(I’ve stopped putting ‘Just x days to Pesach’: it makes people nervous, including me)
Of all the items to prepare for the Seder charoset is the most fun. There’s a limited choice with regard to maror, the bitter herbs; matzah has generally to be bought ready-made; karpas, or greens, are usually eaten raw, though some people include small boiled potatoes – so that leaves the charoset.
For many years now we’ve invited our children to search the web for recipes. There are certain agreed conditions: they can choose up to three kinds; they must be substantially different from each other; they need to make them and be prepared to say a few words about each of them when the right time arrives, just before the meal, at the Seder. None of this, of course, necessarily excludes also making the traditional family version, especially if its absence at the table would virtually start a war.
The result has been more than just delicious charoset selection; it has involved everyone and been both fun and educative. Only one charoset which ever survived the Seder nights in any significant quantity, and that was because a key ingredient was grated brick dust. On that note, be warned: find the recipes before Monday morning. Most of them contain at least one or two recherché items and one doesn’t want to be racing round the shops at the very last minute.
See ‘something to ponder’ below for meanings connected to the charoset.
For recipes recommended by members of the community, including ‘nut-free options’, click here.
Something about the Seder
Yesterday I tried to describe a short Seder, if because of young children, or health concerns one can count on little more than half an hour between sitting down and starting the meal. But most of us do have at least some more time than that. How, then, can one develop interesting themes if one has an hour to an hour and a half (or more!)?
First of all, none of us should underestimate the power of the Haggadah itself. There are good reasons why it is Judaism’s most printed book. Nothing, for me, has ever diminished the power of its basic story, which, like so many others, I always hear in the rhythm and with the intonations my father used to give it. But here are some ways to explore its themes in depth.
Buy, beg, borrow or get a guest to bring a different Haggadah each year. But you do need to pre-read a key part of it and decide what to draw out at the Seder. Or use the internet to search through a massive range of creative Haggadot of every possible opinion, from the Bundist / Socialist texts of the Yiddish world of the Lower East Side, to the vegetarians Haggadah of the Liberated Lamb. There’s lots of material which is both fun, and profound.
Use Haggadah illustrations to develop discussions and debates. (It’s worth choosing two or three in advance and making some copies for everyone to see.)
Asks guests to pre-prepare. I’ve attended a wonderful Seder where everyone was asked to bring something which represented freedom to them. The most important and powerful contributions are those which draw on personal or family experiences. What journeys have brought people to this country? (Note: it’s easier to tell people in advance how long you’d like them to speak, (probably from two up to five minutes) than try to interrupt them after an hour and a half.)
If you can, open up the ethical issues with which the Haggadah is so deeply imbued. What is slavery in today’s world? What constitutes resistance? What is the role of human courage? Does God help, and if so how? In what ways has Israel brought us freedom? For what freedoms must we continue to strive?
Something to ponder
Most of us love charoset, but what is it actually doing at the Seder? On this point even the Talmud is divided; according to Rabbi Levi it is in memory of the apple while according to Rabbi Yochanan it reminds us of the mortar or mud. The sage Abbayei, who clearly favours compromise, explains that we must therefore make it tart, like apples, and sticky, like cement. As a supplement to Rabbi Yochanan’s view the Talmud adds that it should also contain sticks of spices to recall the straw. (Talmud: Pesachim 116a)
The references to mortar and straw are fairly obvious; the charoset reminds us that our ancestors were free labour in Pharaoh’s building industry, as so many slaves of so many nations have been ever since. There is an interesting rider in the Leket Yosher, which puzzles over the custom of including pears. They are not, he notes, one of the fruits mentioned in the Song of Songs (see below), yet the practice of using them is not to be changed. Perhaps, he concludes, the reason is that grated or crushed pears make food grey – just like mortar.
More obscure is Rabbi Levi’s reference to ‘the apple’. What apple? Almost certainly he has in mind the legend that during the long years of slavery the Israelite women would bring their menfolk food and encourage them to rediscover their dignity and self-worth by seducing them into making love, nine months after which their wives would give birth, free from pain, underneath the apple trees. Hence, also, the reference to including in thecharoset fruits and spices mentioned in the romantic Song of Songs. These include dates, figs, cinnamon, honey, nuts and pomegranates.
The actual function of the charoset at the Seder, according to the Talmud, is to act as a dip for the maror to counteract its taste, lest its unmitigated bitterness prove fatal. Hence the instruction to dip the maror in the charoset but then shake off the sweet substance, prior to eating the savage-tasting herbs, which, by the way, we are obliged to chew fully before we swallow them down. (This is the second dipping, about which the Mah Nishtanah asks.)
As a metaphor I find this both moving and real. What heals bitterness and the pain of suffering? Surely only love. Life will sometimes taste like bitter herbs; since anguish is not equally and fairly distributed among people, some will have more on their plate than others. What can we do, except offer that love which, if it cannot prevent them in the first place, may at least bring a measure of healing to the sharpness of the wounds?