What do you eat at a Passover feast?

As a chef, I have a question pertaining to the traditional Passover meal. The traditional Seder dinner typically includes gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, brisket or roast chicken, potato kugel and carrot and prune tzimmes. Now, we know that none of these foods originated in ancient Israel – they’re from a later period in Jewish history during the diaspora and after the destruction of the Temple.

But my question is, what would have been a traditional Passover meal in ancient Israel? What would have been the traditional Passover meal for people living at the time of King Solomon or the Prophet Isaiah? What would have been the traditional Passover meal for people living in the time of Herod’s Temple?

Thank you,

Joshua F.

Dear Joshua,

Are you trying to start an international incident? A religious war? The foods you cite—gefilte fish, potato kugel, carrot and prune tzimmes and the other foods you mention are traditional foods only for Jews whose ancestors lived in eastern Europe. But, we Jews have been around for a long time and we have lived everywhere from China to Morocco, from Johannesburg to Gibraltar. Some of these communities lasted for a short time, others for thousands of years. Jews were expelled from Egypt, Libya and other Islamic countries during the second half of the twentieth century but a few still live in Iran and many other countries that would surprise you. A traditional Syrian or Yemenite Passover meal would have none of the foods you mentioned.

Even the ceremonial foods that are required as part of the Passover Seder will look different in different communities. For example, a vegetable from the ground is needed, but our own family uses potatoes while other families use leeks. The matzah itself, the centerpiece of the meal, looks quite different if baked by those from Arab countries vs. European ones.

Having said that, you ask what the meal would have looked like in the land of Israel when the 2nd Temple was standing. There would have been wine, roasted lamb (which we deliberately do not have at the Seder today) matzah and a vegetable. The spices and methods of cooking would have been those of the place and time. There certainly would not have been the plethora of kosher for Passover items that fill grocery stores today.

If you’re looking to recreate a historical meal, we would suggest looking in cookbooks from the Yemenite community, which dates back to the days of King Solomon. You might also look at the Roman Jewish community that pre-dates the destruction of the Temple.

The bottom line is that “Jewish” cooking is any cooking that follows the laws of kashrut, the basics of which are shared by all these communities. Other than that, each community adapted to what was available and popular in its own country. So, please, in the pursuit of peace, stop talking about traditional Jewish cooking!

Hearty appetite,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

8 thoughts on “What do you eat at a Passover feast?”

  1. OK, I understand there have been no animal sacrifices since the destruction of the 2nd Temple, but I have some Jewish friends who cook lamb and serve it for Passover. Would you consider this “wrong”? Should I suggest that they not cook lamb for Passover? Thanks!

    1. First of all, we are particularly talking of roast lamb at the Seder. Second, very few people appreciate unsolicited advice.

  2. Hi Rabbi, I don’t understand. Why is the “Biblical Passover sacrifice of lamb which … no longer doable?” When did this become no longer doable? Can you explain this a little more, please? Thanks!

  3. In response to your answer to the tradition Seder meal my question is why would it not be proper to have roasted lamb thank you for your time

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear James–
      The concern is that we wish to avoid giving the impression that we are indeed observing the Biblical Passover sacrifice of lamb which is no longer doable. So we just avoid roasted lamb altogether.

  4. Danny Patterson

    So the obvious question to me is, “Why is lamb omitted from the seder today?” And also, since I’m sure you’re aware a lot of your readers and listeners are christian did you put this in unexplained as a tease or just to check and see if people are actually paying attention? 🙂 Rabbi, I really enjoy your commentaries and Susan’s as well. I always gain insight from your writings.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Danny–
      We would NEVER tease our cherished readers! We hold you all in high esteem. For the lamb answer please see nearby our response to James. Thanks for your kind words.

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