Z'roah (shankbone), or Not: a Low on the Food-Chain Pesach

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

It’s our holiday’s namesake:  Pesach refers to the sacrifice our ancestors made one decisive night in Egypt, and a pesach (a.k.a. z’roa or ‘limb’) sits on traditional seder plates – usually a shriveled, barely recognizable, roasted bone.  We’re told partway through the seder that as one of the Big Three ritual items, we positively must parse the pesach (plus matzah and maror).  Vegetarians, or folks who’d prefer a dairy/milchig seder meal, seem out of luck at this meatiest of holidays.

Or, not!  Actually, a sustainable, morally consistent, still-yummy seder evening can – should?! – minimize suffering, emphasize ecological practices, and extend liberation to all of God’s creatures.  A low-on-the-food-chain Pesach makes traditional, moral, environmental, and gastronomic sense.  Here’s how —

Traditional:  roast a beet, and cut it in half – outside it’s dry and shriveled like any shankbone; inside it literally drips blood-red juice.  What could better evoke our ancestors’ anguished moment, and that foundational ritual, on the eve of the tenth plague?  So suggests Rav Huna, in the Talmud (Pesachim 114b).  Later authorities also authorize a mushroom:   as with portobello burgers, fungi are famously fleshy.  So your meatless seder plate remains kosher.  You can serve anything with it, too — but cooking for Passover is already hard enough; making it milchig (dairy) or pareve (no meat or milk) might just make sense. 

Moral:  Unless you pay a pretty premium for ethically-sourced, free-range, locally-grown, organically-fed meat, little is liberatory about your fleishig meal.  Animals – and the underpaid workers who raise, transport, slaughter and package them in concentrated animal farming operations – are often mistreated.  To be ethically consistent at our festival of freedom, if not buying the best meat, best stick with the beet. 

Environmental:  The greatest moral issue now facing us is climate change, with all it’s already doing (and worse to come) to poorer people, the ecosystem, and our own grandkids.  The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization calculated in 2011 that livestock cause fully 18% of the climate’s anthropogenic (human-caused) change – more than all forms of transportation, cars included, combined.  Diet is personal, but so are the lives of others and the planet’s health.  Eating lower on the food chain is a key action we can all take to liberate the poor from rising seas and worse storms; free endangered species from their ever-more-precarious perches; and ensure abundant Passovers for future generations. 

Gastronomic: Vegetarian Pesach recipes abound.  Google them.  Ecological and ethical can be equally epicurean! 

So a vegan (or at least vegetarian) seder would be great.  But as with the 363 other dinners each year, simply buying and serving less meat makes a real difference.  Every ounce of brisket off our table allows a full pound of beets or bagels (but not on Pesach!) to be produced with the same resources.  Serving fewer meat meals, or smaller helpings, is a great start toward greater sustainability – a step toward expanding liberation.

So some of us will roast a beet blood-red, or mount a mealy mushroom on our symbolic plate, at our dairy or pareve seder.  Others may stick with the z’roah / shankbone, but with less meat and more veggies at the feast.  Either way, may ours be a zissen (joyous), mash’ma’uti (meaningful), kasher (as much as you want it to be), and ever-more sustainable Pesach.

Author bio: 

Fred Scherlinder Dobb is Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD, and now serves as chairperson of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.  

1 Comment


<p>Thanks, Fred, for your important teaching. It's our custom to roast a small sweet potato and place it on the seder plate as our "Paschal Yam."</p>

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