Why do we Put a Shank Bone (zeroa) and Egg (beitzah) on the Seder Plate? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 8, Issue No. 6, April 2014

In memory of Rabbi Moshe Aranov z”l, a gentle rabbi and beloved teacher


Must one use a shank bone and egg on the seder plate? What is the origin of this custom? Must the shank bone and egg be roasted? May they be eaten after the seder? May a vegetarian use two other foods?


Today’s custom of placing a roasted shank bone and egg on the seder plate has a long and convoluted history. The following responsum is based on the writings of Prof. Yosef Tabory (also summarized in English by Dr. Joshua Kulp) and Rabbi Menahem Kasher (see the Bibliography), though I have added quite a bit of additional material.

I) Two Cooked Dishes [shenei tavshilin]

We read in the printed editions of Mishnah Pesahim 10:3:

They [=the servants] brought before him matzah and hazeret[=Romaine lettuce]  (See my column “Responsa in a Moment”, Vol. 6, No. 5, April 2012). and haroset and two cooked dishes [tavshilin]… and in theTemple they bring [or: used to bring before him]  ( Regarding these two readings, see Kulp 258-259, Tabory 105-106, and Shamma Friedman, Tosefta Atikta,Ramat Gan, 2003, p. 437). the body of the Pesah [sacrifice].

Many rabbis, such as Rabbi Menahem Kasher (p. 65) and Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin in Hamoadim Bahalakhah (Tel Aviv, 1960, p. 263), have stated that the phrase in bold in this mishnah is the source of the shank bone and egg on the seder plate. However, many modern scholars have pointed out that this phrase is missing from all of the important manuscripts of the Mishnah (See R.N.N. Rabinowitz, Dikduke Soferim to Pesahim, Munich, 1874, p. 55, note 6; David Zvi Hoffman, The First Mishnah and the Controversies of the Tannaim, New York, 1977 [the German original was published in 1882], p. 26; Meir Ish Shalom, Meir Ayin al Seder Vehagadah shel Leilei Pesah, Vienna, 1895, pp. 35-36; Baer Ratner, Ahavat Tziyon V’yerushalayim to Pesahim, Pietrikov, 1908, p. 131; Daniel Goldschmidt,Seder Haggadah shel Pesah, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1947, p. 8; Saul Lieberman, Tosefta Kifshuta to Pesahim, New York, 1962, p. 654 to lines 27-28; David Weiss Halivni, Mekorot Umesorot: Massekhtot Eruvin U’Pesahim, Jerusalem, 1982, p. 574, note 5; Hillel Hyman, Sefer Hilkhot Harif Lemassekhet Pesah Rishon, Jerusalem, 1990, p. 147, line 297 and pp. 446-447; Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai, Hagadat Hazal, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 24-25; Shamma Friedman, Tosefta Atikta, p. 437). Even so, this Mishnah is important because it is describing the items actually eaten at the seder.

The source of our custom is found in two beraitot [teachings of the Tannaim not included in the Mishnah], one in the Jerusalem Talmud and one in the Babylonian Talmud.

The Jerusalem Talmud states (Pesahim 10:3, according to Ms. Leiden; cf. ed.Venice, fol. 37d which adds a word):

It was taught [in a beraita]:
in the borders [outside of Jerusalem], two cooked dishes,
one in remembrance of the Pesah [sacrifice] and one in remembrance of the Hagigah [sacrifice].

The simple meaning is that outside of Jerusalem, they served two cooked dishes as the main course instead of the Pesah sacrifice.

The Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 114b) quotes a different beraitawith the same general message:

…for it was taught [in a beraita]:
Rabbi Yossi says:
even though he dipped the hazeret,
it is a mitzvah to bring before him hazeret and haroset
and two cooked dishes.

What are “two cooked dishes” [shenei tavshilin]? Prof. Tabory replies (p. 107 and Kulp p. 259) that they were the main course at a meal in the time of the Mishnah. He quotes the Mishnah (Beitzah 2:1) which discusses the Eruv. This is a meal which is prepared before a festival such as Pesah which allows one to cook on the festival which falls on Friday in order to prepare food for Shabbat. Bet Shammai says that you must take two cooked dishes as an Eruv, while Bet Hillel requires only one cooked dish. As Prof. Louis Ginzberg pointed out, Bet Shammai thought that a standard meal consists of two cooked dishes, while Bet Hillel though that one was enough.

We can add another proof from the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:7):

Tisha B’av eve, a person should not eat two cooked dishes.
He should not eat meat and not drink wine.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: he should change [his usual meal].

Once again, we see that a real meal or feast in the time of the Mishnah consisted of two cooked dishes. The two beraitot quoted above are saying that outside of Jerusalem in the time of the Temple or after the Destruction, one should eat two cooked dishes at the seder instead of the Pesah sacrifice.

II) What are the two cooked dishes that should be eaten at the seder?

A few lines after quoting Rabbi Yossi, the Babylonian Talmud asks (Pesahim 114b; my textual comments are based on the nine extant manuscripts of tractate Pesahim):

What are two cooked dishes?
[A] Rav Huna said: silka [spinach beet] and rice (

Inmodern Hebrew, tered is spinach and selek is a red beet, but in the Talmud, tered = selek = silka = the spinach beet, which is called “mangold” in Israel today. See Yehuda Feliks, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 4, col. 387, s.v. Beet; idem., Hatzomeah Vehahay Bamishnah,Jerusalem, 1985, pp. 173, 192; and Tabory p. 108, note 283.

As for rice, it was eaten on Pesah by all Talmudic rabbis except one. The custom of not eating rice and kitniyot on Pesah arose in France in the 13th century, but it contradicts the explicit ruling of the Talmud here in Pesahim 114b. See my responsum in Teshuvot Va’ad Hahalakhah 3 (5748-5749), pp. 35-55 (which contains an English summary)).

[a story about A] Rava [or: Rabbah or Rabbah bar Rav Huna] used to look for spinach beet and rice since this ruling had come out of the mouth of Rav Huna…
[B] Hizkiyah said: Even fish and egg [some mss. add: on it].
[A] Rav Yosef said: one needs two types of meat, one in remembrance of the Pesah and one in remembrance of the Hagigah.
[B] Ravina said: even a bone and broth [or: its broth].

In other words, there are two sets of explanations by Babylonian Amoraim, which I have labeled as A and B. In the first set, Rav Huna (second generation) says spinach beet and rice, while Hizkiyah (fifth generation) says that you can even get away with fish and egg or fish and the egg which you spread on the fish.  In the second set, Rav Yosef (third generation), says that you need two types of meat, while Ravina (fifth generation) says that you can even get away with a bone and broth or a bone and its broth.

This debate echoes the Mishnah in Beitzah mentioned above. The continuation of the Mishnah there says that a fish with egg on it is considered two dishes (and cf. Tosefta Yom Tov 2:4, ed. Lieberman, p. 287). Thus, two early Amoraim required two cooked dishes, while two later Amoraim say that it is enough to eat one cooked dish with something on it/around it. They were probably trying to help poor people who could not afford two dishes.

It is clear from the sources quoted thus far that the two cooked dishes were the main course at the seder (see Tabory, pp. 109-111, for some additional proofs) and not mere symbols that were placed on the plate and not eaten. It is also clear that the zeroa or shank bone which is found on every seder plate in the world today is not mentioned in the Mishnah or Talmud at all. As for the egg, it is mentioned in some manuscripts of the Talmud – “even fish and egg” — while others say “even a fish and the egg on it”, which is not a hard boiled or roasted egg but the egg smeared on some fish (Shamma Friedman, Tosefta Atikta, p. 437, note 62, thinks that the original reading is “fish and egg”, but I believe that this requires further study).

Indeed, it was still the custom among some of the Geonim to eat the two cooked dishes. See Rav Sa’adiah Gaon in his prayer book (Siddur Rav Saadia, Jerusalem, 1940, pp. 135, 146 = Tabory, p. 111) and an anonymous Gaon (Ginzei Schechter, Vol. II, pp. 258-259 = Tabory, p. 111).

III) The move from two cooked dishes that were eaten to two symbols on the seder plate

The move from actual food eaten at the seder to symbols began in two of the texts already quoted.

The Jerusalem Talmud said in the beraita quoted above:

one in remembrance of the Pesah [sacrifice]
and one in remembrance of the Hagigah [sacrifice].

And Rav Yosef said in the Babylonian Talmud quoted above:

one needs two types of meat,
one in remembrance of the Pesah
and one in remembrance of the Hagigah.

But apparently Rav Sherira Gaon (ca. 906-1006) did not have the last sentence in bold in his version of the Talmud. In a responsum to the Jews of Kairouan inNorth Africa, he wrote:

On two cooked dishes. And he replied that it is in memory of two messengers Moses and Aaron whom the Holy One Blessed be He sent to Egypt, and some put another cooked dish in memory of Miriam, as it is written  (Michah 6:4): “and I shall send before you  Moses, Aaron and Miriam”. And those three cooked dishes — fish, meat and egg — correspond to the types of food that Israel are destined to eat in the future: fish correspond to Leviathan, egg to ziz sadai [a legendary bird], and meat to wild ox (Ma’aseh Rokeah, p. 17, parag. 59 =Otzar Hageonim to Pesahim, Responsa, parag. 331 = Tabory, p. 112 = Kasher, note 22).

Rav Sheria Gaon apparently thought that “two cooked dishes” is aminimum number, as did Rav Sa’adiah mentioned above. Furthermore, he apparently did not have the symbolic explanation of Rav Yosef that they correspond to the Pesah and Hagigah sacrifices and therefore provided his own symbolic explanation of Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

In medieval Italy, Rabbi Zidkiyahu ben Avraham Harofeh (Shibolei Haleket, ed. Buber, parag. 218, p. 184; cf. Tanya Rabbati, ed. Baron, Jerusalem, 2011, pp. 170-171; and Mahzor Roma quoted by Tabory, p. 113) conflated three of the customs we have seen above. He says that the seder plate should include two cooked dishes even spinach and rice, and even fish and the egg on it and ALSO two types of meat in memory of the Pesah and Hagigah sacrifices and ALSO fish and egg in memory of the ziz bird and the Leviathan.

Some of the Geonim and Rishonim quoted from Pesahim 114b that one should bring two cooked dishes to the seder table and quoted the various opinions, without saying which two dishes (Seder Rav Amram, ed. Goldschmidt, p. 113; R. Yitzhak Alfasi to Pesahim, ed. Vilna, fols. 24b-25a = ed. Hyman, p. 147; R Yitzhak ibn Ghiyat,Shaarei Simhah, Part II, Furth, 1862, p. 102).

Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (Toledo, d. 1343; Tur Orah Hayyim 473) states: “two cooked dishes, one in memory of the Pesah and one in memory of the Hagigah of whatever kind he wants“, but then quotes the custom of the zeroa and egg that we shall see below.

Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran (Algiers, d. 1444; Ma’amar Hametz, fol. 36a = Tabory, p. 114) said that the cooked dishes may be made “from any cooked item, even types of vegetables and kitniyotsuch as spinach beet and rice since it is just a general remembrance”.

Maimonides (Hilkhot Hametz Umatzah 8:1) ruled that “in our time” one must bring two types of meat, one in remembrance of the Pesah and one of the Hagigah. In other words, he followed Rav Yosef.

Mahzor Vitry (France, early 12th century; p. 284) and Ra’avan (Germany, d. 1170; ed. Samloi, 1926, fols. 164c-166a) and his grandson the Ra’aviyah (Germany, d. 1220; parag. 525, p. 162) ruled two cooked dishes, meat and egg OR fish and egg, one in memory of the Pesah and one in memory of the Hagigah, but did not give the option of spinach beet and rice. It seems that they decided that the two dishes must be egg, meat or fish because of the symbolism of the two sacrifices.

Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (France, ca. 1236; Semag, Asin 41, fol. 118b) says that they bring before him on the seder plate two cooked dishes, in memory of the Pesah and the Hagigah, and then quotes Ravina that one can bring “even a bone and its broth”. In other words, he quotes the symbolism of Rav Yosef but the ruling of Ravina.

IV) A Zeroa (Shank Bone) and an Egg

Starting in the late 12th century, it became more or less standard practice to put a zeroa and an egg on the seder plate. This custom was recorded by Rabbi Yitzhak ben Abba Mari (Marseilles, 1120-1190; Sefer Ha’ittur, Vol. 2, fol. 133c); Rabbi Abraham of Lunel (written in Toledo, 1204; Sefer Hamanhig, parags. 64-65, ed. Refael, pp. 481-482); Rabbi Vidal de Tolosa (Spain, 14th century; Maggid Mishneh to Rambam, Hametz Umatzah 8:1); Rabbi Alexander Zusslein Hacohen (Germany, d. 1349; Sefer Ha’agudah, ed. Brizel, Vol. 2, p. 191); Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (Toledo, d. 1343; Tur Orah Hayyim473); Rabbi David Abudraham (Seville, 1340; Abudraham Hashalem, p. 217) and Rabbi Yosef Karo (Safed, ca. 1550; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 473:4).

Sefer Hamanhig says that in France and Provence they roasted zeroa haseh, the shank bone of a lamb, in commemoration of the fact that God took us out of Egypt with a zeroa netuyah, an outstretched arm. This custom and explanation are also given by Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna (1180-1250; Or Zarua, part II, fol. 60a), Rabbeinu Manoah of Narbonne (ca. 1300; commentary to Rambam, Hametz Umatzah 8:1), and Rabbi David of Narbonne (Sefer Hamikhtam, ed. Blau, p. 99). Later on they used the neck of a chicken, but still called it a zeroa! (Tabory, p. 115)

The beitzah or egg was also given a symbolic interpretation by Rabbi Aaron Hacohen of Lunel quoting the “Yerushalmi”. Beitzah in Aramaic is be’ah which sounds like the Aramaic root be’a, “he wanted”, so the beitzah = beiah reminds us that God wanted to redeem the Jewish people (Orhot Hayyim, Leil Hapesah, parag. 12, fol. 79b = Kol Bo, parag. 50, ed. Avraham, Vol. 3, col. 134; Abudraham Hashalem, p. 117). Prof. Avigdor Aptowitzer explained that this midrash is not found in the Yerushalmi; it was probably taken from an Aramaic piyyut (Sefer Raaviyah, Vol. 2, p. 162, note 3).

A century before, Rabbi Asher of Lunel (ca. 1211, Sefer Haminhagot, ed. Assaf, p. 156) cites both of the previous explanations: the zeroais in memory of the zeroa netuyah and the the beitzah or be’ah is because God wanted to redeem us with an outstretched arm. This is also quoted by Rabbeinu Manoah (loc. cit.). The Me’iri to Pesahim(fol. 114b, ed. Klein, p. 242) quotes a midrash in Aramaic which also combined the zeroa and beitzah explanations.

Rabbi Aaron of Lunel (Orhot Hayyim, ibid., parag. 14, fol. 79c = Kol Bo,ibid., col. 142) gave the egg another symbolic interpretation, that it is a sign of mourning for the Temple, since eggs are served in the house of mourning. He also related it to the fact that we say in the Haggadah that God “took us out from slavery to freedom and frommourning to Yom Tov”, so we use an egg at the seder just like we use them to comfort mourners. The mourning explanation was also given by Sefer Hamikhtam (loc. cit.) and by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the name of the Kol Bo (Darkei Moshe to Orah Hayyim 473:3; also see Hukat Hapesah quoted by Kasher, p. 66).

Rabbi Moshe Isserles gives an additional reason, because the seder always falls on the same day of the week as Tisha B’av (Darkei Moshe loc. cit. and Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 476:2). The Gaon of Vilna did not like that explanation and said that the egg was in memory of the Hagigah sacrifice (Bei’ur Hagra to Orah Hayyim 476 andMa’aseh Rav, parag. 191).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in our day (d. 1985) did not like the idea of mourning at the Seder and rejected the custom of eating a lot of eggs at the seder (Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, Part I, No. 156).

Others explain that “it is customary to use an egg because it is easy to cook and accessible to all” (Rabbeinu Manoah loc. cit.; Sefer Hamikhtam, loc. cit.; Orhot Hayyim = Kol Bo, loc. cit.; all cited by Kasher, p. 66)

Others say that we use an egg as a symbol of freedom according to the custom of the Romans at their feasts (Rabbi Yehudah Dov Singer, Ziv Haminhagim, third edition, 1977, p. 51; Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, New York, 1979, p. 127).

Others say that we use an egg because the more you cook it the harder it gets; so are the Jewish people – the more they are persecuted the harder they become in their determination to remain faithful to God (Zinger, ibid., and Klein, p. 128).

Others say that the egg is a symbol of spring (Klein, p. 127)

Rabbi Shemtob Gaguine, writing in 1934, offered perhaps the most farfetched explanation for the shank bone and egg. He said that we use meat and an egg because the Egyptians in the time of Moses were like the Indians today who do not eat meat and eggs, so we put meat and an egg on the seder plate in order to distance ourselves from their vain belief! (Gaguine, p. 94 = Kasher, p. 66)

V) Symbols or food?

Once most rabbis began to explain the shank bone and egg as symbols of the Pesah and Hagigah sacrifices, this led to a lengthy debate as to whether the symbols may be eaten. Some Jews, especially Jews of Islamic lands, roasted these two foods and ate them in memory of these two sacrifices (Tabory, p. 116 and note 301 and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Yalkut Yosef, Vol. 5, p. 406). Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Poland, 1510-1573) reports that they roasted the two foods and therefore avoided eating them at the seder. He said that they should not be roasted so that the people at the seder may eat them (Responsa Maharshal, No.  88 = Tabory, p. 117; cf. Rabbi Zevin, Hamo’adim Bahalakhah, p. 263, note 13). Rabbi Ovadia Yosef gave a similar ruling in our day, that a boiled zeroa may be eaten at the seder (Responsa Yehaveh Da’at, Vol. 3, No. 27, summarized in his book Hazon Ovadiah, Vol. 2, p. 103 and by his son in Yalkut Yosef, p. 407).

Rabbi Avraham Danzig (Vilna, 1748-1820; Hayyei Adam 130:6) was upset that people throw away the zeroa, which is a desecration of a mitzvah. He said that it is a mitzvah to put it in the stew on the second day of Yom Tov and eat it.

VI) Roasted or boiled?

It is clear from Pesahim 114b quoted above that it made no difference how the two dishes were cooked. Thus Rav Huna said “spinach beet and rice” which were boiled and Ravina said “a bone and its broth” which were also boiled. Indeed, many Rishonim did not discuss the method of cooking the two foods at all. But Rabbeinu Hananel (North Africa, d. 1056) as quoted by Hagahot Maimoniyot said that one should take two types of meat, roasted meat in memory of the Pesah and boiled meat in memory of the Hagigah (Tabory, p. 118). The Rif gave a similar ruling (ed. Vilna, fols. 24b-25a = ed. Heyman, p. 147; Tabory, p. 119), as did Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 473:4) (For a very detailed discussion as to whether the Hagigah was roasted or boiled in the time of the Temple, see Shamma Friedman, Letoratam shel Tannaim,Jerusalem, 2013, pp. 266-322).

Others testified that both the zeroa and the egg are roasted (Rema in Orah Hayyim 473:4; Responsa Maharshal, No. 88; both quoted by Tabory, p. 119).

This approach led to an involved discussion when the first seder falls on Saturday night. Since there was no Hagigah sacrifice on Shabbat, and since the egg or second cooked dish is in memory of the Hagigah, therefore many rabbis ruled that there is only onecooked dish on the seder plate on Saturday night in memory of the Pesah sacrifice! A few intrepid rabbis managed to get around this by proving that even in the Temple period they offered the Hagigah on Friday and ate it on the night of the seder! (Sefer Hamanhig, parags 64-65, ed. Refael, p. 482 and the note there; Tur Orah Hayyim473; Entziklopedia Talmudit, Vol. 12, col. 610; Kasher, p. 67; Tabory, pp. 120-121; Friedman, Letoratam, p. 322, note 175)

Other rabbis said that since the zeroa is in memory of the Pesah sacrifice, it must be roasted on coals in place of the spit made from the wood of a pomegranate tree (Orhot Hayyim, fol. 79d = Kol Bo, pp. 141-142; Abudraham, p. 117; Orah Hayyim 473:4; Tabory p. 121).

VII) Summary and Conclusions

It appears from all of the above that there were four stages in the development of this custom:

  1. From the time of the Beraitot in the both Talmuds (ca. 70-200 c.e) until the period of the Geonim (ca. 500-1000), Jews ate the two cooked dishes — which was the standard festive meal in the time of the Mishnah — instead of the Pesah sacrifice which could no longer be eaten. The two cooked dishes could be the four options found in Pesahim 114b or other options such as those mentioned by the Geonim.
  2. As a result of the explanation found in both Talmuds that the two cooked dishes are in memory of the Pesah and Hagigah sacrifices, Jews began in the period of the Geonim to view the two cooked dishes as symbols and not as food to be eaten. Even so, they were still flexible as to which two foods should be used, including the four options in Pesahim 114b and other foods. Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher and Rabbi Shimon be Zemah Duran still emphasized that any two cooked dishes could be used.
  3. Beginning with Rabbi Yitzhak ben Abba Mari of Marseilles (d. 1190), Jews began to exclusively use the zeroa and egg as the two cooked symbols on the seder plate and to invent all sorts of interesting homiletic explanations as to why these
    two foods were chosen.
  4. After these two foods became the two standard symbols on the seder plate, two debates ensued since they were viewed as symbols of the Pesah and Hagigah sacrifices:
  1. May they be eaten?
    b. Should they be roasted or boiled?

From the point of view of practical halakhah, it is perfectly legitimate to go back to the original custom (no. 1) and to put any two cooked dishes on the seder plate and to eat them. A vegetarian can use spinach beets and rice following Rav Huna in the Talmud or any other cooked vegetables, while others can use meat, fish, eggs or other cooked dishes.

It is also permissible to put any two cooked dishes on the seder plate and view them as symbols not to be eaten (no. 2). Once again, a vegetarian can use spinach beet and rice or any other cooked vegetables.

Finally, it is permissible to put a zeroa and egg on the seder plate and boil OR broil them AND eat OR not eat them (nos. 3-4), but a vegetarian is not required to observe this medieval custom. It is worth noting that Rabbi Yaakov Hayyim Sofer (Jerusalem, d. 1939) wrote in  Kaf Hahayyim (to Orah Hayyim 473, parag. 57) that the practical implication of the Tur quoted above is that “since it is only a custom to use meat and an egg, when necessary, one may be lenient according to the law in the Talmud”.

I personally recommend the original custom found in Pesahim 114b (no. 1) – to eat the cooked dishes, which also avoids the problems of desecrating a mitzvah stressed by Rabbi Avraham Danzig 200 years ago and of bal tashit, or throwing out food.

In either case, as we eat or gaze at the two cooked dishes on the seder plate, may they help us reenact the Exodus from Egypt and fulfill the mitzvah of v’hagadita l’vinkha, “You shall tell your child on that day, saying: It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

David Golinkin
13 Nissan 5774


Rabbi Shemtob Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov, Vol. 3,London, 1948, pp. 93-94 (Hebrew)

Rabbi Menahem M. Kasher, Haggadah Sheleimah, third edition,Jerusalem, 1967, pp. 65-67 (Hebrew)

Joshua Kulp in: Joshua Kulp and David Golinkin, The Schechter Haggadah,Jerusalem, 2009, pp. 258-260

Yosef Tabory, Pesah Dorot, Tel Aviv, 1996, pp. 105-122 (Hebrew)


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