WHY DO we dip bitter herbs in charoset? The Talmud mentions the reason for the sweet dip on our seder plate as kapa: the bitter “poison” in the bitter herb of maror must be neutralized for fear that excessive consumption may damage the stomach lining.
The siddur of Rabbi Shlomo ben Nathan Al-Sijelemsi, containing a version of prayers used in the Atlas Mountains nine centuries ago, refers to the haleg, the Arabic name for charoset, and mentions that it was dipped into twice; first with the karpas and then the maror. Persian haleg could have several dozen ingredients, including bananas!
Maimonides had a simple charoset — boiled figs or dates, crushed but not puréed. Charoset has a consistency reminiscent of mortar; cinnamon and walnuts for colour and grit, shredded apple for the straw with which the Hebrews baked bricks. All this tinged with the wine of celebration, bringing hope into the vale of tears.
Life has its bitterness, but also its sweeteners, its charoset. We need to make the effort to dip, when miserable, into the sweet memories and simple pleasures that take the edge off the harsh times of life. It is possible to look back on pain and recast the experience as a positive that helped us build ourselves up anew and become stronger, more resilient than before.
No-one can be commanded to be so brave — but it is worth trying. Thus, even though there is no particular mitzvah to eat charoset on its own, its purpose in fusing with bitterness teaches us the importance of partnership between those with better and worse fortune for a good result. The Hebrew word charoset is derived from cheres, meaning clay, which when hardened is fragile but durable, protective and preserving. Charoset is therefore a simile for Israel: fragile but strengthened to survive — and still able to find sweetness, in spite of all the suffering we have endured. RABBI ARIEL ABEL Radlett United Synagogue