Did anyone else ever have a laugh when looking at the English translation of the Hagadah (the book we read at the Passover Seder to tell the story of the Exodus) and reading the word “haroseth” instead of the Hebrew “charoset?” Maybe I’m a Modern Orthodox Ashkenazic snob, but it tickled me to conclude this particular word with a “th.”
This is no longer a laughing matter to me, as it is this transliteration of the fruity concoction we eat at the Passover Seder that brought me to a fascinating article on charoset from the Jewish Quarterly Review. In the spirit of an article I wrote shortly after Tu B’shvat, “Mindful Eating”, I would like to briefly touch upon some of the symbolism behind charoset--the sweet climax of the Seder that closes the chapter of story-telling, and segues from past to present by opening up the meal with an edible, chunky aperitif.
On a surface level, charoset is present on the Seder plate to represent the mortar the Hebrews needed to work with during their enslavement, as the Hagadah states, “They embittered the Jews’ lives with hard labor in brick and mortar.”
However, on a deeper level, the purpose of charoset is as a commemoration of the spiritual redemption bestowed upon the Israelites when God redeemed them from Egypt. This is not simply because the sweetness of the charoset turns the mortar it represents from something negative to something positive (which is how I interpreted it). As explained in the article “The Liturgy of the First Night of Passover,” there is a connection between the paschal lamb and charoset. While still in Egypt, God commanded the Hebrews to sprinkle the blood of the paschal lamb on their doorposts so that He would not kill their firstborn; this was to be a sign for all future generations. However, because Jews loathe blood, this was amended, and today we eat charoset as a reminder of blood, according to the Palestinian Talmud. This is why charoset is made with wine: because wine is referred to in Genesis 49:11 as the “blood of grapes.” We substitute the blood of a lamb for the blood of grapes, mixed with chopped fruit and nuts.
There are also other distinctive aspects of charoset that have symbolism worth noting:
- Sephardim often puree the chopped fruit and nut mixture to get the consistency as close to cement as possible.
- Charoset is the only element of the Seder plate that is not mentioned in the Torah; it is from the Talmud, where the link between charoset and mortar is established. Additionally, R. Jacob gives detailed instructions on how to make charoset properly in Hilchot Pesach. Of course, this is not the required prescription (as evidenced by the plethora of charoset recipes accessible on this website).
- When eaten with the horseradish, the charoset balances the bitterness of the maror (horseradish), symbolizing the optimism of the Passover seder.
- The cinnamon in charoset is symbolic of the straw Hebrews had to gather in Egypt to build Pharaoh’s palaces (when considering the cinnamon in its stick form).
- Shir Hashirim, which we read during Passover, sings praise to the fruits of Israel that are in season in Spring, so we eat charoset in the spirit of the season, and in thanks to God.
I hope that all of this information about charoset will enrich both the process of making it with your family, as well as the mental process you go through during the Seder when you eat it. Focus on the spiritual redemption God gave us, the abundance and deliciousness of the fruits in bloom, and the sweetness that charoset brings to our Passover celebration.
The Liturgy of the First Night of Passover (Continued)
The Jewish Quarterly Review , New Series, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Apr., 1948), pp. 431-460
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1453158