This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Eggs and the Exodus*

More than any other festival in the Jewish calendar, Passover is defined by its foods. The basic obligations to eat matzah and maror, as well as the obligation to remove all leaven from one's home are explicitly commanded by the Torah as memorials to the slavery of Egypt and the miraculous deliverance from oppression. A glance at the foods on the traditional seder plate immediately evokes the volumes of history, values and emotions associated with the themes of the holiday.

Amidst this wealth of solemn symbolism lies one humble foodstuff whose significance is less than obvious, and whose function in the seder is so obscure that it is likely to remain on the table until the end of the meal without ever getting eaten, or even mentioned.

I am referring to the lowly Passover egg.

The Torah does not command us to eat an egg, or to stare at one during the Passover meal. The egg is mentioned briefly in the Talmud as part of the festive menu, but without attaching any distinctive value to it, let alone ordaining a place of honor on the seder plate.

Talmudic sources speak of serving "two cooked dishes" at the Passover meal, especially for people who are not partaking of the Paschal sacrifice in the Temple. The rabbis offered diverse suggestions as to what these two items ought to be: meat, rice, a bone, beets, fish...or (according to one opinion among several) an egg.

A tradition cited in the Jerusalem Talmud states that the requirement to eat two dishes has a symbolic meaning beyond the mere enhancement of the feast: "One dish is a memorial of the Passover sacrifice, and the other is a memorial for the pilgrimage offering [hagigah]."

In the Babylonian Talmud this symbolism was attached only to meat dishes. Neither Talmud indicated that eggs had any relevance in this connection.

However, as we proceed through history we find a subtle, though persistent, tendency to bestow upon the egg a ritual status in the context of the seder.

A responsum ascribed to Rav Sherira Ga'on, who presided over the Babylonian academy of Sura during the tenth century, explained the need for two foods in a different way: "They commemorate the two messengers, Moses and Aaron, whom the Almighty sent to Egypt." And in the interests of egalitarianism he is careful to note that "some serve an additional dish in order to commemorate Miriam, as it says (Micah 6:4) 'and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.'"

The three foods that Rav Sherira recommends are: fish, meat and egg. And aside from their association with the three shepherds of Israel, Rav Sherira describes yet another significance. They correspond to the three foods upon which Israel will feast in the Next World; namely: fish, corresponding to the Leviathan; the egg, corresponding to the wondrous bird known as ziz saddai [see Psalms 50:11; 80:14)]; and meat, corresponding to the wild ox.

Thus, our unassuming Passover egg has now taken on eschatological dimensions, representing one of the menu items in that great banquet that the righteous will enjoy in the messianic epoch.

Rabbinic tradition identified the ziz saddai as a fabulous bird, so enormous that when it spreads it wings it eclipses the sun. Furthermore, the flesh of the ziz comes in many different flavors, all of them kosher. Its presence at the messianic feast will more than compensate for all the non-kosher birds that Jews have refrained from enjoying in deference to the divine commandments.

The customs that evolved among the Jews of Italy tried to accommodate all the different symbolisms, by placing on the seder table two kinds of meat (roast and boiled) to represent the Passover and pilgrimage offerings; as well as the fish and egg that commemorate the messianic repast.

The Italians were just about the only medieval community in which the egg had a quasi-official status at the seder. Most of the halakhic authorities did not stipulate specific foods. Those who did, like Maimonides, insisted on two meat dishes.

Among more recent interpreters the view has taken hold that the meat at the table comes to represent the Passover sacrifice, while the egg represents the pilgrimage sacrifice. This notion was a departure from the earlier and more logical view that used meat to symbolize both sacrifices. The commentators were hard put to find any meaningful connection between an egg and an animal offering.

Rabbi Aaron of Lunel, the author of an important compendium on Jewish customs, pointed out that eggs, representing the circularity of life and death, are traditionally served to mourners, and suggested that their role on Passover is also to express our sorrow over the destruction of the Temple and our inability to offer sacrifices there. Rabbi Moses Isserles found support for this motif in a peculiarity of the Hebrew calendar that has the first night of Passover always falls on the same day of the week as the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the two Temples.

Other authorities opposed this interpretation on the grounds that it is inappropriate to mourn on a festival. For this reason, Rabbi Moses Feinstein discouraged the eating of eggs at the seder.

Truly, the tenacity with which our egg has insinuated itself into the Passover ceremony seems unrelated to any of the symbolic or halakhic explanations that have been proposed for its presence. In such cases one is strongly tempted to ascribe the phenomenon to foreign influences.

An obvious suspect would be the Christian practice of handing out colored eggs in connection with the Easter holiday which occurs at the same season of the year. To be precise, the Easter egg itself is a curious holdover from pre-Christian fertility celebrations that survived in popular European custom.

It is of course out of the question to accuse our pious forefathers of imitating such a blatantly un-Jewish practices. And besides, there is still a considerable leap between the simple Passover egg and the colored ones that are left by the Easter bunny.

And yet, to be honest, there were localities in Poland where it was customary for Jews to "go for a vikup" during Passover. The practice (the Yiddish expression is related to a Polish word meaning "ransom") involved paying a visit to relatives, and receiving from them colored eggs, especially ones that were tinted yellowish-red with the help of a special formula fashioned from onion skins.

In some Hasidic circles, including the Karlin and Lubavitch sects, the distribution of painted eggs took place later in the season, on Lag Ba'omer.

A children's magazine published by Chabad-Lubavitch in 1945 described the thrill of a group of children as they prepared for the festivities. One of the children was especially excited because "Mommy promised to prepare some hard-boiled eggs for my Lag B'Omer lunch--colored." When asked about the reason for this practice, she explained that the eggs are an expression of mourning for the death of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai which occurred on that day. However, Rabbi Simeon

was very happy when the time came to surrender his soul to the Creator, because he knew that everlasting happiness awaited him. And so, while the Lag B'Omer eggs are to remind us of his death, their purpose is not to make us feel sad on this day. Lag B'Omer is a children's festival, and children love color. And so it became customary to paint the shells of the eggs in various colors to make the children feel very happy on Lag B'Omer.

However, it is not only in Europe that Jews were drawn to coloured eggs. In Afghanistan, the eggs made their ritual appearance earlier in the season, and were associated with the Purim festivities. Throughout the month of Adar it was the custom there to roll the eggs, to see whose could keep going the longest without breaking. For each egg that did get crushed in the competition, the children would curse Haman. In Kurdistan, coloured eggs were included in the Mishloah manot that were distributed to children on Purim.

It would appear that the persistence of the eggs in the Jewish Springtime festivities might have had its roots in borrowings from cross-cultural folklore.

Or are we perhaps dealing with an ancient Hebrew springtime custom that somehow avoided being mentioned in the official sources?

It sounds like one of those eternal chicken-or-egg questions.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, April 20 2000, pp. 22-3

  • Bibliography:
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    • Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch. "Lag B'Omer." Shaloh (Shi'urei Limmud Ve-das), May 1 1945, 1-4.
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    • Herzog, Marvin. The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History, Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore and Linguistics. Bloomington and the Hague: University of Indiana Press and Mouton, 1965.