This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Apples or Asphalt?

In Search of the Perfect Haroset Recipe*

Of all the exotic and challenging foodstuffs that make up the Passover diet, there is one menu item that everybody anticipates with pure delight: the paste known in Hebrew as "haroset." There are innumerable recipes for configuring the haroset, each with its subtle nuances of taste and symbolism--but common to all of them is a sweetness that imbues it with a special charm amid the dryness of the matzah, the sharpness of the bitter herbs or the blandness of most other Passover foods.

The Mishnah mentions haroset as one of the dips that are eaten as hors d'oeuvres before the commencement of the main meal. It appears that the older custom was to use lettuce for both the pre-seder dipping (karpas) and for the mandatory partaking of maror, but most communities switched to other types of greens for the karpas segment, leaving the haroset for the maror.

The Mishnah provides no description of the haroset's ingredients or mode of preparation, nor is any specific reason adduced for its inclusion in the menu. There is a dispute regarding its status as a mandatory component of the seder--whether or not it is a mitzvah, a precept required by the Torah.

The sages of the Talmud suggested several reasons why haroset is an appropriate addition to the Passover meal.

One approach ascribed a utilitarian function to the dip, in that it serves to neutralize the adverse effects of certain vegetables. The Talmud states that dipping a green vegetable in haroset serves to remove the kappa, but the commentators disagree about what exactly "kappa" is. Rav Hai Gaon identifies it with the bloating and gas that are generated by lettuce and some other greens, and he notes that haroset has the medicinal quality of alleviating that discomfort. Other interpreters equate the kappa with some kind of toxic or acidic substance in the vegetable that is counteracted by haroset. Still others, including Rabbenu Hananel of Kairowan, understood that kappa is a species of worm that infests the maror unless it is killed or repelled by the haroset. Indeed, the ancient naturalist Pliny wrote about worms called kampai that are found in radishes, lettuce and cabbage.

It follows from these approaches that haroset has no unique association with Passover, and that it would be a good idea to consume it whenever the offending vegetables are served. At any rate, if the dipping was instituted primarily for medicinal purposes, then it would become superfluous with vegetables that carry no offensive side-effects. Indeed, the Tosafot report that Rabbi Jacob Tam drew the conclusion that there was no longer any reason to eat haroset with the karpas as long as that ritual was being fulfilled with vegetables that were free from the dangers of gas, acidity or worms. Such was the power of the entrenched custom that it would take centuries before Rabbenu Tam's approach was widely adopted.

Not all the authorities were content with such prosaic and practical explanations of a custom on a holiday that is brimming full of symbolism.

Two rabbis in the Talmud proposed reasons why eating haroset might be specifically applicable to the themes of Passover. "Rabbi Levi says: as a reminder of the apple tree. Rabbi Yohanan says: as a reminder of the mortar."

The Talmud does not explain Rabbi Levi's association between apple trees and the exodus; but the commentators all agree that he was alluding to a poignant legend found elsewhere in the Talmud as an exposition of Song of Songs 8:5: "Under the apple tree I roused you; there your mother conceived you, there she who was in labor gave you birth." The rabbinic homily applied the verse to the Israelite women in Egypt who heroically continued to bear children in defiance of Pharaoh's edict that he would drown the male infants. In this connection, the midrash related that the women "went and gave birth to their babies in the fields beneath the apple-tree."

Aside from evoking that inspiring tale about our faithful ancestors in Egypt, Rabbi Levi's explanation has the advantage of informing us about one of the ingredients in the haroset recipe: apples.

According to Rabbi Yohanan's interpretation, the haroset is supposed to resemble mortar of the kind used by the Hebrew slaves in their labours, and the name haroset was itself linked to "heres" meaning clay. Other traditions preserved in the Talmud associate the haroset with straw used for manufacturing bricks, or with the blood of the Hebrew victims of the oppression. AbayƩ concluded that when preparing the dish one should have in mind both explanations: because it is supposed to resemble mortar, it must be thickened, and because it reminds us of apples, it should be made tart (probably by adding some vinegar). Rabbi Moses Isserles records the Ashkenazic custom of adding red wine to achieve a blood-like coloration.

In several communities, Rabbi Levi's association with the biblical apple tree grew into a more general tendency to fashion haroset from fruits that are mentioned in the Song of Songs and which were interpreted as symbols for the people of Israel. These include pomegranates, figs, dates and nuts. While some authorities were eager to include any fruit or nut that appears in the scriptural texts, others were insistent that the ingredients list be restricted to items that have favourable associations, or which were expounded specifically in connection with the redemption from Egypt.

By adopting such a narrowly literal attitude toward the components of their haroset, the scholars would at times find themselves in conflict with recipes that had become entrenched among the Jewish populace. Thus, the fifteenth-century German authority Rabbi Israel Isserlein was at a loss to account for the popularity of pears, which are not mentioned at all in the Bible, in the haroset mixture. His Boswell, Rabbi Joseph ben Moses, hazarded an explanation proposed by his father to the effect that the pear was added not because of any scriptural association, but rather because it lent the mixture a mortar-like colouring. Rabbi Joseph surmised that his literal-minded teacher evidently did not deem this an adequate justification for the custom, seeing how the Talmud spoke only of a mortar-like texture, but not about the colour.

This argument did not phase Rabbi Eliezer Rokeah who recommended the inclusion of ingredients like calamus, cinnamon and ginger. He reasoned that those spices cannot be ground up completely, and therefore will leave stiff fibres that give the haroset a texture not unlike that of mortar mixed with straw.

And if you are not satisfied with replicating the colour and texture of building materials, you might be attracted by a recipe preserved by Rabbi Zedekiah ben Abraham Anaw of Rome, the thirteenth-century authority on liturgical customs. In his compendium Shibbolei Ha-Leket, he reports that some people place shreds of actual mortar or shavings from bricks in their haroset!

Reading this report several centuries later, Rabbi Menahem di Lonzano was convinced that such fanatical literalism smacked of utter insanity. He preferred to speculate that a typographical error must have found its way into the text.

I think that Rabbi di Lonzano underestimated the zeal for minute detail that takes hold of many Jews in their determination to observe the perfect Passover.

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For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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