Written by: Erin Parfet

Charoset

charoset article 24Charoset, a traditional dish served during the Passover Seder, offers a delightful range of flavors. Generally sweet, sometimes more savory, and flavorful, with a kaleidoscope of recipe variations available and permissible to suit a variety of tastes and preferences, Derived from the Hebrew words cheres or harsit, which mean clay, charoset is a well-known component of the Passover meal, known as a Seder (“order”). During the Seder, it serves as a reminder of the “memory of clay” that would represent the mortar used by the Jewish people to make bricks to build Pharoah’s various buildings and sprawling cities (not the pyramids, but other buildings) in ancient Egypt.

The Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back-breaking labor, and they embittered their lives with hard labor, with clay and with bricks, and with all kinds of labor in the fields—all their work that they worked with them with back-breaking labor. Exodus 1:13-14

Generally, charoset (“sweet”) is paired with the maror (“bitter herbs”) in the traditional Passover Seder during the recounting of the Exodus story, with a small amount of charoset being added to the maror and the two items consumed simultaneously. Sometimes it might be eaten as the filling of a sandwich, with matzo bread replacing traditional bread. While many Jewish people today will dip their karpas (vegetables, such as parsley or celery) into salt water, some rabbis have specified that karpas be dipped into charoset. Some communities that base their philosophies on the teachings of Maimonides will dip all of the traditional Seder foods in charoset.

Sometimes an entire piece of maror will be dipped into the charoset, while others may only dip a small portion of the maror into it. Meanwhile, others may dip matzah (bread baked without leavening) into charoset, but this is not a universal practice either. In some communities, it may be customary to shake off any excess charoset from the maror before consumption, whereas others are lax on the amount of it one consumes.

While scripture only mentions the sacrificial lamb (gorban pesah), unleavened bread (matzo), and maror, charoset is mentioned in Pesahim 10:3, Pesachim 114a, and Peschaim 116a of the Mishnah. Some rabbis maintain that charoset is a mitzvah (“commandment”) of the Seder, while others maintain that it is a voluntary addition due to the lack of scriptural references to defend the practice.

There is no requirement to eat any charoset at all in a Passover Seder, as it is often viewed more as a tradition than a mitzvah. Furthermore, there is no specific amount of charoset one must consume if one partakes in this tradition. The Talmud seems to require it to be placed on the table, and therefore charoset is considered relevant in a Passover Seder as a rabbinical mitzvah. However, Jewish law (halacha) does not specify that charoset is a mitzvah accompanied by a blessing that is to be upheld by all. The Talmud never really definitively resolves the issue of whether charoset is required or not, and thus it is open to different interpretations by Jewish communities throughout the world.

Some rabbis maintain that charoset is a reference to tapu’ach, a type of fruit tree that is mentioned in the Song of Songs. Some scholars believe it might be an apple tree based on their understanding of the Talmud. Other scholars believe that charoset is a natural anecdote to kappa, a poisonous worm that thrived on the surface of bitter herbs and other vegetables at the time, such as lettuce, that was mentioned in the Talmud. Kappa is generally not an issue in modern times. Some believe the charoset would also neutralize the symptoms of flatulence and bloating that some may experience after consuming maror.

Some wonder why the charoset would be sweet if the maror is bitter to represent the bitter oppression of the Jewish people under Pharoah’s reign. Some rabbis explain the sweet nature of charoset as representative of Israeli women who endured childbirth in apple orchards to avoid the Egyptian authorities being aware that a baby boy was born. This practice was based on Song of Songs 8:5, “Under the apple tree, I awakened you; there your mother conceived you,” and some prevailing thoughts at the time were that childbirth may be more blessed if it occurred under apple trees and that this would help end Jewish slavery in Egypt without future generations having to suffer under Pharoah.

Others maintain that the sweet nature of the classic medley of apples, spices, nuts, and wine serves as a reminder of the prolific apple trees that grew in Egypt during the time of Jewish slavery and that when Pharoah wanted to kill the Jewish boys of Egypt, they were divinely protected. According to the Talmud (Sotah 11b), after a woman gave birth to a baby boy under an apple tree, God sent angels to clean and nurse the newborn and protect the newborns from the Egyptians by having the babies swallowed up into the earth. The Egyptians would pursue the Jewish babies to kill them once they discovered the babies had been born, plowing over the land where the babies were consumed by the earth and tending to their oxen on said land. After the Egyptians gave up and moved on to other causes, the babies would then re-emerge from the earth, like apples.

Because both of these explanations are not considered bitter but rather triumphant stories of resilience as the Jewish people overcame difficult circumstances, the charoset can be justified as sweet to balance out the bitterness of the maror. The sweetness of the charoset can also serve as a reminder that even during trials and tribulations, such as the slavery endured by the Israelites, there can be sweet times amidst our troubles for all of us.

The earliest known charoset recipe can be traced to some supplemental writings by the philosopher Sa’adia Gaon in ancient Baghdad, or possibly Egypt, attached to a siddur (Jewish prayer book). Gaon’s notes mentioned that a congregational leader “should prepare a dipping sauce from dates, walnuts, and sesame and knead it together with vinegar, and this is called haliq.” There is no clear definition of what haliq would have referred to, though some speculate it is an Arabic word that may have some connection to ripened dates or possibly ground sesame seeds (tahini) mixed with pure date syrup, walnuts, and the equivalent of balsamic vinegar.

Meanwhile, other food historians maintain that charoset is a spinoff recipe that was modeled on Hellenistic sweet and sour dipping sauces that were comprised of herbs, honey, and vinegar and has since evolved over the centuries as the Jewish people have migrated around the world and adapted the recipe to local ingredients, customs, and cultures. Others believe the recipe is based on various fruit relishes or fruit-based condiments that would have been popular in Roman times, and that rabbis later assigned meaning to charoset so as to integrate the concept into Jewish tradition in approximately the third century and have some kind of justification for why they allowed the integration of charoset into the Seder. Today, some Jewish communities in the Middle East will refer to charoset as halegh.

Often best described as some kind of fruit salad or fruit-nut concoction or sometimes even a truffle made from various combinations of fruits, spices, nuts, kosher wine, and honey with a consistency of a thick paste, charoset is often consumed for breakfast, appetizer, or snack, though it could conceivably be eaten at any time of the day. Cinnamon is a common spice used, and this is often deemed to be representative of the straw used in the brick-making process. Desiccated coconut might be substituted in some recipes for those with nut allergies. Some Jewish people who interpret the Song of Songs in a more literal sense will limit the ingredients used in their personal charoset recipes to apples, wine, spices, and figs. The inclusion of red wine in charoset recipes generally symbolizes the plague of blood, the first of the ten plagues when water was transformed into blood.

Common ingredients in any charoset recipe worldwide are widely variable but could include apples, pomegranates, saffron, cinnamon, walnuts, grapes, dates, figs, sweet Manischewitz wine, honey, raisins, and other spices. However, the possibilities and variations are infinite and not limited to merely these aforementioned ingredients. The symbolism of the charoset is more important to the Jewish people than the exact recipe. Recipes will vary across Jewish traditions, yet regardless, they contribute a rich layer of symbolic meaning to any Passover celebration.

Ashkenazi Jewish communities frequently use apples as the basis of their charoset recipes due to the abundance of apples in their geographical area, while Balkan Jewish communities may include more raisins in their recipes. Sephardic Jewish communities often tend to use dates, cardamom, honey, and sometimes pears or apricots as their foundation. Meanwhile, some Persian Jewish communities focus on having precisely 40 ingredients in their charoset to symbolize the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert post-Exodus.

Greek Jews may incorporate apples, dates, almonds, and wine; Italian Jews may include chestnuts; and some Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities may even include coconut in their charoset recipes. Moroccan Jews often incorporate cloves into their charoset recipes. Chinese Jews have a seemingly exotic twist on charoset, commonly adding in soy sauce, pine nuts, and honey, which lends a savory flare to the traditionally sweet recipe. As an even more exotic twist, some Indian Jews may even incorporate cashews, papaya, mango, and local Indian spices into their beloved charoset recipes.

 As a fun fact, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in Israel has even historically formulated a special limited edition charoset-flavored ice cream for the Passover season that is generally based on the more Ashkenazi and Sephardic variations of the charoset recipe. The iconic ice cream recipe interspersed with classic apples, nuts, and the faintest traces of cinnamon seemed to be well received by Ben and Jerry’s local fan base in Israel, adding a playful twist to a sacred tradition.

The significance of charoset to the Jewish people transcends its precise recipe. Across various Jewish traditions and cultures, recipes for charoset may differ, yet they all add a profound layer of symbolic meaning to the Passover celebration. Through the ages, Seder participants are reminded of the enduring significance of the Passover story and of the resilience of the Jewish people. As the echoes of “next year in Jerusalem” reverberate, the Passover Seder culminates with the consumption of charoset, a sweet reminder of the historical journey from slavery to freedom.

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