The Animal-Human Connection: Pesach and Keeping Kosher

Our work with Dr. Vesna’s HOX Zodiac project and discussion of our connections with food/animals immediately conjured up images of the Passover (Pesach) seder plate in my mind (Passover is currently taking place, so it is no mystery why this was such an immediate connection for me). The circular structure of the HOX Zodiac landing page most certainly has its similarities to the round Passover plate, but the ritualization of food and animals in the seder produces an even deeper connection than this surface level one.                                 

Figure 1 (left): HOX Zodiac Landing Page from: HOX Zodiac, 2019, https://hoxzodiac.com/blog/. Figure 2 (right): Seder Plate from: Freedman, Susan. "Learn about the 6 Elements of a Traditional Seder Plate." The Kitchnhttps://www.thekitchn.com/learn-about-the-6-elements-of-a-traditional-seder-plate-243408Accessed 23 April 2019.                                                                                

A (REALLY) BRIEF EXPLANATION OF WHAT PASSOVER IS

It is impossible to adequately explain all of the holiday’s intricacies in this blog post, but understanding the general purpose of Passover is critical to any discussion of food/animal ritualization. So, I shall attempt to give you a turbo speed explanation! We are all familiar with the history of the Israelites enslavement in Egypt - in the simplest of terms, Passover is a celebration of the Israelites becoming free (“Passover 2019”). The name comes from the Hebrew word “Pesach,” which means to “pass over.” After the Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites, G*d sent the last of the ten plagues - the death of the firstborns. Prior to unleashing this plague, G*d communicated with Moses, advising him to tell all Israelites to mark their doors with lamb’s blood. This meant G*d would pass over their homes when seeking out firstborns. After the plague struck, the Pharaoh released the Israelites from their enslavement (“Passover 2019 (Pesach)”).

THE PASSOVER SEDER PLATE

The seder is the main component of the Passover celebration. It is the retelling of the Israelites’ Exodus and is rich with tradition.The seder plate (see figure 3) holds 6 pieces of food, each with a symbolic meaning related to the holiday’s celebration.

Figure 3: The Seder Plate’s Elements from: Little, Edsel. “Passover Seder Plate,” 19 April 2011, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passover_Seder_plate#/media/File:Passover_Seder_plate,_numbered.jpg.

The foods and their associated meanings are as follows:

1) The Zeroa (shankbone) is meant to represent the lamb (and the associated blood) that was sacrificed in order to protect the Israelites’ firstborns (Butler).

2) Beitzah (egg) is symbolic of a specific sacrifice that took place on the holiday’s eve when the Temple still stood. Some people also believe its shape represents the circle of life (Jacobs).

3) Maror (bitter herb) represents slavery’s bitterness.

4) Chazeret (bitter herb) - same as maror.

5) Charoset is symbolic of the materials (brick and mortar) the Israelites used to build structures for the Pharaoh. It is usually made from apples, pears, and nuts (“The Seder Plate”). (Side note: this is my absolute favorite Passover dish! If you have never had it, you must try some. It pairs wonderfully with Passover’s other staple, matzo (which also has rich tradition and story behind it)!)

6) Karpas (parsley in this photo) is representative of how the Israelites’ prospered prior to their enslavement (“Karpas - The Spring Greens”).

THE LAMB’S PLACE (AT MORE THAN THE TABLE)

Since we are focusing on animals this week, I want to take a moment to analyze the significance of the lamb and Passover. The lamb’s death saves the lives of the Israelite children, while also playing a role in saving all of the Israelites from slavery. In essence, one life is traded for many. And, most importantly, the lamb’s sacrifice continues to be honored by Jewish families every year - it has been remembered longer than the legacy of many humans.

If we disregard the specifics of this story, this human-animal survival relationship can be found almost everywhere. This connection can easily be seen in animal symbolism in other religions/cultures, including Hinduism (cows), Thai culture (elephants), and ancient Egypt (cats). Even outside religion, animals are considered complex and critical components of our lives. You can clearly see this in western society when analyzing common sayings like “man’s best friend” (referring to dogs), as well as references to pets, which are frequently categorized as “members of the family.”

KOSHER FOOD: WHAT’S OFF THE TABLE?

Figure 4: Kosher Cheat Sheet from: Ward, Liz. “What is Kosher?” BumbleBar, https://www.bumblebar.com/learn-kosher/. Accessed 23 April 2019.

It would be a missed opportunity to have the topic of “animals” and discussion of Jewish culture without bringing up kosher food. In the simplest terms, food that is “kosher” was defined by G*d in the Torah; it is what G*d deemed “clean.” There is a long list of food taboos that are associated with kosher and non-kosher, but that is information for another day! The biggest rules are as follows: 1) land animals - only eat those that chew cud and have split hooves, 2) fish - fins and scales are a must, and 3) birds - stick to those approved by the Torah. The kosher rules further expand on this information by not permitting certain food combinations (e.g., milk and meat), requiring specific slaughtering practices, and forbidding the consumption of certain cuts of meat. This video gives a crash course on these dietary restrictions: "What is Kosher?"

The concept of keeping kosher is quite interesting if we think of it in terms of our relationship to animals. It truly embodies this idea of “we are what we eat.” Certain foods are avoided and specific rituals put in place because animals are seen as having immense power - they have the power to make a person clean/unclean, and, even more importantly, they have the power to make someone closer to G*d. Kosher thinking has the animal’s legacy at its core. The animal is seen as having a lasting impact long after it has died and been consumed.

Although I do not keep kosher, I think being cognizant of the human-animal connection is extremely important. This mindset forces us to be more present; we must all live alongside one another. Thinking in this manner requires us to acknowledge and honor the fact that our fates are forever intertwined.

Works Cited

Butler, Stephanie. “Food for Thought: The Seder Plate.” A&E History, https://www.history.com/news/food-for-thought-the-seder-plate. Accessed 22 April 2019.

Jacobs, Jill. “The Seder Plate.” MyJewishLearning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-seder-plate/. Accessed 22 April 2019.

“Karpas - The Spring Greens.” MyJewishLearning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/karpas-the-spring-greens/. Accessed 22 April 2019.

“Passover 2019.” MyJewishLearning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/passover-2019/. Accessed 22 April 2019.

“Passover 2019 (Pesach).” Chabad.org, https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/871715/jewish/Passover-2019-Pesach.htm. Accessed 22 April 2019.

“The Seder Plate.” Chabad.org, https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1998/jewish/The-Seder-Plate.htm. Accessed 22 April 2019.

Ward, Liz. “What is Kosher?” BumbleBar, https://www.bumblebar.com/learn-kosher/. Accessed 23 April 2019.

“What is Kosher?” YouTube, uploaded by BimBam, 3 Feb 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYk0KeYhqY