Passover, the Festival of Spring and Freedom, is a holiday associated with food. Matzah, of course, the flat unleavened bread (I recommend whole wheat), to remind us of the unleavened bread that our ancestors baked in their haste to leave slavery in ancient Egypt, with no time for the dough to rise. The other tastes of Passover have their own associations, bitter and sweet. Eating these symbolic and seasonal natural foods helps to literally internalize the Seder’s message of freedom.
Maror, מרור Bitter Herbs, are eaten at the Passover Seder to recall the bitterness of slavery. My husband’s Sephardic (Spanish and Mediterranean Jews) family observes this the original way by eating Romaine Lettuce for the bitter herb. It is said to be sweet with a bitter after-taste, recalling how the Israelite sojourn in Egypt began sweetly but later turned bitter. Although Romaine lettuce from the supermarket isn’t usually very bitter, it can become so when the plant matures in hot climates. Historically, some Sephardim used artichokes as the bitter herb.
Like most American Jews of Ashkenazic (Northern and Eastern European) ancestry, I grew up with horseradish as the bitter herb of choice. So in my family we do both: horseradish and romaine lettuce. In cold places like Poland, my ancestors probably could not find fresh greens at Passover, so they used horseradish, a bitter root vegetable. (And even for the Karpas, the green vegetable appetizer such as parsley or celery at the Seder meal, they may have had to make do with some potato or onion.)
It’s really easy to grow your own horseradish; a friend took a large piece of leftover root from his family seder and planted it in the garden where it grew for years, which inspired me to do the same. In fact, my experience is that horseradish is an invasive plant and it’s good to plant it separately. The Bible Belt Balabusta has all the tips for you to grow and use your horseradish for next year!
My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, encouraged people to experience gathering wild herbs for the Maror, as a taste of living from foraging. To get started, you might try dandelions.
Whatever your Seder custom for the ritual of eating bitter herbs, you can also enjoy a variety of bitter spring herbs in a salad. Some friends brought a delicious bitter herb salad to our Seder. Here’s a popular recipe.
The Haroset (or Charoset) חרוסת is a sweet mixture usually containing fruits, nuts, cinnamon and wine. The Maror is dipped in the Haroset, so that the bitter is tempered with the sweet. (Leftover Haroset is also a popular snack throughout the holiday week). The Ashkenazic version is apple-based, while the Sephardic versions often have dates, dried fruits and nuts.
Here are a several delicious recipes to try from around the world.
While the most popular explanation of the Haroset is a reminder of the morter and bricks made by our ancestors in ancient Egypts, there is another and sweeter explanation: it recalls the springtime, the biblical Song of Songs, and the defiant love-making “under the apple tree” that kept the Israelite people growing and surviving even through times of slavery.
A Festival for the Earth
Passover is a story of Freedom, and it is also a story tied to the spring season and the earth. Including some foods from your own garden or local farmer’s market in your holiday menu can add to the enjoyment of the festival and its connection to the cycles of the year. Then to enhance the meaning of the Seder for our planet, you might use this Kavannah (sacred intention) as you search for the chametz (leaven) prior to the holiday, and include some of the material in this downloadable Freedom Seder for the Earth, from the Shalom Center, into your celebration. Happy Passover!
Featured Image: Spring blossoms in Huntington Gardens, Pasadena, California, Elisheva Danan
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