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

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

  1. Rabbi Lapin I love your articles. They are always insightful. The original first Passover meal was done in each house. Every family was required to participate and apply the blood of the lamb on the door post. And if needed share with a neighbor. So why is not that the model for this feast? I know the Torah states later that sacrifices are to only happen at the temple. But other things like standing while you eat was given for the first, but now recline? Thank You!

  2. Thank You for answering the question and the commenter’s question as to the Pascal Lamb. I learned something new!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Thomas–
      Why we say it is because it is the truth. We never eat lamb at the Passover meal.
      But I think your question really meant why don’t we eat lamb on the Passover meal. And the reason is because we want to make certain that nobody becomes confused and assumes that we are actually having the Pascal Lamb sacrifice which, since the destruction of the temple 1,951 years ago, we no longer do.
      Other than not having lamb, the actual meal is not religiously regulated; different people choose different menus.
      Thanks for writing

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you for your kind comment.
      Sure, we do not want to do anything which might erroneously suggest that we are observing the defunct Passover lamb sacrifice.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks for writing Annette–
      There are no sacrifices offered anywhere but in the Jerusalem temple which was destroyed by the Roman empire 1,951 years ago. On Passover they used to sacrifice the lamb as described in Exodus. We are worried that if we eat lamb, even during the non religiously mandated meal part of the evening, it might possibly confuse onlookers to believe that we are reinstating the paschal lamb sacrifice. So, anything but lamb.

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