The Passover Seder includes a series of symbolic foods placed on a Seder plate, most of which are explained over the course of the meal: the matzo, the spring greens, the bitter herbs, the shankbone… But one element is left unexplained: the charoset, a paste-like mixture of fruit, nuts and spices, with recipes differing wildly from community to community. Although it is eaten with matzo and maror during Korekh, just before the meal, there is no discussion of its significance or acknowledgement of its symbolism in the Haggadah text. Why was it added to the Seder? What might it represent? And why are there so many recipes?
Charoset is not mentioned in the Biblical descriptions of Passover, which stipulate only the eating of a sacrificial lamb (qorban pesah) with unleavened bread (matzo) and bitter herbs (maror). The word charoset first appears in the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:3) and seems to be related to the Hebrew heres or harsit, meaning clay. There the sages explain that charoset is part of the Seder (along with matzo, greens and two cooked dishes) but not obligatory, although Rabbi El‘azar ben Tsadoq disagrees and maintains that charoset is, in fact, part of the mitzva of Pesah.
Expanding on the Mishnah, the Talmud (BT Pesahim 115b-116a) explains that charoset was used as a dipping condiment for the greens, and that before Passover the spice merchants of Jerusalem used to call out, “Come, buy the spices for the mitzva [of charoset]” (implying that it was part of the commandment). The Jerusalem Talmud (JT Pesahim 10:3) notes that it is also called dukkeh because it is pounded [dakha] into a paste. The Babylonian Talmud adds that the charoset was thought to counteract something in the maror called kappa (a bad enzyme? A kind of worm? Scholars disagree) but leaving the maror in too long, one rabbi warned, would allow the sweetness of the charoset to neutralize the essential bitterness of the maror. So we know that it was a sweet condiment, made with spices, and used as a dip for maror.
But what does the charoset represent? The charoset is often explained to children (and adults) as symbolizing the clay that the Israelites used to make bricks during their labour in Egypt. So then why is it so good? Charoset is one of the most popular foods at the Seder, and it is usually consumed in much larger quantities than the bitter herbs or even the parsley. If it symbolizes the hard work of slavery, then sweet fruit and spices are not the immediate logical choices.
The Talmud, in fact, offers several differing explanations: R. Yohanan says, zekher latit, “in memory of the clay” — that is, the mud and straw with which the Israelite slaves made bricks. R. Levi says, zekher latapuah, “in memory of the apple trees” — that is, the apple trees under which, according to the midrash, the Israelite women seduced their husbands. Abaye merges the two explanations, saying that one should therefore make it thick in memory of the clay and add grated spices in memory of the straw, and make it sharp in memory of the apples (recall that in Talmudic times apples were sour, like crabapples, not the sweet apples of today).
The midrash alluded to by R. Levi draws on the verse from Song of Songs, “under the apple tree I aroused you” (8:5), as referring to the Israelite women in Egypt, who brought their husbands to the orchards and convinced them that they should continue having children in defiance of the pharaoh’s decree of death. Through this brave act, the midrash concludes, the Israelites merited their salvation. The sweet charoset, often made with ingredients pulled from the verdant pages of Song of Songs — apples, figs, cinnamon, spikenard, walnuts, wine — reminds us of the joy and sweetness of life, present even in the most bitter of circumstances.
But the Jerusalem Talmud adds one more explanation: zekher ladam, in memory of the blood. This is presumably the blood of the paschal sacrifice, painted on the doorposts of Israelite homes the night before the Exodus. There is another moment of blood, though, that the charoset calls to mind: the blood painted on Joseph’s torn robe, the blood that set in motion the whole narrative arc of descent into Egypt, slavery and redemption. Medieval rabbis connected Joseph’s robe, the ketonet passim, which was dipped in blood, with the karpas, the fresh herb which at the beginning of the Seder is dipped in salt water or red wine vinegar, according to some traditions, or according to others, into the sweet-and-sour paste of the charoset.
What was charoset made of? From references elsewhere in the Talmud, it seems that charoset was a condiment eaten not only on Passover but throughout the year, stored in a bowl called a beit charoset. The work of food historian Susan Weingarten has shown that since the Seder was modeled on the Greek symposium, there are parallels between charoset and various Hellenistic sweet-and-sour dipping sauces made with herbs, vinegar and honey, and served with bitter lettuces. One of these recipes, from Apicius’ Roman cookbook “De Re Coquinaria,” calls for dates pounded with honey and spiced with cumin, ginger, rue, pepper, vinegar and a little liquamen: a fermented fish condiment similar to Worcestershire sauce. Over the centuries, recipes proliferated as Jews spread across the Diaspora, adapting to the various foodways and ingredients around them.
The gaonic rabbis of Babylonia made charoset from boiled dates, as Iraqi Jews still do today, calling it hilqa or haliq (possibly derived from halqan, an Arabic term for ripe dates). Maimonides mixed hyssop with pounded dates and raisins, and Ovadia of Bartenura made charoset with figs, nuts, and strands of cinnamon to represent the straw. The French Tosafists suggested making charoset from ingredients mentioned in the Song of Songs — apples, pomegranates, figs, dates and walnuts — and one Italian rabbi even recorded the custom of putting a little ground brick in the charoset to remember the clay. Today there are as many charoset recipes as there are Jewish communities. Yemenite charoset, still called dukkeh as in the Jerusalem Talmud, adds heat with chili pepper and fresh ginger. Charoset recipes from the Caribbean use coconut, a Provençal recipe uses chestnuts and a recipe from Kentucky uses pecans. A Libyan charoset recipe suggests using pomegranate seeds saved from Rosh Hashanah. Moroccan charoset is formed into balls, rolled in chopped nuts, and served as sweet truffles; Jamaican charoset is served in little ‘bricks’ coated in cinnamon.
The charoset is a symbol with many meanings, a silent Seder guest, a paradox. The charoset is a mix of sweet and sour, crunchy and soft, plain and spiced. It is an ambiguous symbol of slavery and freedom, of boundaries all mixed up and transgressed. It is at once the bitterness of the bricks of slavery and the bravery of the Israelite women, the exuberant sexuality of the Song of Songs and the terror of that long, dark, night hoping for the moment of liberation. It is the blood of life and the blood of death, the blood of a slaughtered goat that begins a story that reverberates through generations, all the way to my Seder table and another little goat, one that my father bought for two zuzim.
The charoset is the complexity of life, where freedom and slavery, joy and sadness, love and pain, are all mixed together, like Hillel’s sandwich: the matzo of freedom and the maror of slavery, stuck together with a little charoset. Real life, like charoset, is messy and mixed up and sometimes a little bit muddy. Leaving Egypt is a process, not a one-time event; we are continuously redeeming ourselves and being redeemed. The charoset is not explained in the Seder perhaps because it challenges the very “order” (Seder) of Pesah itself and its rigid boundaries. The Seder may be an incredible vision of future universal redemption, but charoset is the day after the Seder, when it’s back to reality and there’s a sink full of dirty dishes and a life that’s maybe not entirely full of freedom. Charoset is about things pounded together, and messiness and mud, and love that’s mixed with sadness but still overflowing, and real life, a crunchy sandwich with chunks of bitterness and a sweet taste that lingers on the tongue.
Noam Sienna is a Jewish educator, foodie and graduate student in History at the University of Minnesota.