin suggests that Ashkenazim still abstain out of a “desire to preserve an old custom.” Recently some Ashkenazim have begun to eat kitniyot and rice on Passover. Provided one purchases bagged or boxed rice inspected before Passover for chametz (with any chametz removed), then this could be an option.
But there are still other non-red-meat alternatives. Unlike Rav Huna who lived in Babylonia (modern day Tikrit, Iraq), Chizkiya emigrated from Babylonia to Israel, with a study hall located in Tiberias. Chizkiya taught that one course made of two ingredients suffices — a fish and an egg, fried or cooked atop.
It is fitting that Chizkiya would suggest fish as a symbol for zeroa. Fish was a regular staple around the Sea of Galilee. Following Chizkiya, the Babylonian Talmud presents Rav Yosef’s position — what I call the “meat-lover’s” solution. Rav Yosef implies there’s no need to overthink this: Just use two types of meat (one cooked and one roasted).
This is peculiar, because Rav Yosef (also of Babylonia) was blind. One might assume that the way something looked would not be important to him. But don’t be fooled. Maybe this was really about smell. Perhaps it was important to Rav Yosef that symbolism calls upon our sensory memory of the offerings. If, as my father taught me, we are meant to stimulate the memory of our time in Egypt, then perhaps the smells will bring us back to the tabernacle as well.
And last, but certainly not least, Ravina. Ravina — often known for his leniencies — teaches that one can use a bone and its broth/gravy. If you have very little, you can still have a complete seder plate.
The rabbis proactively considered what was available to them. Today, we are reactive and have some challenging — and yet creative — decisions to make. Most important is for us to remember is that this is all symbolic. We “play” with our Passover foods in order to tell the story and generate questions. These are props for our collective narrative.
We are not the first generation to have trouble procuring our Passover staples. However, our creature comforts may have blunted our creativity over time. And now it is time to revisit our history and teach anew, likely with a seder plate and contents that do not look like last year’s. Because it doesn’t need to.
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn.