Do We Really Need an Orange on the Seder Plate?

In a little more than three weeks Passover will be here, and sociologists tell us that more Jews will participate in some form of Passover Seder than will participate in any other religious event during the year!

The Seder is the most successful pedagogical tool in Jewish history largely  because it stimulates all of our senses: sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell.

In addition to the traditional symbols many will include an orange on their Seder plates.

The most prominent myth behind this custom is that years ago, a man confronted  Professor Susannah Heschel and told her,”The idea of women rabbis makes as much sense as an orange on a Seder plate.”

Today it is impossible to think of  meaningful non-Orthodox Jewish life without the enormous contributions women rabbis have made since the ordination of Sally Priesand in 1972. Personally, I would prefer to retire the orange and spend serious time at the Seder discussing the vital role women played in the Exodus story.

This conversation will do much more than an orange to teach the vital role women have played in Jewish history and to stimulate them to think of what role they might play in shaping a proud Jewish future.

Instead of an orange I want my daughters and granddaughters to know that without the actions of no fewer than six women heroes, Moses never would have gotten so far as to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” I want every Seder participant to know that without these six women the Exodus could not have taken place, and we would have no Passover to celebrate!

Shiphrah and Puah were humble midwives. Pharaoh ordered them to kill every baby boy that emerged from his mother’s womb. The most powerful man on earth – one worshipped as a god — gave them a direct order! The midwives, though, answered to a higher authority than Pharaoh. Their bravery rings across the millennia as an answer to those Nazis’ who claimed they had no choice but to kill Jews. They were only following orders. Shiphrah and Puah teach us we always have a choice.

Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hid her baby in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree. Then she placed him in a wicker basket and floated him among the reeds of the Nile. What courage that took, but her gamble paid off!

Miriam, Moses’ sister watched the basket from afar. When Pharaoh’s daughter drew it out of the water, Miriam runs to her and suggests the baby’s own mother as its nurse. In so doing she saved her brother’s life.

The heroic role of Pharaoh’s daughter also should not escape our attention. She defied her father’s decree and saved Moses. For this she received the privilege of giving Moses’ his name, and she herself received the name Bit-yah, which means “daughter of the Lord.” (Va-yikra Rabbah 1:3; B, Megillah 13A).

The final female hero of Passover is Zipporah, Moses’ wife. She circumcised their son Eleazar when apparently Moses had neglected to do so (Exodus 4:24-26). The passage really does not fit into the flow of the story, so the rabbis could have interpreted it any way they wished. They could have deemed it crucial or inconsequential. The chose to to teach us that God would have killed Moses had Zipporah not intervened and circumcised their son!

The heroism of the women who made Passover possible is a strong and accurate answer to those who claim that women always play a secondary or subordinate role in Jewish thinking. An orange does not make their case. Telling their story does.

9 thoughts on “Do We Really Need an Orange on the Seder Plate?

  1. I agree with your premise, that the stories are much more important than the orange. But Susannah Heschel herself has written and published the correct history of the origin of the orange, which had nothing to do with any man. It was originally inspired by a custom at Oberlin College to represent solidarity with Jewish lesbians. For the complete and true story, which has now been published in several venues, write to I have also heard her discuss this in person. Already back in 2001, she wrote, “when lecturing, I often mentioned my custom as one of many new feminist rituals that have been developed in the last twenty years. Somehow, though, the typical patriarchal maneuver occurred. My idea of an orange and my intention of affirming lesbians and gay men were transformed. Now the story circulates that a MAN said to me that a woman belongs on the bimah as an orange on a Seder plate. A woman’s words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is simply erased. Isn’t that precisely what’s happened over the centuries to women’s ideas?”

    To me, the new ritual of Miriam’s cup is the one that truly represents the participation and activism of women in the Pesach story.


    1. Mindy, when I first read your comment, I was not certain that “maportnoy” was you. So now, that I know, I want to take this opportunity to say your life and the work that you have done are absolutely inspiring to me!


  2. Thank you so very much, maportnoy for this thoughtful comment! I was aware of the “real story” but the prevailing myth remains, and that is why I see the orange as problematic.
    As for my solidarity with Jewish lesbians, goes, there were more than a few people who wanted my head back in ’99 when I bought the first lesbian rabbi to work with me, and an orange is not a meaningful symbol for me of that epic struggle.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I admit, I don’t understand why the reference makes it problematic. It sounds like that makes the orange a historical protest against ignorance with a sense of humor behind it. Isn’t that entirely keeping with Jewish traditions?

    Not being Jewish myself, I am merely asking from the outside in. I read the quote and thought “Oh that’s fantastic! I wish I had a Seder plate to put an orange on, now!”



  4. I certainly can understand where you are coming from, Ember Voices. It is all a matter of our perspectives and experiences. For me the Seder plate is already filled with meaningful symbols, and one of the purposes of the Seder is to make their significance clear. To me, as one for whom the Seder plate has venerable lifelong associations, the presence of an orange detracts from both the sanctity of the occasion and the beauty of a religious article that is sacred to me.


    1. I believe you, but I admit to not understanding why.

      But then, it hits another angle entirely for me, as I said, from the outside. It is always very easy for those who aren’t the target of oppression to say or feel that protests against that form of oppression don’t belong wherever they gain the most attention by disrupting the status quo. Only… don’t protests *have* to disrupt the status quo in order to *work*? If not an orange on the Seder plate, where is an “appropriate” place for such a rebellion, where it will be heard loud and clear, and not simply shelved?

      And where is the “proper” place for remembering a history like that?



  5. I appreciate the concern you raise.The whole point of my essay, Ember, is that the”rebellion” not be shelved but that it be discussed at length. I would rather put that discussion in the context of the inspiring story of the six women rebels that are already in the story we celebrate. I think that is a far more effective way to acknowledge the discord and the pain than by putting on orange on a Seder plate.

    Liked by 1 person

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