Photo Credit: Jewish Press

For this column, I thought I would share two Pesach Seder plates hailing from Germany that are in my personal collection.

During the late 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, amongst the Jews residing in Germany, Bohemia and Moravia (modern-day Czech Republic), and the Alsace region of France, there was a trend to purchase old pewter plates in the secondhand marketplace and engrave them with Hebrew words to use as a Seder tray for Pesach. Many of these pewter plates were “home-decorated,” meaning the person who had the most artistic talent in a Jewish family would engrave the plate; these examples can be quite crude, with some Hebrew letters being larger than others, and any animals or people depicted appearing a bit strange, with their bodies out of proportion. In modern classifications of objet d’art, today this type of engraving style and finished product would be labeled as folk art.


Finer examples of decorated pewter plates for Pesach were done by skilled engravers employed in workshops. Presumably, for a fee, a person could take their blank pewter plate to one of these artist workshops and hire someone to engrave their plate to use for the Seder service. There are various levels of quality of this engraving work. The first plate shown from my collection is just about the highest level you could hope to find in one of these pewter Seder plates, as the depiction of the Hebrew letters, animals, and people are all beautifully executed. Here are the details of what is on this pewter plate:

The outer rim has the Hebrew verse “You must not eat anything leavened. In all the areas where you live, eat matzah” (Exodus 12:20). A deer and bird flank two sets of initials, which likely represent the owners of this plate. The inner rim has the Pesach rhyme Chad Gadya depicted, including the goat, cat, dog, stick, fire, water, ox, butcher, Angel of Death, and G-d himself – represented by the word Shechina (Divine Spirit) inside a circle with rays emanating from it. Under each illustration is the beginning of that particular verse from the song. Then, these two verses: “The entire community of Israel shall then slaughter (their sacrifices) in the afternoon” and “Eat the [sacrificial] meat during the night, roasted over fire. Eat it with matzah and bitter herbs” (Exodus 12: 6-8).

In the center, the plate shows two men. The one on the right is in the traditional synagogue dress of 18th-century German Jews, which was a flat round hat, sleeveless gown, and frilled collar. Next to him are the words “matzah, bitter herbs,” as that is what he is holding in each hand. The man on the left holds a lamb (representing the Paschal lamb) by a leash in one hand, and a butcher’s knife in the other. Above both men are the words “The Passover service” (Exodus 12:27).

This should be the conclusion of the decoration of this plate. But incredibly, the reverse is engraved as well. The rim has the verse “From the 14th day of the first month in the evening, until the night of the 21st day of the month, you must eat [only] matzah” (Exodus 12:18). In the center, it says “This is a wedding gift from the cantor,” and then “in order of the small counting.” This last statement is an indication to add up the numerical value of the Hebrew letters from “This is a wedding gift…” to discover the Hebrew year of the wedding which, when tallied, equals the period between September 1774 and September 1775.

There are probably a few hundred engraved pewter Seder plates scattered across the globe in museums and private collections, perhaps even as many as a thousand. This is the only example known where both sides of the plate have been decorated.

The second Seder tray shown is made from ceramic and applied with a green color, which was then glazed. The rim has a scene of Hebrew slaves making bricks and being whipped by a taskmaster against a backdrop of palm trees, pyramids, and large buildings that represent the ancient cities of Pitom and Ramses. In Hebrew it states “From slavery to freedom,” “This year in Jerusalem” and, in English, “Joint.” The reverse of the plate has a slightly smudged stamped mark in black ink that is under the glaze which states in Yiddish and English “Produced by She’erit HaPletah in the German Exile – Employment Board.” What is the history behind this fascinating plate, with its blatant replacement of the word “Next” with “This” from the iconic phrase said at the conclusion of the Seder service?

The plate was produced in the ceramic workshop of the Marktredwitz Displaced Persons Camp in northeastern Bavaria by Holocaust survivors in 1948. The workshop was established by the Employment Board, an organization founded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (or AJDC, known by its shorthand name “Joint,” which is also included on the plate), the Jewish Agency for Palestine, and the Central Committee of Liberated Jews of Bavaria, with the aim of providing work for Holocaust survivors, equipping them with new skills, and furnishing them with materials for everyday life and religious observance. The altered phrase “This Year in Jerusalem” carried significant meaning, as many European refugees were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to immigrate to Palestine; many were studying the Hebrew language and working on agricultural training farms in preparation for the pioneering life in the Promised Land. This became a reality with the establishment of a Jewish state.

A report from November 1947 recording the activities of the AJDC in the American Zone of Germany gives details on the ceramics workshop of the Marktredwitz DP camp staffed by these survivors: “The ceramic workshop is one of our best producing units… An order received from the religious department has been completed and a very successful product has been manufactured, delivered, and is now being distributed.” The report goes on to say: “The people employed in this workshop have never had any previous experience with ceramic work but have made remarkable progress in learning the trade. The work is dirty and hard, and the workers must be given credit for their efforts.”

Since this Seder plate was produced in large numbers to be gifted to Holocaust survivors in DP camps spread across Germany and Austria, numerous examples have survived, having been passed down in families as heirlooms. Examples tend to appear in the auction marketplace about once every two or three years, and typically sell in the range of $1,000-$2,000. Any potential buyers should be aware of later-made copies, all of which lack the aforementioned black-inked stamped mark on the reverse side.

Let us continue to pray for the safety of those living in and fighting for Eretz Yisrael. Chag Pesach Same’ach to all!

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Tsadik Kaplan is a collector, certified appraiser, and speaker/lecturer on the topic of Judaica. He is the author of the book “Jewish Antiques: From Menorahs to Seltzer Bottles” (Schiffer Publishing). For questions or comments – or to send pictures of your Judaica for future columns – email [email protected].