Roasted or boiled?

eggIn the early seventies there was a marvelous British TV advert by the Egg Marketing Board. It involved a lodger who comes down for breakfast to a harridan of a landlady who asks him sourly, “How do you want your eggs, fried or boiled?

He drifts off into a fantasy of eggs cooked in all sorts of delicious, exotic ways, asking himself in his mind: “or scrambled?, or poached?, or en cocotte…?” Responding to her from within his fantasy, he says out loud: “Eggs Risotto please, Mrs. Burridge.” She shocks him back to reality with the caustic retort: “Is that fried or boiled?”

My question is a little different. Should the egg on the Seder plate be roasted or boiled?

The Passover offering

The shank bone and egg on the Seder dish represent the Pesach sacrifice and the Hagigah (regular festival) sacrifice respectively.

shank bone

The Pesach sacrifice had to be roasted and would be invalid if boiled. This was true even to the extent that a particularly dry wood was chosen for the spit, so that moisture from the wood did not “cook” the lamb from inside. It follows that the shank bone used to represent the Pesach sacrifice, should also be roasted.

The shank (foreleg) bone is preferred, as it suggests the “outstretched arm” so central to the Haggadah story.

BTW it should also preferably have some meat still on it, and though you can’t eat it at the Seder you can do the next morning. This was one of our treats as kids!

The Festival offering

The festival sacrifice is represented by the egg. Something other than meat was wanted, to differentiate it from the shank bone, and the egg was chosen, possibly because of its being a traditional food of Jewish mourners, and/or (one has to be careful here) a universal symbol of rebirth; in either case hinting at our sadness at being unable to celebrate this festival in the Temple, and hope for its speedy renewal in our days.

The Festival offering could be either roasted or boiled. Therefore, although some people have the custom of roasting the egg – or at least burning the shell slightly so it looks roasted – it actually makes perfect sense to hard-boil it, as a further distinction between the representations of the Pesach and Hagigah.[1]

In fact many Sephardi communities have the custom of eating hard boiled eggs at the start of the main meal, in commemoration of the Hagigah, which was eaten before the Pesach offering.

But why is the Pesach offering roasted?

The Pesach sacrifice was the only sacrifice for which roasting was the only permitted method (Exodus 12: 8,9):

ex 12

Maharal proposes an interesting theory as to why this is so, that revolves around the fundamental difference between roasting and boiling.[2]

  • Boiling assimilates other ingredients from the pan into the meat. And the meat gets softer.
  • Roasting removes blood and other liquid from the meat and tends to make it harder.

At the time of the Exodus, when the people of Israel are becoming a people for the first time, spiritual absorption from the outside is not yet safe. On the contrary, there are spiritual residues from their years as a slave nation that must be expelled.

The Korban Pesach is a reminder of that initial state of affairs, that of course exists to some extent in all of us today too.

But we must also realise that this “hardness” is a temporary state. Ideally we must be able to interact with society around us, being able equally to absorb the good and reject that which is spiritually harmful.

Food for thought.

[1] I originally suggested this in The Sephardi Haggadah (Feldheim), 1988
[2] Rabbi Nathan Cardozo developed the Maharal’s idea in an essay some years ago, and again in an article in this week’s Jerusalem Post.


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