Shankbone and Egg: How They Became Symbols on the Seder Plate
One of the main features of the Passover seder is the seder plate, upon which we place important foods that will be featured during the meal. Two of these, however, the זרוע (zeroaʿ) shankbone and the ביצה (beitzah) egg, are not eaten during the seder. What is the history of this custom?
Yerushalmi: The Earliest Source for Two Cooked Dishes
The earliest form of this custom appears in a baraita (a tannatic [early rabbinic] tradition not found in the Mishnah) quoted in the Yerushalmi [the Talmud of the Land of Israel] Pesachim 10:4, which describes what should be eaten during the seder (beyond matzah, marror and haroset):
תני ובגבולין [צריכין] שני תבשילין אחד זכר לפסח ואחד זכר לחגיגה:
It was taught: In the provinces [they require] two cooked dishes, one in memory of the paschal sacrifice (pesach), and one in memory of the festival sacrifice (chagigah).
The phrase “in the provinces”—i.e., outside the Temple—may be an attempt by an editor to anchor a post-Temple practice in the time of the Temple. However, the repetition of the word “in memory” implies that the Temple has already been destroyed. With the loss of the ability to offer sacrifices, including the paschal sacrifice, the Passover meal was left bereft of its central symbol, which was also its main course.
According to the baraita, people who could not make it to the Temple to offer the paschal offering were supposed to eat a cooked food reminiscent of the paschal offering and another reminiscent of the festival sacrifice (chagigah). By stating the law this way, the baraita lays the groundwork for what all Jews should be doing in its own day, when the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices no longer offered. Clearly, some kind of main course was needed for the Passover evening meal, but the baraita rules that there should be two, to compensate for the two sacrificial dishes that would now be absent from the Passover meal.
The word “cooked dish” refers to food cooked in a pot with water, and thus differs from the tradition in Exodus 12:8–9 that the paschal sacrifice was roasted and not cooked (Exodus 12:8–9). It seems therefore that the requirement to have two cooked dishes as part of the Passover meal precedes their transformation into a symbol. As occurred with many foods at the seder, including the wine and charoset, the food was first introduced for culinary purposes and was later transformed into a symbol.
Two Cooked Dishes: A Standard Festive Meal
Two cooked dishes were required for the Passover meal because having only one cooked dish for dinner was insufficiently festive. The concept of “two dishes” was likely borrowed from Mishnah Beitzah 2:1:
ועושה תבשיל מערב יום טוב וסומך עליו לשבת בית שמי אומ[רים] שני תבשילים ובית הלל א[ומרים] תבשיל אחד. מודים בדג ובביצה שעליו שהן שני תבשילין. (כת"י קופמן)
One may prepare a cooked dish before Yom Tov and rely on it [to allow further cooking on Yom Tov] for Shabbat. Beit Shammai says: “Two cooked dishes.” Beit Hillel says: “One cooked dish.” They admit that a fish with an egg on it counts as two cooked dishes. (Kaufmann MS)
An eruv meal refers to a meal cooked for Shabbat before Yom Tov (festival), which makes it permissible for a person to continue cooking for Shabbat on Yom Tov itself.  According to Beit Shammai, two cooked dishes are necessary because that is the minimum amount of food sufficient for a festive meal. It is thus logical that such a requirement should exist for the Passover meal as well.
It would seem, therefore, that this requirement was only secondarily interpreted as a symbolic replacement for the lost sacrificial meal. Moreover, even according to this baraita, any two cooked dishes would do. Only later, in the Bavli [the Babylonian Talmud], will this become a matter of dispute among the amoraim (rabbis from the Talmudic period).
What Counts as Two Cooked Dishes? (Bavli)
The Bavli (Pesachim 114b) contains a parallel baraita mentioning, in the name of R. Yose (late 2nd cent. C.E.), the requirement for two cooked dishes. The text continues with a discussion of what foods may be used for these two dishes:
מאי שני תבשילין?
What are the two dishes?
The passage offers a list of responses:
Answer 1: Beets and Rice
אמר רב הונא: סילקא וארוזא.
Huna said: “Beets and rice.”
רבא הוה מיהדר אסילקא וארוזא, הואיל ונפיק מפומיה דרב הונא.
Rava used to look for beets and rice, since this ruling had come from the mouth of R. Huna.
Huna’s identification of the two dishes with beets and rice clearly demonstrates that early amoraim did not attribute any symbolic significance to these foods; instead they were likely chosen since they were the cheapest foods available on Passover in Babylonia.
Answer 2: Fish and Egg
חזקיה אמר: אפילו דג וביצה שעליו.
Hizkiyah said: “Even a fish and the egg on it.”
Hizkiyah’s “fish with an egg on it” echoes the Mishnah about the eruv that allows one to cook on Yom Tov for Shabbat quoted above. His point is that if the two cooked dishes are served as one, this still fulfills the requirement to have two cooked dishes at the seder. Like Rav Huna, Hizkiyah seems to be unaware of any symbolic meaning to these dishes.
Answer 3: Meat in Memory of the Two Sacrifices
רב יוסף אמר: צריך שני מיני בשר אחד זכר לפסח ואחד זכר לחגיגה.
Rav Joseph said: “Two kinds of meat are necessary, one in remembrance of the pesach [the paschal lamb] and one in remembrance of the chagigah [the regular festival offering].”
Joseph offers a strict interpretation of the law: the two cooked dishes must be two kinds of meat. The reason he gives for this is the same as in the baraita in the Yerushalmi, that the meat is meant to recall the two sacrifices.
Answer 4: Bone in Broth
רבינא אמר: אפילו גרמא ובישולא.
Ravina said: “Even a bone and [its] broth.”
Ravina also seems to require meat, but his ruling makes it easier to fulfill this requirement, since meat is expensive: even a bone and its own broth fulfills the necessity for “two cooked dishes.”
In short, while some authorities viewed these dishes as having symbolic meaning (the Yerushalmi’s baraita and Rav Joseph), others did not (Rav Huna, Ravah, and Hizkiya, Ravina). More significantly, even those who see them as symbolic primarily relate to them as food; the two cooked dishes are to be eaten as the main course, unlike our current practice.
Three Cooked Dishes in Memory of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Sherira Gaon)
The interpretation that these food items symbolize sacrifices was not dominant in the post-Talmudic era. In fact, one of the last of the Geonim, Sherira bar Hanina (ca. 906–ca. 1006), the head of the Pumbeditha academy, suggested an entirely different symbolic significance to the cooked dishes in an answer to a question he received from a far-away community in Tunisia (Otzar Hageonim, Pesahim, Responsa, p. 331):
שאלו [אנשי קירואן למר רב שרירא גאון] על ב' תבשילין, והשיב זכר לב' שלוחים משה ואהרן ששלח הקב"ה במצרים.
The people of Kairouan asked Mar Rav Sherira Gaon concerning the two cooked dishes: And he responded that they are in memory of the two messengers, Moses and Aaron, whom God sent in Egypt: Moses and Aaron.
This answer assumes that the two cooked dishes have symbolic meaning, but one that differs from the meaning in the Talmud. This led the rabbinics scholar, Joseph Tabory, to suggest that Rav Sherira did not have R. Joseph’s statement or at least not the second part of it.
Rav Sherira continues with a second custom, ostensibly unknown to his questioners in Kairouan:
ויש משימין עוד תבשיל אחד זכר למרים שנ[אמר]: ואשלח לפניך את משה, ואהרן, ומרים.
And there are those who add another cooked dish in memory of Miriam, as it is written, “And I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).
ואותן ג' תבשילין דג בשר וביצה כנגד מיני מאכל שעתידין ישראל לאכול לע[תיד] ל[בוא]: דג כנגד לויתן, ביצה כנגד זיז שדי, בשר כנגד שור הבר.
And these three dishes consist of fish, meat and egg to correspond with the types of foods that Israel will eat in the future world to come: fish to correspond with the Leviathan, egg to correspond with ziz saddai (Psalms 50:11) and meat to correspond with shor habor (see Rashi on Psalms 50:10).
The second tradition adds an egg to the list of foods, thereby deviating from the number two found in both talmudim. This custom of three cooked dishes is explained in two different ways: it is a reminder of the three leaders of the Exodus, and it is a reminder of the three special meats that will be consumed in messianic times in the world to come.
Here, too, the custom likely predated the interpretation. Apparently, in Babylon, eggs had become a standard part of the Pesach meal, most probably because eggs were widely available in the spring. Once this became a norm, it was interpreted symbolically as well, either as Miriam, the third savior, or as a third savory messianic dish.
Again, it is important to note that Sherira takes for granted that these dishes are eaten, not ritually placed on a seder plate and left untouched.
Sharpening the Sacrificial Imagery (R. Hananel)
The start of interpreting the cooked dishes as visual symbols of the sacrifices develops a generation after R. Sherira in the writings of R. Hananel ben Hushiel (ca. 990–ca. 1050), who lived in Kairouan, the very community that sent the question to R. Sherira only a few decades earlier. R. Hananel in his rewritten Talmud, renders Rav Joseph’s opinion thus:
רב יוסף אמר שני מיני בשר אחד זכר לצלי ואחד זכר לחגיגה מבושל
Rav Joseph said: “One in memory of the roasted [pesach], and one in memory of the boiled chagigah.”
Although R. Hananel does not say explicitly here that the first should be roasted and the second boiled, this is how he has been traditionally understood, and this is how his student, Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (Rif, ca. 1013–ca. 1103), renders R. Joseph’s ruling in his own rewriting of the Talmud, called Halakhot:
רב יוסף אמר: שני מיני בשר, אחד זכר לפסח ואחד זכר לחגיגה, הצלי זכר לפסח והמבושל זכר לחגיגה.
Rav Joseph said: “Two types of meat, one in memory of the pesach and one in memory of the chagigah, the roasted one is in memory of the pesach and the boiled one is in memory of the chagigah.”
Hananel and R. Alfasi both follow the Talmud that even according R. Joseph, the foods are not only symbolic, but are meant to be the main course. In fact, neither indicates that R. Joseph’s position should be considered more authoritative than the others quoted in this passage. Nevertheless, this sharpening of the correspondence between the symbolism and the food was the first step toward making the two cooked dishes entirely symbolic.
The Chagigah Becomes an Egg (Orchot Chayyim)
Another significant development in making the two dishes symbolic is seen in Orchot Chayyim, ascribed to R. Aharon ben R. Jacob ha-Cohen, who lived during the 13-14th centuries in Narbonne, France. He writes (“Seder Lel HaPesach” 14):
ואח[ר] כ[ך] מביאין לפניו סל אשר בו ג' מצות משומרות וכרפס וחזרת וב' תבשילין א[חד] צלי וא[חד] מבושל הצלי זכר לפסח והמבושל זכר לחגיגה…
And afterwards they bring in front of him a basket with three guarded matzot, karpas (celery or some other vegetable) and lettuce (for marror), and two cooked dishes, one roasted and one boiled, the roasted one in memory of the pesach and the boiled one in memory of the chagigah…
Thus far, his treatment of the rule is exactly as presented in the Halakhot of Rav Alfas. But then he continues in a new direction:
והמבושל עושין ביצה זכר לאבילות בית המקדש
And the boiled one they make from an egg in memory of the mourning over the Temple.
וי[ש] א[ומרים] לפי שאנו אומרים הוציאנו מעבדות לחירות ומאבל לי[ום] ט[וב] לפיכך עושין המבושל מביצה כי כן דרך לנחם בה אבלים כלומר גלגל הוא שחוזר בעולם. כ[ך] מ[צאתי].
And there are those who say that this is because we say, “He took us out from slavery to freedom, and from mourning to festival,” therefore we make the cooked one from an egg, for this is the way we comfort mourners, as if to say, it is a cycle that returns to the world.
וי[ש] א[ומרים] לפי שהיא קלה להתבשל:
And there are those who say [that the reason for an egg] is that it is easy to cook.
Instead of two forms of meat, R. Aharon suggests that the second cooked dish should be an egg, which Rav Sherira has as his third dish; this is egg season, after all!
The Symbolism of Egg and Shankbone
The egg cannot easily be interpreted as a symbol of the chagigah—eggs were obviously not brought as sacrifices. Thus, R. Aharon created yet another meaning for the egg, where its symbolic meaning is combined with the symbolic meaning attributed to the shankbone (“Seder Lel HaPesach” 12):
ומביאין לפני בע"ה סל עם ירקות כגון כרפס וחזרת וזרוע צלוי זכר לפסח וביצה מבושלת זכר לחגיגה וג' מצות ואמרי בירושלמי שהמנהג לקחת ביצה וזרוע כלומר בעא רחמנא למפרק יתנא בדרעא מרממא
And they bring in front of him a basket with vegetables like karpas, and lettuce (for marror) and a roasted shankbone in memory of the pesah and a cooked egg in memory of the chagigah. And it says in the Yerushalmi that the custom is to take an egg and a shankbone as if to say, “God wants (baʿa) to redeem us with an outstretched arm (darʿa).”
The Aramaic word for “wants” is בעא, similar to the Aramaic word for egg, ביעא. Clearly, this is an ex post facto explanation for an already existent custom. But what about the shankbone?
The Shankbone and God’s Outstretched Arm (Sefer HaManhig)
The first time we find the roasted shankbone is in Sefer HaManhig, by R. Abraham ben R. Nathan (12th–13th century, Provence), who writes:
ונהגו בצרפ' ופרובינצ' לצלות זרוע השה, זכר לדבר ויוציאנו יי' ממצרים ביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה
And the custom in France and Provence is to roast the shankbone of a sheep, in memory of “And God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut 26:8).
To recall, R. Joseph mentions meat in general, without specifying of any particular part of it. The connection of R. Joseph’s opinion to this biblical passage in Deuteronomy explains the later preference of a shankbone over any other part of the animal to fulfill his requirement.
Purely Symbolic Foods: The Final Step
At this point in history it is likely that these symbolic foods were eaten, probably as the main course. This started to change under the influence of Mishnah Pesahim 4:4, which notes that in some places Jews do not eat roasted meat at all at the seder:
מקום שנהגו לאכל צלי בלילי פסחים אוכלין, מקום שנהגו שלא לאכל אינן אוכלין.
In places where they are accustomed to eat roasted meat on Passover night, they may eat it; in places where they are accustomed not to eat [roasted meat on Passover not], they should not eat it.
Over the generations, this prohibition gained traction and was adopted by all Ashkenazi Jewish communities; eventually this became the dominant trend among Sephardim as well.
While some rishonim (early medieval authorities) ruled, as we saw above, that one dish was roasted in memory of the paschal offering, and one cooked, in memory of the chagigah, the Tosafists (Pesahim 114b s.v. שני מיני בשר), French rabbis of 12th–13th centuries, based on their understanding of the chagigah sacrifice, ruled that both were to be roasted. This led to the abandonment of these foods as the main course, and their complete transformation into symbols.
With the acceptance of this prohibition, these “two cooked dishes” were completely transformed from culinary supplements to a Passover meal bereft of the paschal sacrifice, to symbols consumed to remember the paschal sacrifice (or other events connected to the Exodus), to pure symbols, placed on the seder plate, left untouched throughout the meal.
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Dr. Joshua Kulp is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva. He is the co-author of The Schechter Haggadah and Reconstructing the Talmud Volume 1 and Volume 2. He received his Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University.
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