“The Jewish Herbal: Mystical Reflections on Food, Nature and Urban Farming” is a regular column by Devorah Brous charting the ways we can use Jewish wisdom, tradition and practice to reconnect with ourselves in harmony with nature. Devorah is an urban homesteader, lifecycle ritualist, and green consultant in Los Angeles. Find her her online offerings at @Dev.Brous
Just when fresh greens sprout up to reclaim the hillsides, Passover weaves us deeply into the regenerative cycles of nature. In many microclimates our healing herbs are most available precisely when our tradition asks us to put them on the Seder plate for communal reflection.
In my family, we grew up dipping parsley into salt water during the Seders. I’m not sure if it was empathizing with the enslavement of ancient Israelites or just the astringence of spring greens that made us tear up. For many, there is a strong aversion to the bitter taste.
But bitterness stirs a communal quest toward liberation by physically and metaphorically compelling us to purge. Bitterness also stirs an individual quest for inner liberation that many of us meet by cleansing and nourishing the body during Passover — instead of tricking the palette with foods prepared with heavily-processed KfP ingredients.
The Passover foodscape can be unsettling. By design, the unrest that bitterness stirs in the body can be an effective herbal action that awakens the formation of stomach acid, bile, and enzymes to help us break down food more efficiently so we can absorb and glean more minerals and nutrients from our food. Freedom within the body helps clear away brain fog so liberation and solidarity work is more effective as we agitate for all who are hungry to be well fed, and liberated.
Bitter extracts from the bark, leaves, roots, or flowers of bitter-tasting plants help us slough off enslavement to bad patterns and any remnants of complacency in one clear way: by bolstering digestion. Stimulating the bitter receptors in our body — the tongue, stomach, gallbladder, and pancreas — literally begins an emancipation.
A healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, a healthy heart and brain, improved mood, good sleep, and effective digestion. It may even help to prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases. Signs of a ghastly gut include gassy bloating, or frequent constipation, diarrhea, and/or heartburn — all signs of a customary Passover of way too much matzah. This is torture for the already inflamed gastrointestinal tract!
Now check this out: White Horehound (in Hebrew, marrob or bitter juice) is a hardy, perennial plant and widely recognized as one of the original five bitter herbs on the ancient Seder plate to be dipped in salt water or vinegar.
Celebrated by herbalists in cultures world-wide dating all the way back to the 1st century BCE, horehound energizes the liver to produce more enzymes and aid digestion. It is also known as an herbal remedy to warm, dry, and soothe the lungs and help people with allergies, asthma, bronchitis and wet coughs by breaking apart congestion. The flowers, stems, and leaves can be harvested and added to your infusion.
By awakening bitter taste buds, you aid your digestion every time. In other words, instead of reaching for that matzah with a heap of Nutella, chop up some horehound, sorrel, and dandelion greens and eat a fresh salad.
While we’re at it, join me for a nourishing Passover cleanse, and together we’ll add a handful of horehound to matzah ball soups, fresh salads, shrubs, and cocktails. Spread it on your matzah with herb butter. Instead of just a quick and horrific taste once during each Seder, imagine an eight day liberation journey that also involves cleansing your overworked and inflamed gut, and mitigating any seasonal congestion from spring allergies.
White Horehound and Sage Syrup
An ancient remedy with a twist: drizzle this on matzah brei, or swirl it into a mug of herbal tea. Or simply take a spoonful before each meal for an herbal syrup that celebrates health, expands breathing capacity, soothes throat and lungs, and liberates your digestive tract. Chag Cherut Samayach!
To Prepare: Make an infusion by steeping one handful of fresh or dried horehound leaves cut small. Add the chopped herb into two cups of boiling water and leave overnight in a crockpot.
Strain off the leaves with a cheesecloth and compost. Then, measure your horehound infusion and double the amount with Sage honey, mix well, label and bottle. If you don’t have sage Honey, just add Menuka honey.
To Prepare Sage Honey: Garden sage or purple sage will do. But if you are growing white sage, it’s an ideal herb for this Passover home remedy! Just harvest one branch of herb, sun dry or dehydrate, and infuse it into Menuka honey for one month. (Please do not harvest white sage from the wild - it is endangered).