the vegetarian “shankbone”

What do vegetarians use for the zeroa (shankbone) on the seder plate during pesach?

Dr. Naomi G. Cohen of Haifa University reports (1997)

Her husband’s family has been vegetarian for over 70 years and that their Seder plate contains two hard eggs. “The logic of this: the bone on the usual plate stands for the Korban Pesach, and the egg for the Korban Hagigah which was eaten BEFORE the little piece of the Korban Pesach in order to get one’s fill of food first. Well, if the Korban Hagigah can be symbolized by an egg, than why not the Korban Pesach as well?!”

This is an unusual and idiosyncratic solution.

Robert and Roberta Kalechofsky Haggadot

Many vegetarians, those who use the Haggadot of Robert and Roberta Kalechofsky, use a combination of “dry” barley or wheat (wrapped in plastic wrap) along with olives and grapes. This second option comes with a modern midrash as its prooftext.

As vegetarians, in place of the shankbone, we place olives, grapes, and grains of unfermented barley which symbolize the commandments of compassion for the oppressed, to be found in the Bible. We use olives to commemorate the commandment to leave the second shaking of the olive trees for the poor, we use grapes to commemorate the commandment to leave the second shaking of the grapevines for the poor, (Deut. 24:20) and we use grains of unfermented barley (or other unleavened or unfermented grains), to commemorate the commandment not to muzzle the ox when it treads out the corn in the fields (Deut. 25:4), in other words, to recognize the natural appetites of the animal and not interfere with them. This commandment is considered to be the oldest extant concept of “animal rights,” and enshrines the dignity and rights of the animal.

Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (1985 [the next to last unnumbered page before the Seder begins], 1988, page x) and Haggadah for the Vegetarian Family (1993).

This is truly “liberating” the lamb as it makes no mention of the lamb and has nothing at all to do with the role the lamb played in the Passover story nor the ancient biblical world.

The (first) Jewish Catalog

A more common practice referred to among vegetarians is the use of a beet on their Seder plate in place of a Zeroa. The earliest reference to this I have found is in The Jewish Catalog (1973), page 142 in the sidebar:

For vegetarians, who may object to using a lamb bone on the Seder plate (as a remembrance of the pascal sacrifice): it is halakhically acceptable to use a broiled beet as a replacement.

Those who use a beet refer to Pesachim 114b as their prooftext. I have read this passage numerous times. The only reference to a beet is:

What are the two dishes? –Said R. Huna: Beet and rice. Raba used to be particular for beet and rice, since it had [thus] issued from the mouth of R. Huna. R. Ashi said: From R. Huna you may infer that none pay heed to the following [ruling] of R. Johanan b. Nuri. For it was taught, R. Johanan b. Nuri said: Rice is a species of corn and kareth is incurred for [eating it in] its leavened state, and a man discharges his duty with it on Passover. Hezekia said: Even a fish and the egg on it. R. Joseph said: Two kinds of meat are necessary, one in memory of the Passover-offering and the second in memory of the Hagigah. Rabina said: Even a bone and [its] broth.

The only inference I see that this has to do with the Zeroa appears at the very end where the text states that “Two kinds of meat are necessary, one in memory of the Passover offering [the Zeroa] and the second in memory of the Hagigah [the Beitzah].”

Rabbi Scott Aaron offers this explanation (slightly edited):

Those who are referencing Pesachim 114b as the source are mixing issues. Pesachim 114b’s citing of the beet and rice are to the two extra dishes on the table that are mentioned in the preceding Mishna as being required at a Seder table with matzah, maror and charoset. This was proof of the early practice that a seder should be a vegetarian meal so as not to give any appearance in a post-Temple world that we were attempting to replace or offer our own Zeroa without the Temple. The later additions of meat dishes as representing the Paschal sacrifice and the Hagigah in the Gemara are just that, later additions from a differing and apparently persuasive tradition. This is also where the addition of the Zeroa on our plate come from.

The Beet used today in veggie seders is actually meant to replace the Zeroa due to its blood-red color which also reminds us of the Paschal sacrifice. To my knowledge, it is not connected to Pesachim 114b but rather an innovation for modern-day vegetarians who may or may not have realized how connected to tradition they actually are through a veggie seder.

Cynthia Baker of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University

Offers a different explanation for the beet:

“What is the meaning of the beet? It is here to remind us of an incident which occurred in 1945, when women slave laborers in Buchenwald concentration camp changed a negative definition to a positive one:

‘It hit me suddenly that the Haggadah could have been written for us. If I only changed the tense from past to present, it was written about us…. At this time, the scene in the barracks was bad, there was really fighting, cursing, and yelling… so when I asked the women to be quiet it was like a miracle, this absolute silence in the barracks. I started the Seder by asking why is this night different. And I said that every night we quarrel and we fight and tonight we remember. There were close to a thousand women there. I picked up the slice of sugar beet and I said, this is the bread of our suffering…. And then we made a vow that if we survived, a beet was going to be on our Seder table.'”

I don’t know where the account comes from, but it’s the one I’ve seen and heard most often. Does anyone have more info on this?

While doing a bit of research to update this page I learned that the above material is available (with reference to the earlier, original “.html” version of this page at My Jewish Learning:
A Vegetarian Shankbone; How the beet ended up on the seder plate

In addition, the Buchenwald story was also picked up by Allison Jones in her blog LemonBasil in March of 2010: My Idiosynctratic Seder Table

At least since Pesach of 2000/5760 I have had a slight variant of the following paragraphs in my own Haggadah. In the body of the narrative, I explain the importance of the shankbone itself:

Young Jesse sat in the full moonlit, cloudless night. The plentiful rains had turned the sloping hillsides a verdant green. The pleasant fragrance of the grasses and flowers mingled with the pungent flock around him. Kids snuggled near their mothers beside the still waters at the foot of the hills, some still suckling, most asleep.
Once the days got significantly longer than the nights he would have to move the flocks to the summer pastures. Jesse had already used his staff to separate some of the new males he’d seen butting against each other, testing their strength. He could imagine and did not look forward to their fights if too many came along to the north. Behind him Jesse smelled the sweet aroma of roasting meat. He would soon share in the feast of the yearlings. He felt a pang of remorse that so many of these little ones, who had been in his care, could not live. So much of his life depended on them: for milk and cheese and for the wool garment he wore. But to let them join in the trek would only cause greater troubles as the grasses diminished.

Joshua contacted his most trusted fighters. They called themselves (cryptically) the “What” or “Mah” after their acronym the מ”ה or מלאך המות, the Angel of Death (Malakh haMavet). “Every first-born of the Egyptians would die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and the first-born of the captive that is in the dungeon; and all the first- born of the cattle.” Tonight this group would act as the “Arm of God” and strike terror into the hearts and souls of their Egyptian tormentors. Moses had already instructed the Hebrews to smear the blood of the yearlings on their doorposts.
The full moonlight would show which houses to avoid and pass over. They had to move swiftly and silently through the city in order to return to their families before dawn. Then they would leave their hovels as the redemption occurred. As the howl of Egyptian parents rose.

At the beginning of the Haggadah, where I explain what goes on the seder table (and plate) I share:

Zeroa זרוע

(shankbone), represents the Passover offering made in Temple times. It will be explained during the
Seder (page 27 in the 2010 edition of the PDF version of Haggadah). At vegetarian Seders it has become customary to use a red beet instead. No classic prooftext exists for the use of a beet. Some people refer to Talmud Bavli Pesachim 114b. However, this comment actually deals with rice (!) and beets as additional foods at the meal itself—not a symbolic food on the Seder Plate. Nonetheless, the blood-red color of the beet serves as a metaphoric stand-in for the blood of the lamb shank. I suggest scoring and roasting a beet with its greens.

I smear olive oil over the entire root and on the greens, score the root, sprinkle cinnamon and nutmeg on the root, then wrap it all in a large sheet of tin foil (with the greens folded in, but not fully closed), add a bit of water to the bottom and then roast it all for an hour or two at 400º. We don’t generally eat the beet, but we certainly could.

first posted circa March 14, 1999
updated Sunday, October 17, 2010
updated Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Haggadah