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Passover 5782 ~ April 15, 2022

There is a great debate today as to whether one should be using horseradish or romaine lettuce to fulfill the obligation of eating bitter herbs. One of my friends adds to the debate by asking:

I have a problem with eating romaine lettuce for marror. The romaine we buy today, in all probability, does not have the same taste it once had. The romaine we buy today is sweet and does not have any characteristic of bitterness. How can we eat something sweet for marror? Horseradish, whether it is considered bitter or sharp brings tears to the eyes - appropriate for the tears of slavery!”

There are several considerations. The first is what is the actual obligation? The second is what  the custom was of your family from generation to generation, and does a custom become an obligation over a period of time? The third is what was the reason behind using horseradish root, if that was your custom?

As I shared with one of our congregants just the other day: In my youth, I remember that my mother used to soak the horseradish root in a bowl of water and leave it in the cold cellar below our porch for a few days before the seder.  I have learned from experience that it softens the root. Then, after evening services, we would come home to find Uncle Joe standing in our Pesach kitchen, crying from the bitterness of the horseradish as he hand-grated the actual root and cut it into slices for the different elements of the eating of the bitter herb.  The slices were used for the fulfilling of the mitzvah of marror, topped with charoset. The hand-grated horseradish was put between the matzah to create the Hillel Sandwich. It is a custom that has been part of my household for all of my life.  And we never called it horseradish.  My mother always referred to it as chrein. So, when it comes to family tradition and custom, horseradish fulfills the family custom.

However, does it fulfill the mitzvah itself? 

The Mishna in Pesachim states that there are five different items that one can use to fulfill the bitter herbs. One is hazeret, which scholars conclude is romaine lettuce.  The second is tamkha, which the rabbis of Eastern Europe in the mid thirteenth and fourteenth century declared to be horseradish.  What were their rational? Lettuce of any kind was hard to find in Eastern Europe during Passover time. Horseradish root, which thrives in a colder environment, was more readily available. In that regard, the rabbis were quite adaptive to where they resided and interpreted the law accordingly.  On the other hand, in Israel, where the climate is quite different, romaine lettuce was more readily available and to this day horseradish root is not used to fulfill the obligation.

As to the sweetness of today’s romaine lettuce, the rabbis had the same query all the way back in the times of the Talmud (2nd – 7th centuries).  The rabbis ask: “What is the meaning of lettuce [ḥassa]? It refers to the fact that God has mercy [ḥas]on us.”  And “Why are the Egyptians likened to bitter herbs in the verse: “And they embittered their lives” (Exodus 1:14)? This comparison serves to tell you that just as these bitter herbs are soft at first and harsh in the end, so too, the Egyptians were soft at first when they paid the Jews for their work, but were harsh in the end as they enslaved them. This idea applies solely to ḥazeret, (romaine lettuce) which has a bitter aftertaste, but not to other types of bitter herbs which are bitter from the beginning.” (Pesachim 39a).

So, whether you sing at your Seder, “the pain in chrein comes mainly from the strain,” “Purple Chrein” or “Lettuce Entertain You,” the truth is that what makes Passover so special is that we are able to share in the experience and retell the story; not simply as a story, but as a reminder of past and present and a message of hope for the future.

Chag kasher v’sameach.

Rabbi K

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782