I bet everyone is excited that Passover is tomorrow—who doesn’t love Matzah? But aside from that, Passover can actually be a really interesting experience, and one that a lot of the feminist Jewish world has taken in to make their own, being struck by the lack of female presence in the Seder: Miriam, Moses’ sister, the woman who led the Jews across the Red Sea, is not mentioned once.
One interesting ritual is the orange on the Seder plate, a ritual that developed not as a symbol originally having to do with Miriam, but as a symbol of inclusion for the gay and lesbian community. Susannah Heschel created the custom after reading an early feminist Haggadah that suggested putting a crust of bread on the Seder plateas a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians. She felt that the custom showed that there’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate, and she did not want to accept that—she wanted to emphasize the need to include them into Jewish life.
The orange is growing in popularity among progressive Seders; some people have even adopted it to represent women in general and the role of women in the Passover story. However, while the orange is a relatively new custom, another interesting custom actually has its origins in the words of a 10th century Rabbi. Rav Sherira Gaon taught that:
They asked of the two foods placed on the Seder table, and he responded that they symbolize the two messengers, Moses and
Aaron, whom God sent to Egypt. There are those who place a third food on the Seder table in memory of Miriam, as it says, “And I will send before you Moses and Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4). These three foods are fish, meat, and and egg, which correspond to the three types of foods Israel will eat in the world to come (Ma’aseh Roke’ach, 59).
Because in the Bible and Midrash, Miriam is associated with water, the fish is chosen to represent her.
Now, apparently this tradition didn’t catch on back in the 10th century (or else we’d probably be doing it now), but I think it’s really cool that the concept of including Miriam in the Seder has already existed for so many years. And it legitimizes today’s struggle to include women in the Seder, as the precedent has already been set: we’re not the only ones who see a gap in the story that we retell every year. Somehow over the years the idea of including Miriam has been lost, but working to include her is actually a way of infusing old traditions back into our Seders, rather than overwriting them.
So this year, try it—go out and get a fish, and tell everyone around your table about Miriam, the woman who took a timbrel in her hand and danced the people of Israel across the Red Sea.