Charoset: Its Meaning

Multiple commentaries, 4/14/2004

from Rabbi David Seidenberg,,

Why isn't charoset explained in the Haggadah? Here's the answer that came to me.

The Hagadah is about telling the story, and it's about order. The story is about how things can transform, and it's a seder because we order the transformations by arranging them from slavery to freedom, or as the Talmud says, "from g'nut/degredation to shevach/praise". The usual order is: slavery, leaving Egypt, entering the land, looking forward to redemption.

Anything important symbol or verse that appears in the Hagadah more than one time is ordered in this way - hence it's a seder, an "order". Matsah is explained four times, there are four children, in order from lowest to highest (yep - wicked above wise), four times we explain the verse, "Because this God did to me by bringing me out of Egypt". The different meanings are always ordered from the most difficult to the most liberated, taught through verses and explanations and through eating itself.

However, there's one important symbol that we don't explain even once: the charoset.

The Talmud debates whether or not it's a mitsvah, but tells the story of the spice-sellers in Jerusalem, yelling out their shop windows "Spices for the mitsvah!" The essence of the Charoset in the Talmud is not that it should be sweet, but that it should be tart, like apples, and thick like mud. Rashi (but not the Talmud) gives a few interpretations of this: it's a reminder of the (tart) apple trees in Egypt under which Israel made love and gave birth; it's a reminder of the mud and straw (dates/apples and spices) for the bricks they made as slaves.

But the Hagadah doesn't put those meanings in order because, like the Talmud itself, it doesn't explain any meaning for charoset at all. Why? The word for tartness (the root is QHH) is the same as the words said about the wicked child: "set his teeth on edge", and the same words the midrash uses for what happened when Adam and Chavah ate from the tree:
"their teeth were set on edge". I think charoset might the stuff of what happens when we can't separate out the symbols, when they get stuck together, when the slavery and freedom are mishmashed together. Like the wicked child's picture of the world, there's no separation between worship and enslavement (both are called "Avodah" after all). Like the tree of
knowledge, literally the tree of knowing good and evil, i.e., good and evil all mixed together, it represents our normal lives.

We want to transform that place through the seder ritual, but we also bring it along with us, along with the joy of freedom, along with the bitterness of slavery - that's the Hillel sandwich. So one more lesson of the Hagadah is: don't separate your normal muddled state from the holy and mystical and transformative; even if you're stuck in what is sour, in the mud, add the sweetness. Leave Egypt with all your possessions, the remnants of slavery, the hopes of freedom, and everything in between.

"Misha'arotam Ts'rurot B'simlotam al Shikhmam" (lit. [They left Egypt and they took] "their remaining stuff tied up in their cloaks on their shoulders" - think hobo with makeshift cloth bag on a stick) - even with our legacies of trouble (tsarot, i.e., Mitsrayim stuff) and angst, leftover (nish'arot), still waiting to be liberated and unpacked, hidden, trailing behind, weighing on us - EVEN STILL, LEAVE, GO OUT, OUT TO FREEDOM!

May we have the strength of our ancestors to do this!
Pesach Sameach Umishachrer!

Dear Chevra,
A recent fruitful, fragrant teaching of Rabbi David Seidenberg's about why the traditional Seder — the "order" of the Pesach meal — never explains the meaning of charoset stirred me to share my own view about charoset.

In my view, it is not explained in the orderly Haggadah because it is the secret, sensual, disorderly taste of Shir haShirim, the Song of Songs, which we traditionally read for the Shabbat of Pesach.

All the ingredients of charoset — wine, nuts, raisins, apples, spices — are the ingredients of the Song. And Shir haShirim is beyond "order" — beyond "seder."

Where the Talmud begins with an orderly question about the clock of prayer, where the Haggadah discusses at length when at night or day we celebrate the Liberation --- the Song of Songs reminds us again and again, "Do not rouse love until it pleases." It is beyond clock and calendar. Beyond order. Shir HaShirim is creative disorder.

We bless each other, Have a sweet and kosher Passover, "Pesach kasher u'm'tukah, "A zissen Pesach." The Song and charoset are the secret of a SWEET Pesach.

May everything else be kasher, proper — may your love-making be sweet.

Without some element of sweet DIS-order, Pesach is not free.

Shalom, Arthur
If you look in the Holistic Haggadah at the commentary on Haroset you'll see the same idea but taken further. Haroset is pure love, the love that's Shir HaShirim, the love that the Creator has for the Creation. The Haggadah instructs us NOT to eat Haroset but to merely dip the maror into it and shake off. This is the second dipping referred to in the Manishtanah. Why only a dip and shake? Because the power of love is so much stronger than the bitterness of our lives that we only need a 'homeopathic' amount for it to neutralize the maror. This is the secret of the Haroset.

Hug Sameach and a wonder-filled liberation


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