Talmud Tips

For the week ending 26 December 2020 / 11 Tevet 5781

Pesachim 37 - 43

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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What are "Bitter Herbs"?

Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: “Why are the ancient Egyptians compared to maror? (In the verse that states, “Va’yimararu [the Egyptians embittered their [the Bnei Yisrael’s] lives.” (Shemot 1:14 - Rashi) To teach that just as the Egyptians were “soft” at first (they paid for the Jewish labor as their hired workers - Rashi) and “hard” at the end (they made the Bnei Yisrael do back-breaking labor without pay - Rashi), so too is the maror [vegetable for the mitzvah of maror] “soft” at the beginning and “hard” (at the end (with time, its stalk becomes stiff like wood).”

Although the mishna lists five different vegetables that are suitable to eat at the Pesach Seder to fulfill the mitzvah of eating maror (“bitter herbs”), the halacha is stated by Rabbi Oshia in the gemara: “The mitzvah is to use chazeret for maror.” (Chazeret, although translated as horseradish in Modern Hebrew, in the context of Rabbi Oshia’s halachic statement it is traditionally understood to be Romaine lettuce. Chazeret is called litige in Rashi’s commentary here, which sounds to my ear like “lettuce.”) This ruling by Rabbi Oshia is the source for the widespread practice to eat Romaine lettuce — bug-free of course! — to fulfill the mitzvah of maror, which is a Rabbinic mitzvah nowadays, although it was a Torah mitzvah at the time of the Beit Hamikdash.

Why is it that of all the candidates listed in the mishna, the mitzvah of choice for maror is chazeret? One reason is based on the technical style of the mishna, that since chazeret is mentioned at the top of the list, it is the preferred vegetable to use for the mitzvah of maror. (Aruch Hashulchan) However, Rashi writes that two reasons for choosing chazeret for maror are taught in our sugya.

Rashi cites that one reason for using chazeret is hinted to in the teaching of Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani in the name of Rabbi Yonatan regarding the changing nature of maror with time. Apparently, chazeret best fits the description of a vegetable that starts soft and ends hard. (Although Rashi explains “hard” to mean “hard like wood,” other commentaries explain it in the context of the verse in terms of bitterness: It is a vegetable that begins its growth as being a sweet vegetable, but as it stays longer in the ground, and especially if it stays “too long,” it becomes less sweet and can even become bitter.)

Rashi explains that the other reason for choosing chazeret is based on the statement of Rava: “Chazeret is what we call chasa (which means ‘mercy’), and we use it as maror as a reminder and sign that Hashem had mercy on us in taking us out of the slavery of Egypt (Rashi).”

Our sugya takes a step back, so to speak, and Rabbi Rachumi examines why it is, in fact, that maror refers to a bitter herb, as taught in the mishna — and does not refer to something else. He suggested other bitter items as possibilities, and each time Rava explained why those other objects would not qualify as the required maror.

“Why not the bitter bile of a fish?” Abayei: “Because maror is connected to matzah in the verse, and just as [the grain for] matzah grows from the ground, so too must maror grow from the ground.” This would disqualify fish bile since it does not grow from the ground.

“Why not ‘hirduf,’ the bitter wood of a type of tree that Moshe Rabbeinu used in sweetening the bitter waters for the Bnei Yisrael at a place called Marah?” Rashi cites Chazal’s words that this was a “miracle inside a miracle,” being that the bitter waters were sweetened by adding to them bitter wood from a tree. Abayei answers this question as well: “Just as matzah is made from grain that must be planted each year, so too must maror be a vegetable that requires yearly planting.” This excludes wood of a hirduf tree, since a tree is planted “once and done.” (Apparently Rabbi Rachumi thought that eating maror could actually mean eating wood from a tree and not eating actual “food” — not unlike certain personalities promoting the consumption of certain tree bark for good nutrition in the ’70s as the “health food movement” began to gain steam in the States, especially in California where I was living at the time. Or he perhaps thought that that it could be made edible by cooking or some other processing method.)

And for Rabbi Rachumi’s third suggestion: “What about a bitter vegetable called harzifo (a type of bitter vegetable that is poisonous to animals – Rashi)?” Abayei: “Just as matzah is something which may be bought in Jerusalem with ma’aer sheini money, so too does maror need to be something which is permitted to be purchased with ma’aser sheini funds.” This excludes harzifo since it is not considered “food.” Only proper food may be bought in Jerusalem with ma’aser sheini money, a halacha that is taught by Chazal as being based on a verse in the Torah, as Rashi explains. (Perhaps Rabbi Rachumi thought that this was indeed considered as food, although people were not likely to eat it since it was poisonous to animals.)

The bottom line: Maror should be Romaine lettuce although it is not actually bitter to eat. Some authorities recommend eating the lettuce with a small amount of ground horseradish, for the “bitter experience.” But, by no means should one try eating a k’zayit measure (approximately 30 grams) of horseradish without lettuce — since it is dangerous. (Aruch Hashulchan) The mitzvahs of the Torah are ways of pleasantness and mitzvahs of life!

  • Pesachim 39a

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