Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tasting the Bitterness of Slavery: The Hazeret vs. Maror Debate

I have often been puzzled by the presence of two reserved spots on many seder plates for the same role during the evening's festivities.  The "Maror" segment (just after making the berakhah over the matzah and just before eating the Korekh, the sage Hillel's sandwich), includes the unique berakhah,

Barukh attah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha'olam, asher qiddeshanu bemitzvotav, vetzivanu al akhilat maror.
Praised are You, Lord, our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified our lives through His commandments, and commanded us to eat maror.  

On some seder plates, you will find only a spot for maror.  On others, you will find an additional one for "hazeret," which is also a type of maror.  Confused?  Me too.

The source for this mitzvah is Exodus 12:8, which states that the Israelites were commanded to eat the Paschal Lamb with something called merorim, the plural of maror, and it is unclear what was meant here.  According to the JPS Torah Commentary, maror "probably referred originally to the kind of pungent condiment with which pastoral nomads habitually season their meals of roasted flesh."

But the rabbis of the Mishnah, trying to interpret for their day (that is, the first couple of centuries of the Common Era), stated that this mitzvah can be fulfilled by eating one of five different types of vegetables.  Problem is, we do not know what most of them are!

Today, the practice among most of the Diaspora is to use horseradish, which for my entire life has been the traditional understanding of the word maror.  Israeli Jews, however, generally use Romaine lettuce, which is known as hazeret.  Hence the presence of the additional spot on the seder plate.

Rabbi David Golinkin just produced a new teshuvah on the subject, and it makes for a great historical romp through the pungent condiments of the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  Check it out here.

I won't spoil the surprise, but remember that whatever the answer, your family's custom is still your family's custom, and I wouldn't go changing anything at home merely on the basis of one rabbi's deduction.  Pesah is a joyous festival of freedom, not an opportunity to tell your grandparents that they have been misled for their whole lives.  Enjoy! 

חג שמח!

Rabbi Seth Adelson


  1. As usual, R. Golinkin is a strict constructionist, and gives the romaine=chazeret side all the best arguments. However, things are not as sure as he claims. Given the botanical differences between our varieties and those in the time of the Mishnah, I wonder with what certainly one can equate chazeret with our romaine lettuce.

    Furthermore, R. Golinkin exhibits, in his teshuvah, a tendency to look down upon Diasporic customs. He writes:

    "As is frequently the case with ancient texts, the author of this mishnah and his audience knew exactly what he was talking about, but rabbis throughout the centuries were puzzled by most of these terms because Jews moved around so much that they were hard pressed to find local vegetables that fit these terms."

    It would be more accurate, and fair, to say that "rabbis were puzzled" by these terms because they were written nearly 2,000 years ago1 Language changes and terms change. It's not the fault of the Diaspora that the five terms in the Mishnah are all unclear.

    Zack Berger

  2. It might be interesting to follow the history of Romaine lettuce, if that is indeed possible (although I am an avid gardener, my knowledge of historical botany is sorely lacking).

    But all the sources that Rabbi Golinkin cites, with the exception of the Yerushalmi, were either much later than the Mishnah or in another land, where the cultivated flora were surely different. So really the only thing we have to go on is the comment in the Yerushalmi about how hassin/hazeret is sweet at the beginning and bitter at the end. R. Golinkin claims that this is about time in the field, not time on the tongue.

    Perhaps his certainty is overblown. Nonetheless, a great discussion.