The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's faith leader network.
The 12th-century scholar Maimonides describes charoset as follows: “We soak figs or dates and cook them and crush them until they are soft. Then we knead them with vinegar. Afterwards we add spikenard or hyssop without grinding them.” In truth there are dozens and dozens of unique charoset recipes usually working off the theme of a mixture of fruits, nuts, spices, and wine.
Many Jews add the charoset to another well-known Seder symbol, the bitter herb. But this is strictly speaking an incorrect practice according to Jewish law. The great code of Jewish law known as the Shulchan Aruch, records (475:1) that we are not actually supposed to eat the charoset. The bitter herb should be dipped in the charoset, but then the charoset needs to be removed.
So if we don’t eat the charoset in a ritual manner, why do we have it at the Seder?
One explanation of the Babylonian Talmud is that the charoset reminds us of a “tapuach tree”. (Tapuach in biblical Hebrew refers to a citrus tree, i.e., a citron.) The ancient rabbis explain that in Egypt the enslaved men would come home from the fields exhausted and uninterested in any intimacy with their spouse. However, their holy wives would inspire them as they sat under the tapuach tree.
I think this story is a reminder of the heroism of the enslaved Israelite men and women. When we hear the word hero, we don’t necessarily think of a wife inspiring her husband, but perhaps that is the message of the charoset. The Israelites were being brutally enslaved. Slavery is as much psychological as it is physical. When a person is enslaved, the simple act of holding their head up high and believing in a bright future is often the first step and the necessary step to breaking the chains of their captors. This act of the Israelites in Egypt in deciding to create more children even while they were being enslaved themselves was really an act of great defiance and the path to redemption from Egypt.
Perhaps the charoset is a reminder to include the spiritual heroism of the Israelites in the telling of the Exodus story. With all the focus in the Torah on the greatness of Moses, on the plagues, and on the miracles of God, maybe there was a concern that the day-to-day heroism of the people might get short-changed. After all, what they did to bring redemption is not exactly obvious. The charoset reminds us that they were brave in their spiritual resistance and did not give up their souls to slavery. We should never forget their spiritual resistance to the Egyptian leadership.
I understand this heroism of the Israelites in Egypt better now that I have read the memoirs of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel. Rabbi Lau survived Buchenwald as a 7- year-old child, and he writes of the heroism of the imprisoned Jews enslaved by Nazis in the ghetto and then in the concentration camps.
When we think of resistance to the Nazis, we often make the mistake of asking who took up arms and literally fired shots against the Nazis. That is very brave, but there was another type of resistance that Rabbi Lau discusses that is no less brave. This was the resistance of the men and women who strove for spirituality in the midst of their darkness.
In his book “Out of the Depths”, Rabbi Lau writes that even in the darkness of Buchenwald, the Jewish prisoners celebrated Passover. “Over and over they sang the holiday song from memory: ‘The darkness of the night will be lit like the light of day.’ They had no Haggadah and no matzah. Still, among them there was no leavened food to be seen — only potatoes.”
The Jews of Buchenwald might not have had matzah or a Haggadah, but with their heroic spirituality in the face of evil they sure had charoset.
Shmuel Herzfeld is a rabbi at Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue in the District and author of “Fifty-Four Pickup: Fifteen-Minute Inspirational Torah Lessons.”