It’s Passover - Pesakh!
The annual celebration of Pesakh (Passover) is Biblically mandated, including the date and length of the holiday, its eponymous sacrifice (korbn pesakh, the paschal lamb), blood on the doorposts, the injunction to eat matza (breadstuff without leavening or fermentation), maror (bitter herbs), and the obligation to recount the exodus from Egypt in every generation.
The term pesakh, is most often translated as to skip, to pass over (hence the portmanteau festival name in English), recalling a key moment of the story, when God has Moses instruct the people to daub blood from the sacrifice on the lintels of their houses, so that when God executes the final plague, killing of the first-born sons, their families will be spared, their homes skipped or passed over. (From the verse in Shemot, עֲלֵכֶם וּפָסַחְתִּי) In Onkelos, the Mechilta and Rashi, the verb is understood as "to have compassion", or in Tosefta Sota, "to protect". While it seems that Passover is derived from a 16th century Christian reading, neither need it be excluded. We dwell in possibilities!
The text attributes a purpose explicitly: this day is to be a memorial, a remembrance (le-zikaron). Reviving the passage from slavery to freedom from bondage, the story is a defining moment for the Israelites as well as for the God of Israel, YhVh (who quite often presents as “the one who brought /us/ out of Egypt”). God and the people enter History, or put another way, the Exodus is History grounded in faith.
You’ve got matza.
As host or as guest, you’re preparing for seder (a re-telling — a ritual reliving — of the Exodus from Egypt, the ultimate study session with food, wine and song). Seder means "order", the evening is ritualized and follows a predetermined order, such that the meal is really the least important and least interesting part. What are we getting ourselves into? We can confidently trace the annual seder in a recognizable iteration back to its first mention in the Talmud, Tractate Pessahim, not long after the destruction of the Second Temple.
Dressing the table, you open the haggadah.
Hagaddah or telling. The earliest extant version of a haggadah is part of a 9th century siddur (a compendium of prayers, blessings, psalms, songs, for use in public or private worship). The first stand-alone haggadah dates to about 1300 CE, initiating ongoing production of illuminated manuscripts; printed haggadot first appear circa 1482 (the Soncino haggadah appears in 1486).
People often say that this book, to be read around the table, tells the story of the Exodus. Actually it is a documented guide and resource for retelling the story of the Exodus but it also offers the story of the story—how it evolved, how to understand it, how to celebrate and why. The haggadah is not meant to be the last word, but rather contains sources, directions and prompts to quicken our own interest and discussions. With the haggadah you make sure all the elements are on the seder plate.
The oldest surviving seder plate is from pre-expulsion Spain, circa 1480; however an earlier presentation was a kind of basket, from around 1000 CE. The seder plate is a presentation plate displaying an array of symbolic foods that mark some key stages of the evening’s ritual, a visual compendium of sorts.
Classically, the mnemonic device would be a memory palace. At Pesakh, graphically, the mnemonic device is served up on a platter.
Take a minute and look at the elements, think about them:
- zeroah, a roasted shankbone (or, as Rashi suggested, roasted beetroot) - to represent the paschal lamb (zeroah), a domestic and Temple sacrifice;
- beitza, a hard-boiled egg in its crackled/burnt shell - for the festival offering, another category of sacrifice;
- maror, bitter herbs - often horseradish root, for the bitter experience of servitude;
- charoset, a mixture of fruit, nuts, spices and wine;
- karpas, greens - often parsley, which will be dipped in salt water;
- chazeret, a bitter vegetable.
Of these six foods, one stands apart: charoset.
The other five are single ingredients, and immediately recognizable. Charoset is processed, transformed, worked; as a product of interactions it is in this sense, culture.
This dish appears on the table but not in the haggadah, at least not explicitly in the text proper (barring the detailed directions inserted in some modern editions). Although we will eat it, with maror and matza in what might be called a Hillel sandwich, charoset doesn’t have its own blessing, unlike every other element we eat as part of the ritual. The Talmud tells us that this elusive food is adverted to but not named when we say that on this night we dip twice, first with karpas, later with maror, so karpas in salt water, maror... in charoset. Even the term designating the compound is curious.
Charoset seems to be derived from חֶרֶס, clay, immediately assimilated to the bricks produced by and symbolic of Israelite slave labor. A more popular reflex explains charoset as mortar, the binding agent between bricks. In Latin (hence in Romance languages as well as in English), mortar actually refers both to the bonding material and to the vessel in which elements are ground, with a pestle. This too could evoke the construction work of the Israelite slaves.
Do we think of mortar as dark rather than white or grey? Conversely, Hebrew has words for both mortar and bricks, why not tweak one of those terms instead of choosing “clay”?
Perhaps because clay is one of the oldest known building materials, and actually serves variously for bricks and for mortar. Bricks as well as mortar are products in and of themselves, although together they make another unity or product (a result obscured without recourse to the poetic if awkward turn of phrase, 'building a building'). Clay though, is a first state of matter, with the potential to take on an untold number of shapes. Clay is proteiform, it bespeaks possibilities, becoming.
This particular additional slip between signifier(s) and signified points to charoset’s shifting or uncertain condition.
Why is it 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?
Enjoy your Seder, and tune in on the third day of Pesach for the full story!