Charoset: What's in the Mix?
Reflections

Charoset: What's in the Mix?

26 Apr 2016

Why is Charoset on the seder plate and what’s its role in the seder or in the Passover story? Perhaps more fundamentally, what’s actually in the mix?

It turns outs that overwhelmingly, Jews all over the world use the same basic ingredients. Take a minute to note yours and see how many figure on this list:

  • apples,
  • walnuts,
  • wine,
  • cinnamon,
  • figs or dates,
  • almonds,
  • perhaps other spices: nutmeg, ginger...

I grew up making charoset, it’s rough-chopping and assembling, something kids can accomplish, and it’s only recently that I came to wonder about where the recipe comes from and how it happens that everybody has some version of the same idea (with an Ashkenazi or Sephardic interpretation).

Apple

Mishna discusses the seder, which was already customary by the Talmudic era (at least among rabbinic figures). The amoraim (the generation of rabbis from roughly 220 CE to 560 CE in Babylonia) elaborate on the Mishna and the ritual, and it is they who imbue charoset with symbolic meaning. They start by questioning its status - is it a mitzvah, an obligation or commandment, or not? If not, why use it? Here the rabbis attribute healing powers to charoset as a mixture that will neutralize potential poison/worms in the bitter herbs. If it is obligatory, what is the religious significance? One explanation: "it serves as a remembrance of the apple(-trees)"; another, that it is to remember the mortar the Israelites mixed when they were slaves in Egypt. Thus, Abaye reasons, charoset must be tangy in memory of the apple(-trees) and thick like the mortar.

Cinnamon

The text next cites a baraita, to the effect that the spices in charoset were in memory of the straw and the mixture as a remembrance of the mortar. A final proof is brought by R. Elazar ben Zadok, who conjures up storekeepers in Jerusalem, standing at the latticed windows of their spice shops, shouting “Come buy spices for the mitzvah.” (see Pessahim 116a)

This text establishes both apple (or arguably citrus fruit) and spices as ingredients and mortar and straw for bricks as the reference.

The mitzvah is charosset which, in its admixture, crystallizes remembrance, which the Tora enjoins us to deploy, to share and to transmit.
Charosset is not just mortar to hold things together or bricks to build lasting structures or the vessel to contain the elements as they’re mixed, it is also the vessel to convey historical memory and in so doing fulfill God’s commandment.

Add wine, figs, and walnuts

Rashi, in the 12th century, elaborates, specifically identifying the apple with Song of Songs, “under the apple tree I aroused you” (8:5). His students (in a larger sense) argue that the wine is a reminder of the blood in Egypt (so, wine) and after repeating Rashi’s citation for the apple-tree, extend the reading of the charosset admixture through Song of Songs: “like a split pomegranate” (4:3), “the fig tree has produced /its figs/” (2:13), “I will climb the palm tree” (7:9), walnuts in the “nut garden” (6:11)... We can also note the mention of cinnamon in particular and spices in general (4:14). Maimonides mentions raisins and dates, which lead us back to the apple and raisin-cakes of Song of Songs.

It is extraordinary to realize that across the world and across centuries (even millennia) we have remained faithful to a recipe without knowing it.

As if this were a precursor to the story told of the Baal Shem-Tov, who, when catastrophe loomed, would go to a specific spot in the forest, light a fire and offer a prayer, thereby averting the tragedy. In the next generation, his disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, would go to the same place in the forest, but did not know how to light the fire. Still, he recited the prayer, and the miracle transpired, tragedy was averted. In the third generation, the rebbe no longer knew how to light the fire, nor the prayer, but could find the spot, which was enough. In the next generation, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich could not light a fire, did not know the prayer, could not find the spot in the forest, but told the story. And that too was enough.

On another level, the reason usually advanced for why we eat charosset with maror and matza, after Hillel, is that Hillel would eat the pessakh (the paschal lamb) with maror and matza, but since the destruction of the Temple we no longer have that sacrifice, and so use charosset in its stead. As such the same food is simultaneously a dipping sauce and a ritual meat substitute: again an illusive and elusive identity.

It is almost funny to think how very deeply we mean it when, thoughtlessly, we describe charosset as traditional, since in itself it brings together so many layers and kinds of tradition, in foodways and in exegesis.

The connection with Song of Songs is perhaps unexpected and certainly convincing, all the more so when we remember that Song of Songs is the special reading associated with Pessakh, a beautiful if for some, uncomfortable text. An interesting argument has been made that there is no coherent peshat or so-called literal meaning, that Song of Songs must be read as itself but always already as if a reading of another sort. Here interpretations reverse it, to materialize or concretize it in sustenance, charosset.

If the zeroah represents the korbn pessakh, a sacrifice at the Temple on this pilgrimage holiday, and the beitzah evokes a festival offering, then on some level the shankbone (or beet) marks the place of the Cohen, the priestly class, the beitzah that of the Levi, the Levite who serves in the Temple, and charosset, I’d argue, is Yisrael, the people, all of us.

Further while zeroah and beitzah are offerings, and so function in the religious domain, charosset, as clay, brick, mortar, functions in the historical arena, and is the only element to do so. Less elegant perhaps, less elevated than the rest of the seder plate (no blessing, remember? Unnamed!) it is what holds the story together, especially when digested through the lens of the Song of Songs, a text in which a parallel is drawn between divine love and human love, in which there is arguably a figuration of God’s love for Israel and Israel’s love for God, a dialogue between God and Israel. The secular is an image for the sacred. And isn’t that what the sources and the seder allow us to understand both in theory and in practice? Isn’t that charosset... in a nutshell?


Nikki Halpern,

with thanks to Muriel Toledano

Photo credit: Bart Everson (CC BY)


  • Another reference adduced for the apple-tree is a story found in Tractate Sota, explaining that when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, the women would bring their husbands water and fish, keeping them clean and nourished, have sexual relations and so be impregnated. When they went into labor, these women would take shelter under apple-trees (so the babies would not be taken and killed). In any case, the association of apples with both nourishment and eroticism is first found in the Torah in the Garden of Eden, but the apple tree also figures in Sumerian sacred marriage mythology, elsewhere the goddess Inanna strolls with her brother in a grove and kneels under the apple-tree….bringing us to the Andrews Sisters, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” – “with anyone else but me.”

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