Collective Memory and Haroset

Collective Memory and Haroset

BY: Daniel Fridman


The Status of Haroset

    The place of haroset at the seder table is at once familiar and strange, predictable yet perplexing. While the presence of its companions, matsah and maror, is mandated by the Torah, haroset merits no scriptural references whatsoever. As we stare at its eclectic composition year after year, we cannot help but wonder what lies within the haroset, and what these various elements are meant to represent.

    Given the absence of any biblical sources for haroset, the sages of the Mishnah debated whether there was even a rabbinic obligation to eat it. In the third mishnah of the final chapter of Massekhet Pesahim, the Tanna kamma takes the position that haroset is not a mitsvah, while R. Eliezer b. Tsadok maintains that haroset is indeed a mitsvah, though he does not specify what the performance of it entails. In his Perush ha-Mishnayot, Rambam notes that the Halakhah is in accordance with the position of the Tanna kamma. Subsequently, however, Rambam ruled in accordance with the position of R. Eliezer b. Tsadok, that the haroset is indeed a mitsvah of rabbinic origin. This conclusion, that haroset has the status of a rabbinic commandment, is shared by Rif and Rosh as well.


Six Dimensions of Haroset

    In elaborating the position of R. Eliezer b. Tsadok, the Talmud makes reference to three distinct commemorative functions that the haroset is meant to fulfill. First, R. Levi asserts that the haroset is zekher la-tapuah, an homage to the apple orchards in which the Israelite women delivered their babies under extremely difficult circumstances during the period of Jewish enslavement in Egypt. Second, R. Yohanan argues that the haroset is zekher la-tit, meant to commemorate the mortar which the Jewish people had to make throughout their forced labor in Egypt. In order to incorporate both of these elements into the haroset, Abbayei rules that one must have a sharp tasting element in the mix, corresponding to the tapuah, and that the composition of the haroset must be thick and pasty, corresponding to the mortar. Finally, the Talmud cites a Beraita which mentions a third element of the haroset, namely spices, which are meant to be incorporated zekher la-teven, in tribute to the straw which the Jewish people had to seek out in order to construct bricks, making it considerably more difficult for them to meet their daily quota of labor.

    Commenting on this passage, the Tosafists cite a parallel section from Talmud Yerushalmi which notes a fourth commemorative dimension of the haroset, zekher la-dam, a memorial to the blood of the Jewish people which was spilled over the course of the enslavement in Egypt. Moreover, the Tosafists add a fifth dimension to the haroset, citing a previous ruling of the Geonim that fruits should be included in the recipe, parallel to the fruits that the Jewish people are compared to in Shir ha-Shirim.

    A sixth and final commemorative dimension of haroset is mentioned by the Tur, zekher la-maror. In effect, the Tur argues that haroset has an overlapping function with bitter herbs, as it too commemorates the sheer bitterness of our bondage in Egypt. As such, the Tur requires that some sour elements be added to the haroset.


A Dialectical Perspective on Haroset

Not all Rishonim subscribe to these six disparate elements of haroset. For example, Rambam only cites two explicitly, zekher la-tit, in commemoration of the mortar, and zekher la-teven, the straw. In contrast, the Tur makes mention of five of the components, leaving out only zekher la-tapuah, but including zekher la-tit, la-teven, la-dam, la-maror, and the fruits to which the Jewish people were likened in Shir ha-Shirim. Rema subscribes to four of the elements, omitting zekher la-maror as well as zekher la-tapuah. Thus, the positions of the various Rishonim present a considerable range of views regarding what aspects of the Jewish experience in Egypt are meant to be evoked by haroset.

In any case, these six elements, when evaluated in total, may be subdivided into two distinct categories. Four of them, zekher la-tit, la-teven, la-maror,
and la-dam, reflect different aspects of the suffering endured by our ancestors at the hands of their sadistic Egyptian oppressors. On the other hand, zekher la-tapuah, commemorating the valor of the Jewish women whose faith was such that they could look hopefully to the future in the face of a terrifying present, as well as the inclusion of the fragrant and luscious fruits to which the Jewish people are favorably likened in Shir ha-Shirim, evoke unequivocally positive associations.

As such, a remarkable dialectic is intrinsic to haroset itself: it is a singular composition whose elements simultaneously bear witness both to the very depths of our national degradation in Egypt as well as to the exclusive, unbreakable bonds which link the Jewish people with the Master of the Universe, as depicted in Shir ha-Shirim. It is a fascinating mixture with the capacity to, on the one hand, evoke the image of the blood of massacred Jewish babies flowing freely in the Nile River, and, at the same time, represent the birth of a new generation of Jewish children in the apple orchards, in defiance of those who wished to destroy us. Even as each of its six elements bespeaks its own narrative, telling its own tale of suffering or triumph, each component coexists with all of the others. For all of the complexity of its components, the result is an organic, unified entity called haroset, whose totality is truly greater than the sum of its parts.


Daniel Fridman is a third-year semikhah student at RIETS and is the Resident Scholar at the Jewish Center of Manhattan.