Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Charoset: The Untold True Story

My theory on Charoset is that it was either an ordinary condiment or a year-round treat in the ancient world.  Gradually, over time, people noticed that it resembled bricks and that it contained apples so a story about its significance was created. Here's the Talmud arguing the point (Psachim 115b)
[the Mishna says] THOUGH HAROSETH IS NOT A RELIGIOUS REQUIREMENT. [The men of the Talmud argue] Then if it is not a religious requirement, on what account does he bring it? — Said R. Ammi: On account of the kappa*. R. Assi said: The kappa of lettuce [is counteracted by] radishes; the kappa of radishes, [by] leeks; the kappa of leeks, [by] hot water; the kappa of a these, [by] hot water. And in the meanwhile let him say thus: ‘Kappa kappa, I remember you and your seven daughters and your eight
*We're not really sure what kappa is. Hai Gaon thought it was indigestion brought on by certain lettuces. Others thought it was a kind of worm the haroset killed. Soncino says it was a poisnous substance in lettuce (lettuce was originally dipped in charoset, too.) In the view of the Talmud, charoset was some kind of antidote for kappa, an antidote that could be accelerated by reciting a little rhyme. I don't know why "Because it tastes good" or "because Bubbie always served it" weren't provided as possible explanations for the dish's popularity. . 
[The Mishna continues] R. ELEAZAR SON OF R. ZADOK SAID: IT IS A RELIGIOUS REQUIREMENT [=Mitzvah]. [The men of the Talmud inquire] Why is it a religious requirement? R. Levi said: In memory of the apple-tree; R. Johanan said: In memory of the mud. Abaye observed: Therefore one must make it acrid and thicken it: make it acrid, in memory of the apple-tree; and thicken it, in memory of the mud. It was taught in accordance with R. Johanan: The ingredients are in memory of the straw; [and] the haroseth [itself] is a reminder of the day. R. Eleazar son of R. Zadok said: Thus did the grocers cry, ‘Come and buy ingredients for your religious requirement"
* R. Levi's mention of the apple-tree is an allusion to a famous midrash on Songs 8:5. The verse reads "Under the apple tree I roused you; there your mother conceived you, there she who was in labor gave you birth." In Rabbinic literature Songs is understood to be an allegory for the Exodus, so the verse is interpreted as a reference to heroic Jewish women who defied the Egyptian decree by continuing to give birth "beneath the apple trees." (I do not know what kind of apple trees existed in the ANE, and am partial to those who say that tapuach is an apricot, or a general word for fruit. I do not know what R. Levi has in mind when he uses the word. Abaye's "apples" seem tart.) 

** The mud, R. Jonanan mentions, is what the slaves used to make bricks. 

R. Levi sees charoset and remembers the heroism of Jewish women; R. Jochanan looks as the same stuff and recalls how our ancestors suffered. And all of this to explain the minority view that eating charoset is a religious requirement.

Can you imagine the same thing happening with ketchup?
R. Levi said: In memory of the blood of circumcision; R. Johanan said: In memory of the blood of the plagues. 
Or with duck sauce?
R. Levi said: In memory of how thin we were [=דק] ; R. Johanan said: In memory of the horses that perished in the Red Sea [=סוס]

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