Parshat Shabbat Hagadol
2003The Shabbat before Passover is known as "Shabbat Hagadol" or "The Great Shabbat." On Shabbat Hagadol rabbis must address their congregations about the upcoming Passover holiday. In the spirit of Shabbat Hagadol, this week's D'var Torah focuses on a lesser known aspect of Passover.
How Do You Like 'Dem Apples? The Charoset Riddle
Everybody loves this dish of apples, nuts, and wine that is served at the Passover Seder. Not as well known is the Talmud's connection of this dish to the heroic actions of the Israelite women. This D'var Torah explores that connection.
Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 116a
The last chapter of the Tractate of Pesachim describes the Seder rules from nearly 2000 years ago. Charoset is introduced as one of the items to be "brought forth, even though it is not considered a mitzvah." Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Tzadok disagrees, and declares it to be a mitzvah.
The Gemara, the Talmud's discussion of this Mishnah poses the following question:
If it's not a mitzvah, what are they bringing it for?
The Gemara answers: [For dipping] so that it neutralizes the poisonous effect (of the horse radish).
Then the Gemara asks what is the mitzvah of charoset? The Gemara gives answers that are familiar to many of us. Charoset symbolizes the mortar of the bricks we as slaves made in Egypt, hence its thickness. Charoset alludes to the verse in Song of Songs, "Under the apple tree I aroused you." The rabbis saw this as a metaphor that refers to the fact that the Israelite women gave birth without pain, and were thus able to hide their sons from the Egyptians.
There is a midrash that Rashi quotes which states the "mirrors of legions" which were donated for the "Mishkan" (the tabernacle) were used by our mothers, the Israelite women, to arouse their husbands when they returned to the fields so that a Jewish future could be built. Moshe did not want to accept the mirrors because of their association with desire, but God said these mirrors are the most dear to me, so you, Moses, are to accept them. Thus it is written, "Under the apple tree I aroused you."
Your Talmud Navigator
1. Everyone agrees that charoset should be part of the meal, but there is a disagreement on its status. If charoset is a mitzvah, why is there no blessing as there is for maror (bitter herbs)?
2. Why would charoset not be a mitzvah if we have perfectly good reasons for it to be included in the seder?
3. When Rabbi Eliiezer the son of Rabbi Tzadok said that charoset is a mitzvah, is he saying that it is a mitzvah from the Torah, or is it a rabbinic decree? If it's a rabbinic decree, why don't the rabbis know about it?
Charoset, unlike Maror (bitter herbs) is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah. The fact that we made bricks is recounted in the Torah, and we are commanded to tell the story. Part of telling the story is making it real by having tangible symbols. The Torah not only gives us matzah and maror, but gives us guidelines for how to make every aspect of the meal symbolic. When Rabbi Eliezer Bar Tzadok calls charoset a mitzvah, he is signaling that irrespective of the original reason for having charoset, there is an opportunity to symbolize another aspect of the story. It is a mitzvah to take charoset and give it a kind of meaning that enriches the story of the haggadah. For anyone who tells more of the story is considered praiseworthy.
Charoset challenges us to continue to deepen our symbolic understanding in new and different ways as we make a story long past a part of our immediate present.
Prepared by Rabbi Avi Weinstein, Director, Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.