How horse­rad­ish came to be the cho­sen herb

Rab­biChaim Weiner on how com­mu­ni­ties have pre­served their his­tory through Pe­sach cus­toms

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM -

PASSOVER IS a com­mem­o­ra­tion of the Ex­o­dus from Egypt. But re­li­gious rit­u­als do not sur­vive solely as his­tor­i­cal re­minders. Rit­u­als that en­dure over time em­body eter­nal truths that cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion over time and space. The real power of Passover is that it is a cel­e­bra­tion of free­dom. It marks the strug­gle of a peo­ple to es­cape slav­ery and to de­ter­mine their own des­tiny. The Jews took Passover with them as they moved around the globe. Our his­tory is marked with re­peated episodes of op­pres­sion — and the les­son of Passover was ever rel­e­vant. I am al­ways moved when I read the com­men­tary of Don Isaac Abravenel. It fell upon Abravenel to plead be­fore King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for the safety of the Jews at the time of the ex­ile from Spain in 1492. When com­ment­ing on the state­ment of the Hag­gadah, that if it were not for the Ex­o­dus, each and ev­ery one of us would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, Abravenel asks as poignantly: “What ben­e­fit do we, who live in ex­ile, de­rive from the Ex­o­dus? Would it not be bet­ter to en­dure the slav­ery of Egypt than the suf­fer­ing of the ex­ile in Spain?”

Jewish com­mu­ni­ties lived and re­lived the story of the Ex­o­dus, cre­at­ing new in­ter­pre­ta­tions and cus­toms to suit their cir­cum­stances. Let me in­tro­duce you to in­tro­duce some of the more in­ter­est­ing cus­toms I have en­coun­tered trav­el­ling in Europe.

I will start in Bel­monte, in North­ern Por­tu­gal. Ow­ing to its re­mote lo­ca­tion, a small com­mu­nity of Crypto-Jews — who out­wardly adopted Chris­tian­ity rather than go into ex­ile — man­aged to pre­serve its iden­tity for 500 years. They con­verted back to Ju­daism, opened a syn­a­gogue and re-es­tab­lished a Jewish com­mu­nity in 1996. I spent a Shab­bat in the vil­lage sev­eral years ago.

The hid­den Jews had lit­tle knowl­edge of Jewish ob­ser­vance and no ac­cess to a Jewish cal­en­dar. First they com­mem­o­rated Passover on the night of the full moon that landed in the month of April. This, how­ever, proved to be too dan­ger­ous and aroused the sus­pi­cions of the In­qui­si­tion. They even­tu­ally moved the cel­e­bra­tion to the full moon that landed two days af­ter the full moon of March.

On the day of their Passover, they would go to the river that runs near the town and cut branches from the trees. They would then wade across the wa­ter at a shal­low ford, wav­ing the branches in front of them as they moved. This rit­ual, which looks noth­ing like a tra­di­tional Jewish ob­ser­vance, was a re-en­act­ment of the cross­ing of the Red Sea — a scene that res­onated with the chil­dren of the forced con­verts, who an­tic­i­pated their own re­demp­tion daily.

Mov­ing east, we can take up the story in the vil­lage of Pit­igliano, high in the moun­tains of Tus­cany, in Italy. Pit­igliano of­fered rel­a­tive free­dom to its Jews, who came to live here through­out the Mid­dle Ages. At times as much as a quar­ter of its pop­u­la­tion was Jewish. Pit­igliano ab­sorbed many of the Span­ish ex­iles and Crypto-Jews who brought with them their fear of liv­ing an open Jewish life.

One of the most re­mark­able finds in Pit­igliano is a matzah bak­ery built un­der­ground, carved into the rock deep un­der the syn­a­gogue. The caves in­clude an un­der­ground mikveh and slaugh­ter­house. The Jews of Pit­igliano had a spe­cial round matzah for Passover. Al­though Jews no longer live in the town, it is still pos­si­ble to buy the spe­cial matzah at the old bak­ery to­gether with Jewish cakes and even kosher wine from a nearby win­ery — a tes­ta­ment to a once thriv­ing com­mu­nity.

Fur­ther east, we move into a new cul­tural area — that of the Ashke­nazi Jews. A fea­ture of Ashke­nazi Jewry is its many unique cus­toms. One of the best known is the cus­tom of Ashke­nazim to re­frain from eat­ing rice, corn and legumes on Passover. This cus­tom has no roots in the Talmud — but this should not sur­prise us, as the Ashke­nazi Jews have pre­served many an­cient cus­toms that have no Tal­mu­dic roots.

This is be­cause many of the cus­toms orig­i­nated in an­cient Is­rael — rather than in Baby­lon, the source of the Talmud. In ear­lier times, eat­ing lentils was a sign of mourn­ing. It has been sug­gested that this cus­tom was first es­tab­lished as a gen­eral pro­hi­bi­tion against con­sum­ing lentils dur­ing all fes­ti­vals. The cus­toms sur­vived only at Passover, be­cause it has so many spe­cial rules about food.

Many An­glo-Jews can trace their roots to East­ern Europe. A big in­flu­ence on the de­vel­op­ment of Jewish prac­tice in East­ern Europe was its cli­mate. It was easy to trans­port Jewish fes­ti­vals from Is­rael to coun­tries like Spain, Morocco and Italy. Mov­ing them to East­ern Europe was a chal­lenge. Our very sweet kid­dush wine was a way to com­pen­sate for the sour grapes that grow in this cold clime.

The cli­mate also had an im­pact on our seder ta­ble. One of the rit­u­als of the evening is eat­ing bit­ter herbs. Il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts of the hag­gadah show this as be­ing let­tuce. In East­ern Europe, how­ever, the let­tuce turned into horse­rad­ish. Rabbi Tzvi Ashke­nazi (17th cen­tury), com­ment­ing on the use of horse­rad­ish writes: “Peo­ple in the re­gions of Ger­many and Poland… use chrein, horse­rad­ish. This has had detri­men­tal re­sults, be­cause many peo­ple eat less than the re­quired amount be­cause of the pun­gent flavour … and the metic­u­lously ob­ser­vant Jews … are en­dan­ger­ing their health.”

Passover is a vi­tal fes­ti­val with a time­less and uni­ver­sal theme. The many vari­a­tions of prac­tice are a tes­ta­ment to the vi­tal­ity and the en­dur­ing na­ture of the Jewish tra­di­tion. Rabbi Weiner is di­rec­tor of the Euro­pean Ma­sorti Beth Din and of Jewish Jour­neys, spe­cial­is­ing in ed­u­ca­tional tourism

The Ital­ian town of Pit­igliano, where Jews in me­dieval times carved out un­der­ground matzah ovens in the rock be­low the syn­a­gogue. Al­though no Jewish com­mu­nity re­mains, the lo­cal bak­ery still sells the type of matzah ( see above) that was once made for Pe­sach there

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