Sitting Down for Seder

Seder Plate, Kerry Feldman, 1988. Glass. The Jewish Museum, New York. Judaica Acquisitions Fund. 1989–33

On the evening of Monday, April 10, Jewish families around the world will gather together to tell the story of Passover, celebrating the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent Exodus. While Passover will last until dusk on Tuesday, April 18, the holiday is traditionally commemorated with a seder on the first and second evenings. The seder is an opportunity for family and friends to gather together to eat, drink and retell the story of the Israelites, incorporating foods, prayers, and even special dishes used only once a year.

Seder Plate, LQR, c. 1900. Ceramic: glazed. The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. B. Doran. 1984–49

The centerpiece of the table is the seder plate, which holds six symbolic food items. While any plate can be considered a seder plate, most people use a special one, divided into six parts. The Jewish Museum’s Scenes from the Collection, opening this fall, will include many examples of seder plates, spanning more than four millennia of Jewish history. Some are richly ornamented, such as this blue-and-white porcelain plate, inspired by Chinese designs. Others are very simple, such as Kerry Feldman’s pictograph seder plate.

Matzah Plate, Moshe Zabari, Tray for the Fourth Matzah, 1986. Silver: hand-worked; Lucite. The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of the children and grandchildren of Charlotte Yudell M.D. in honor of her seventy-fifth birthday. 1986–94a-b

The seder table also includes three pieces of matzah, an unleavened bread eaten during Passover to symbolize the haste with which the Israelites fled from Egypt before their bread had time to finish rising. The three pieces of matzah represent three groups of Israelites: the priests, the Levites (attendants in the temple), and the other Israelites themselves. In the 1970s, a fourth piece of matzah was added to honor those Jews persecuted for their religious beliefs. Moshe Zabari’s Tray for the Fourth Matzah, decorated with the Hebrew words spoken by Moses to Pharaoh — “let my people go” — is designed specifically for this fourth piece of matzah.

At the beginning of the Passover seder, the middle piece of matzah is broken in half. One piece, known as the afikomen, is hidden for the children to find after the dinner is finished. Everyone who finds a piece of the afikomen is rewarded with a small gift.

Neil Goldberg, Untitled (hinged matzahs), 1992. Matzahs and mixed media. The Jewish Museum, New York: Purchase: Fine Arts Acquisitions Committee Fund. 1996–12

At the beginning of the Passover seder, the middle piece of matzah is broken in half and pieces are hidden for the children to find after the dinner is finished, known as the afikoman. Everyone who finds a piece of the afikomen is rewarded with a small gift.

Nicole Eisenman, Seder, 2010, oil on canvas, 39 1⁄16 × 48 in. The Jewish Museum, New York. Purchase: Lore Ross Bequest; Milton and Miriam Handler Endowment Fund; and Fine Arts Acquisitions Committee Fund, 2011–3. © Nicole Eisenman.

Passover is intended to honor and preserve the story of the Exodus, passing the traditions and narratives of the holiday from one generation to the next through the Four Questions, asked by the youngest person at the seder, and the reading of the Haggadah, which contains the rituals, prayers, songs and stories of Passover. For Haggadot, matzah covers, and other items to help celebrate this holiday, the Jewish Museum Shop’s collection of Passover products are currently on sale, including a replica of Nicole Eisenman’s terracotta seder plate, produced for the Museum’s 2015 Masterpieces & Curiosities exhibition.

The Jewish Museum will observe Passover with adjusted hours on April 10, 11, 12, 16, 17 and 18. Families can join us for our Freedom Art Jam Art & Dance Passover Dance Party on Sunday, April 9, as well as Passover Week puppet-making workshops inspired by Charlemagne Palestine’s Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland on April 13, 14 and 16. To learn more about Passover, explore works in our online collection and Educator Resources on the Jewish holidays.

— Sarah Roth, Curatorial Intern, The Jewish Museum