The Mysterious Origin of the Passover Haroset

Many Jewish practices are not as old as people think and many had no religious significance when first introduced. We do not even know how or when most Jewish practices began and why they began. We can only guess. And in many instances our guesses reveal that it wasn’t rabbis who started the practice, it was lay people, even non-religious people, and in some instances, superstitious people. The use of the sweet haroset at the Passover Seder table is a good example of some of this.

Dr. Susan Weingarten, a food historian, traces the development of the ancient Haroset dish from its obscure origin sometime around the beginning of the common era, in her easy to read “Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History.” She offers readers “An intriguing exploration of one of the most mysterious symbolic Passover foods.” She gives us the views of many rabbis and scholars, rationalists and mystics. Although unstated, it appears to me that we are left with the need to decide for ourselves what the Haroset means for us, but she gives us a wealth of information to help us decide.

The name

We have no idea why this food is called Haroset: what the word means when applied to this food and what it is meant to imply. Weingarten does not define the term. The word is found in Exodus 31:5 (twice), Exodus 35:33 (twice), with the root ch-r-sh in Isaiah 40:20, and Rashi to 31:5 defines it as “skilled work.”[1] It is the name of a place in Judges 4:2, 13, and 16. The root means a craftsman, plough, devise, discover, be silent, and a grove. Haroset in Modern Hebrew means industry and manufacture, and a beit haroset is a factory plant. None of this aid us in determining why the food is called Haroset.[2]

The ingredients of Haroset

While almost all Haroset today is sweet, Maimonides (1138-1204) was the first to suggest the ingredients of the Haroset, and his view was that it should be acidic in memory of the harshness of the Israelites being required to build with clay.[3] But, “The ingredients, and hence the taste, have varied over time.”[4]

When did the practice of eating Haroset begin?

We do not know. It is not mentioned in the Bible and likely was not used during the biblical period. Weingarten identifies the first mention of Haroset in Mishna Pesachim 10:5 and a similar passage in Tosephta Pesachim 10:9. The Mishna, edited around 200 CE, states that unleavened bread, lettuce (which was very bitter in ancient times and was the morror, bitter herb) and haroset were brought to the leader of the Seder “even though haroset is not a religious obligation (mitzva). R. Elazar ben Tzadok says, ‘It is a religious obligation.’” The Mishna gives us little information. It does not tell readers what the haroset is, when the practice arose to use it, how it was used, what were its ingredients, nor does it explain what R. Elazar meant by saying “It is a religious obligation.” Was he disagreeing with the colleague who made the former statement, or saying something else, such as, while it is not a biblical command, it is a significant part of the Seder?[5]

While the foregoing seems to imply that Haroset had a religious significance from the time that it was introduced, it is possible that since the Bible required the eating of bitter herbs, the original Haroset was simply a sweet sauce used to mollify the bitterness.

What does the Haroset signify?

The rabbis give many suggestions of the Haroset significance.

  1. “It must be thick in memory of the clay” that the Egyptians forced the Israelites to use to build cities or storehouses for them. Abbaye, commenting upon this explanation, said in Pesachim 116a, “Therefore you have to make acidic.”
  2. Jacob ben Asher (1269-1343) and others “It must be soft [or runny] in memory of blood.” It is unclear what blood this recalls: blood of the Pascal lamb to mark their houses as a protection against having their first-born sons killed as Egyptian first-borns were killed, or the first of the ten plagues when water was turned to blood.
  3. The Vilna Gaon suggested Haroset alludes to the manna that fell from heaven
  4. throughout the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. He insisted that therefore that Haroset must be sweet.
  5. R. Levi in Pesachim 116a offered that Haroset must have apples as an ingredient because it is “In memory of the apple” mentioned in Song of Songs 8:5, “I roused you under the apple tree,” which he and others interpreted as referring to God saving Israelite mothers who delivered children under apple trees to hide them from Egyptian officials whom Pharaoh ordered to kill all male Israelite newborn children. Since ancient apples were sour, this view held that Haroset was acidic.
  6. There were also mystic notions such as the view of Rabbi Nachman of Braslov who suggested that the Hebrew letters of Haroset can be rearranged into two new words, has and rt. The first meaning “mercy” and the second being the Hebrew name Ruth, the ancestor of King David, who in turn, is the ancestor of the messiah. Thus, Haroset is a symbol of the future merciful messianic age.
  7. Another mystic interpretation was made by Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) who also by rearranging letters saw the word Haroset referring to the building of the ancient Tabernacle used during the time of Moses in the desert, “the earthly home of the Shekhina, the seat of the Divine Presence.”

In short, it appears that the Haroset was introduced into the Seder, as were other Seder practices, in one way or another, to remind the Seder participants of the Egyptian experience of their ancestors and/or the mercy of God who delivered them.

What was the origin of the Seder and the Haroset?

The consensus among scholars is that the Seder is a copy of the Greek/Roman symposium meal and it is therefore reasonable to assume that Haroset is a copy of one of the activities during the symposium. The rabbis used the symposium model to prompt Jews to recall the Egyptian slavery, the divine rescue to freedom, and the need for all Jews to feel as if they are enslaved and work toward creating a civilization where all people, not only Jews, can live in peace, safety, and be happy. For the basic Torah command is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

While the symposium was the basic model, all the elements of it were changed. The term Seder means “order.” It is the order arranged to use practices to move toward this goal. Jews were told, for example, that like the Greeks and Romans in the symposium, they should lean during the meal, but the reason is that they should feel, like them, that they are free people, at leisure, and work to help others have this leisure as well. While the Greeks and Romans spoke about philosophy at their symposiums, as in Plato’s famed book on philosophy called Symposium, Jews were encouraged to speak about the enslavement and freedom, and were told that those who speak more on these subject “are praised.” Wine was drunk at the symposiums, glass after glass, but the rabbis limited the drinking to four cups, for the purpose of the evening was not inebriation, but to recall the four expressions used in the Torah to describe God’s deliverance of the Israelite slaves. A ladle was passed around for hand washing. Appetizers such as lettuce and eggs introduced the meal, including the dipping of some foods into sauces. The Jews did so as well, but the dipping was into salt water to recall the tears of the enslaved ancestors, and into Haroset, which as we saw different rabbis had different ideas about what they symbolized.

Why is the preparation of the Haroset usually a male task?

Weingarten explains that the practice is sexist, “if haroset is really a mitzva then it becomes important, and therefore something not beneath a man’s dignity to prepare, even something too important to leave to ‘mere’ women. One modern rabbinic text I read even says that simply laying out the Seder table may be too important to be left to women.”[6]

Summary

In short, Haroset in nothing like what most people thought it is, far from it. We have no idea when or why it started, but it seems clear that it was connected in post-biblical times to Greek and Roman culture, although it was clearly reinterpreted and given the meaning the Bible wanted, to recall, the slavery and the exodus. Does it recall the clay and the bricks that burdened the Israelite slaves? Or, does it remind users of divine love, as commentators saw God helping Israelite women under apple trees? Rabbis differ. Perhaps we should decide to see all the significances in this mysterious substance.


[1] See my “Onkelos on the Torah: Exodus,” 2006, page 215.

[2] The medieval Talmud commentators Rokeach and Mordekhai contend that Haroset it built on the word harsit a pale-colored earth from which pottery was made (Y. Shabbat 11b) because Haroset reminds the Seder participants of the clay that the Egyptians forced the Israelites to use.

[3] Rashi (1040-1105) also said the Haroset should be acidic.

[4] Curiously, some rabbis placed ground or scraped potsherds into Haroset in the quest for authenticity, a reminder of the clay.

[5] Maimonides wrote in Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Hametz U’Matzah, 7:11, that it is only a lesser religious obligation.

[6] She identifies the source as M. Y. Weingarten, HaSeder HaArukh, Jerusalem, 1993, pages 108-9, and is quick to add that the man is not her relative.

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