by Naomi Cohen
This Dvar Torah is dedicated to the memory of Malka Bayla Schindler who sadly passed away earlier this week.
Ask any child which part of the Seder they enjoy eating and charoset will almost certainly be top of the list. They’ll also be able to tell you that charoset represents the mortar which the Children of Israel used as slaves.
Shemot 1:14 says “The Egyptians made the Israelites’ lives bitter with hard labour in brick and mortar.” The word ‘charoset’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘cheres’ or clay.
The charoset that most of us know is a mixture of apples, almonds, cinnamon, honey and wine. When I married Russell, I was introduced to the Sephardi version known as halek, made from date syrup and walnuts. In fact Rav Sa’adia Gaon gives this as the earliest known recipe for charoset /halek in his Siddur in around the year 930.
Other communities made charoset with more local ingredients; Italians include oranges, lemon juice and cloves; Iranians add pears, pistachios and saffron. Syrians use apricots, cumin and sesame. Apparently the Jews of Suriname add coconut to theirs (although I had to check out where Suriname is!). There’s as many recipes for Charoset as there are Jewish mothers.
But beyond the shopping list, Charoset is something of a mystery. If we look again at the texts, we can go deeper into its symbolism.
This year at LSJS, I’ve been learning Gemara with Rabbi David Mason, in particular the tractate of Pesachim. It’s been a great introduction into the world of logical argument and counter-argument which forms the basis for our halacha today.
Unlike matza and maror, which have many pages devoted to detailed discussion, the Gemara covers the subject of charoset in just a few lines. In daf 114a it states:
Hayviu lefanav matzah, v’chazeret v’charoset ushnai tavshilin. Af al pi, she’ain charoset mitzvah. Reb Elazar ben Zadok omer: mitzvah.
“They bring before the Head of the Seder matza, chazeret (which is the Talmud term for maror) and charoset, and two cooked foods” (which symbolize the Korban Pesach and the Chagigah festival offerings). The Gemara goes on to say “Even though there’s no mitzvah of charoset. Reb Elazar says ‘it is a mitzvah’. “
And that’s it – on to discussions about the Paschal lamb and your intention to eat more than one vegetable at the Seder.
Two pages later, the Rabbis return briefly, with the question which we’ve been waiting to ask:
V’i lo mitzvah, mishum mai mayti lah? “If there’s no mitzvah, why do we bring it to the Seder table?”
The first suggestion is a very strange discussion introduced by Rabbi Ami which we’ll come back to later. Then the Gemara introduces Rabbi Levi who says: zecher la’tapuach – it’s in remembrance of the apple. In response, Rabbi Yochanan says: zecher latit – it’s in remembrance of the mortar. And that’s the main purpose that we all know for charoset.
As someone pointed out to me, there weren’t many apple trees in the deserts of Egypt, so I found out that tapuach is also used as the Biblical Hebrew term for an etrog or citron, and there are plenty of them in Israel. What is it about the tapuach that we have to remember, because it would appear that we have forgotten it?
Rashi introduces a Midrash from Sotah with a verse from Shir haShirim or Song of Songs, which we read on Pesach. “Tachat ha’tapuach orarticha - under the apple trees, I awoke or aroused you.” The Midrash or story states that it was because of the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt. One idea is that the men were ground down physically and psychologically by the Egyptian slavery and family life had effectively broken down. Their wives would come to the fields, feed them fish and seduce them so that they would lie with them under the apple trees to conceive children. Later when they were ready to give birth, they’d leave their houses to escape the Egyptian midwives who had been instructed to kill all new-born Jewish boys, to give birth under the apple trees with God’s protection.
As a complete contrast to the bitterness of the maror which recalls the total slavery inflicted on the Jewish men, charoset represents hope and humanity. The compassion of the Jewish women enabled them to restore their husbands’ dignity during the depths of slavery; their faith in God in difficult times and to continue the future generations of the Jewish people.
Pesach is the festival of freedom and liberation which celebrates the springtime rebirth of life. If you read the actual translation of Shir Hashirim, it’s a celebration of the joy of being alive and in love.
In fact, in Tosfot (medieval commentaries on the Gemara), they quote the Geonim who choose the fruit to make charoset according to other verses from Shir Hashirim, and many of these will sound familiar from our recipes:
Verse 2:3 - As an apple tree among the woods, so is my beloved among the sons.
Verse 2:13 - The fig tree puts forth her green figs and the views with the tender grape give a good smell.
Verse 4:3 – Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates with pleasant fruits; saffron, cinnamon.
Verse 6:11 - I went down into the garden of walnuts to see the fruits of the valley.
Verse 7:7 – You are stately and tall like a date palm tree.
To go back to the Gemara, there’s a discussion about which opinion to follow: Rabbi Levy’s zecher l’tapuach or Rabbi Yochanah’s zecher l’tit. Abbayei suggests a compromise: make it tart or sharp-tasting like the apples or citrons and thick like the mortar, which sounds like the charoset that we all know. It then adds that the spices (usually cinnamon but also ginger)are in remembrance of the hay or straw which the Israelites used to make the bricks.
And finally, the view of Rabbi Ami which I glossed over earlier, for those of you were listening carefully, although I cannot claim to understand it. In answer to the question, why do we bring charoset to the Seder, Rabbi Ami said: “It’s due to the kappa or poison in the bitter herbs, which is neutralized by the charoset.” Rashbam says that kappa is a poisonous sap but there is an anonymous view that it is a worm that causes digestive problems. The smell of the charoset kills the worm, so it’s then safe to eat the bitter herbs. This, by the way, may be the reason why some haggadot say to dip the maror in charoset and then shake it off.
This leads to a typical Gemara sidetrack about how to get rid of worms in other vegetables. It quotes Rav Asi who brings some useful if baffling advice: “The remedy for one who eats kappa in a lettuce is to eat a radish. The remedy for kappa in a radish is to eat leeks. The remedy for kappa in leeks is hot water. And while you are waiting for someone to bring you the remedy let him say this “Kappa, kappa, I remember you and your seven daughters and your eight daughters in law”!
And with the Rabbis’ tips for removing insects from your vegetables, I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.