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On the Mystery and Magic of Charoset

04/05/2023 09:42:37 AM


Rabbi Abigail Treu

In our family, it is the matzah balls that win the nostalgia award. The brisket, too, but sometimes that is swapped out for turkey or chicken, the price of kosher meat being what it is; and anyway, there are the vegetarians to consider. The charoset? Well, yes, of course. In some years it has also been the star feature; in particular that final year of my uncle’s too-short life, when he decided to make six different recipes from Jewish communities around the world even though the chemotherapy made it hard for him to stand in the kitchen for very long. Every one of the six was deliciously bittersweet.

Charoset: nominated for best lead or supporting role? To look at the Haggadah, it would seem the latter. It doesn’t get its own named step in the seder, or even its own blessing. In fact, it is unclear if it is its own mitzvah (commandment) or just a part of the maror (bitter herbs) and korech (Hillel sandwich) ones. The charoset is just sort of slipped in there, in the instructions for how to eat the maror, right before the meal is served. Like, that spot where no one wants to take extra time to consider another question. It’s just there, part of the meal, something you do as part of the maror and korech steps but not actually part of the narrative arc of the Haggadah-script at all.

In fact, unlike matzah and maror, charoset is not found anywhere in the Torah.

It is, however, alluded to in the earliest rabbinic works of the Mishnah, a collection of early rabbinic teachings that was completed around 200 CE:

“They brought before [the seder leader] matzah and lettuce [hazeret] and charoset, and at least two cooked dishes, although eating charoset is not a commandment (mitzvah). Rabbi Eliezer ben Tzadok says: it is a commandment (mitzvah).” (Mishna, Pesachim 10:3)

Already nearly 2,000 years ago our ancestors were eating something they called charoset as part of the seder meal. It’s never defined, and there seems to be disagreement about whether it was a mitzvah or not.

The rabbis living in the following centuries took up the question, and some of their conversations are recorded in the Talmud. “And if it is not a mitzvah,” Rabbi Ami asks  (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 116a) “why does one serve it?” A few answers are offered:

Idea #1: “It is brought due to the poison in the bitter herbs, which is neutralized by the charoset.” Is this a culinary suggestion or a spiritual one?

Idea #2: “Rabbi Levi says: It is in remembrance of the apple.” Huh? What apple?

Idea #3: “Rabbi Yohanan says: It is in remembrance of the clay.” This sounds familiar. The charoset, we learn as children and most haggadot tell us, is to remember the mortar used with the bricks in the building of the pyramids. In fact, a Haggadah printed in Spanish in 17th century offers a recipe for charoset that includes the following: “Then mix in a bit of brick dust, in memory of the bricks which our fathers made in Egypt.” A haggadah printed in Salonika in 1740 reports that “in Salonika the elders testified that they used to put chopped calermini stone in the charoset.” I’ve read that during the American Civil War, soldiers at the front, unable to find the ingredients for charoset, put an actual brick on their makeshift seder plate. Rabbi Yohanan’s idea seems to have stuck and become mainstream. But as we see, his is not the only idea about this mysterious dish. In fact, the Talmud seems to want to compromise, which brings us to…

Idea #4: “Abaye said: Therefore, to fulfill both opinions [the idea of the apple and the idea of the clay], one must prepare the charoset tart and thick. Tart in remembrance of the apple, and thick in remembrance of the clay.” Again, what’s with the apple? Why not just go with the clay idea and move on?

That apple comment becomes important, as most – though not all – charoset recipes feature apples as a key ingredient. So what is the apple? Is it perhaps an allusion to the fruit of the Garden of Eden? Perhaps. And also, perhaps to a midrash (rabbinic story) about love, as Rashi suggests in his 11th century commentary to the Talmud. He reminds us of the story: Disheartened by their ongoing oppression and in particular by Pharoah’s decree that all Jewish boys should be killed at birth, the Israelite men gave up being intimate with their wives. The wives however refused to accept their husbands’ sense of defeat, and went out among the apple trees and seduced their husbands. Later on, they went out to those same apple trees and gave birth to their children nearby. This midrash (rabbinic tale) is included in the Haggadah, actually just a few pages before we eat the charoset.

So what is the apple of the charoset recipe? The apple is about Jewish continuity, resilience and most importantly and uniquely at the seder: love.

The ingredients of charoset are actually all mentioned in the Biblical love story-poem Song of Songs, which is read on the Shabbat of Passover at synagogue and also included in some haggadot:  “Come, my beloved, let us go in the open – under the apple tree I roused you… I went down to the nut grove…the pomegranites were in bloom…the figs…the almonds…the dates…all choice fruits” (Song of Songs, 7:12-14, 5:11).

Perhaps, then, eating charoset is ingesting this love song. The love song of the Jewish people and God, and also two human beings. Aryeh ben David has written:

“The face of someone who has fallen in love shines with hope. Often, with the passing of years, the early spark felt when first falling in love fades. But when we look at old pictures and read the letters written in early romance, we can often rekindle the flames of our passion. The Seder, with its four cups of wine, recling posture, charoset, and lengthy discussion of the Jewish People’s “first date” with God, evokes and rekindles this love. And as with all love stories, hope is renewed.”

Abaye’s Idea #4 is right. The charoset is a mixture that is full of the love of the apple, and also thick like the mud of slavery. Because isn’t that what life is? A thick mixture of hope and despair, of sweet moments of love and tenderness and also sticky-thick moments of pain and trauma that are hard to let go?

“From darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from winter to spring, and now from bitterness to sweetness. But with the light, there is still darkness in the world. With our freedom, there are still those who are enslaved…Even within our own lives, we live within the tapestry of these contradictions. It is dark, and it is light; we are trapped, and we are liberated; we are cold, and we are warm; we experience pain and joy, just as we have eaten the maror with the charoset, taking the bitter with the sweet. Through this act, we acknowledge the fulness of life, shaded by the gradations of experience…a reflection of the full range of possibilities.” (Rabbi Joy Levitt)

As we head to the seder table tonight and tomorrow, may the charoset bring us all to the messy, sticky-tart-sweet taste of life in all its fulness, the taste of liberation and love.  

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784