Matza may or may not be your favorite "bread" staple, but it certainly is packed with symbolism. For Jews around the world, the first fast food known to man epitomizes slavery. That's why at the Seder table Italian Jews pass a plate of matza from shoulder to shoulder as the Seder leader reads the Ha Lachma Anya -- the Haggadah section written in Aramaic that literally means "This is the bread of affliction."
By placing the matza on a plate, Italians emphasize how weighed down the Hebrew slaves were. Passing the plate from shoulder to shoulder is their way of implying that participants should shoulder the burden as well. It's also a unique way of following this Haggadah directive: "In every generation a person must see himself as if he personally came out of Egypt."
In other words, yes it's a story of yesteryear but we are part of the picture. This special Italian custom is a graphic reminder of that fact.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking? That a plate might be too heavy and unstable to pass from shoulder to shoulder? There's nothing wrong with modifying this custom to suit your needs. How about wrapping the matza up in a large napkin and passing it from shoulder to shoulder? Personally, I think this little twist is a more realistic interpretation of feeling that you're leaving Egypt. Somehow I can't see the Children of Israel making sure they don't forget to take their ceramic dishes (or fine China!).
With a little under two weeks to go until Passover, let's recap the new traditions I've introduced over the past three weeks that can help liven up your seder: 1) Your guests stand behind their seats while the Seder plate is brought in with great flourish and placed on the table; 2) today's custom of passing the matza from shoulder to shoulder; and 3) commemorating Miriam with tambourines and choreography when you have finished reading the first half of the Haggadah.
Don't stop here. Remember, my book Passover Around the World provides numerous other customs.
Continue enjoying your Seder planning!