Jesus, Demons and Flatulence: A Brief History of Passover Charoset

On Passover night, Jews around the world dip a bitter vegetable into a sticky paste called charoset. But why? The Bible speaks of nothing of the sort, so where does this odd tradition come from?

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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CharosetCredit: Hadas Parush
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Rather surprisingly, the earliest known reference to the practice of dipping into charoset may come not from rabbinic literature but from the New Testament, a quote from Jesus’ mouth, no less, found in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus and his 12 disciples gather for a meal that is almost certainly the Passover feast, when Jesus says: “He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me” (Matthew 26:23).

Did the author of Matthew mean that Judas dipped his bitter herb in Jesus’ charoset bowl? We do not know. The text does not state what was being dipped nor in what. Still, considering the practices of Jews in the following generations and to this day, it is not unlikely.

Our first explicit reference to charoset comes to us a little more than a century after the writing of Matthew, in the early 3rd century collection of Jewish law called the Mishnah. The collection, compiled by Rabbi Judah the Prince, states with regard to the Passover meal: “They brought before him matzah and charoset, and two cooked dishes, although charoset is not a mitzvah. Rabbi Eliezer ben Tzadok says it is a mitzvah” (Pesachim 10:3).

This text clearly shows that Rabbi Judah the Prince had charoset on his Passover table and likely dipped his bitter herb into it, though he didn’t view it as a religious obligation. That said, he must have viewed it as an integral part of the ritual meal, since of the three “Four Questions” (Ma Nishtana) he included in the Mishnah, one was why we dip twice during the Passover meal as opposed to only once on other nights (Pesachim 10:4). Though what he might have meant remains mysterious; we Jews don’t dip anything special in anything special on other nights.

Several centuries later, the subject of the dipping of the bitter herb in the charoset was taken up by the Babylonian Talmud, a massive authoritative commentary on the Mishnah written in what is today Iraq. The Talmud quotes a number of rabbis on the subject of why we dip our bitter herb in charoset, and their answers are quite surprising.

The demon-choking condiment

First the Talmud quotes the 4th century sage Rav Pappa, who said that the bitter herb – he specifies lettuce in particular – “must be dipped in the charoset because of the kafa.” The Talmud goes on to contradict him stating, that it “needn’t be dipped because the kafa dies from its (the charoset’s) smell” (Pesachim 115b).

What is this kafa that the charoset is supposed to eliminate is not explained. According to Medieval commentators, it is a kind of worm or poison found in the leafy vegetable.

Making charoset: The ingredients differ between culturesCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

But considering that the Talmud proceeds to provide a curse to counter the kafa: “Kafa, Kafa, I remember you, and your seven daughters, and your eight daughters-in-law” (Pesachim 116a), the Talmudic sages likely were talking about a particular demon. The Talmudic sages were very concerned with the threat of demons and their elimination.

After this discussion, the Talmud goes on to quote two third-century rabbis from the Galilee, who said that the use of charoset in the Passover meal was symbolic. According to Rabbi Levi, its consumption was “in memory of the apple,” while Rabbi Yochanan said it was “in memory of the mortar.”

The latter opinion is quite clear: Yochanan meant the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves in their construction work. That is, the charoset is a symbol of the oppression suffered by the Hebrew slaves at the hand of their Egyptian overlords. The connection Yochanan made between charoset and mortar is likely due to the fact that the dip’s name seems to be related to a Hebrew word for “earthenware,” cheres, which is somewhat akin to mortar. This is the view accepted by most Jews today.

But what about Rabbi Levi’s apple? What was he talking about?

The Medieval sage Rashi explained that Levi was referring to the apple trees: according to a legend appearing elsewhere in the Talmud (Sotah 11b), the Hebrew women gave birth in secret in order to save their newborns from death at the hands of the Egyptians. Based on these two opinions, the early-4th-century Babylonian sage Abaye decreed that charoset must be as sour as apples (which were not as sweet as modern apples) and as thick as mortar (Pesachim 116a).

At this point, it is clear that the dipping of the bitter herb in charoset had become part of the ceremony of the Passover meal among rabbinic Jews, but we still do not know what the charoset they were dipping into was, since neither the Talmud nor any other ancient rabbinic text explain how charoset was made nor what it was made of. The most we have is a brief statement in the Jerusalem Talmud that says that it was also called duchah, a name related to an Aramaic verb for “pounding” or “crushing,” which likely meant that some pounding was involved in its preparation.

It is only from the 10th century that we get our first recipe of sorts for charoset, in a prayer book written by Rabbi Saadia Gaon in Bagdad.

In his brief description of the Passover meal, Saadia wrote: “And shall make a sauce of dates and nuts and sesame and will mix with vinegar and it is called halik.”

Charoset: It doesn't have to be based on walnutsCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

The name halik, still used to this day by Iraqi Jews and some other Jewish communities, might be related to the Aramaic word for vinegar: chala. The Jewish sage Maimonides gave a similar recipe in his 12th century commentary on the Mishnah written in Cairo: “You soak figs or date and cook them, and pound them until they become moist and mix everything in vinegar, and add to it lavender or oregano and the like unground.” Variations on these recipes are used by Yemenite and Sephardic Jews to this day.

But among Ashkenazi Jews, that is Jews whose ancestors lived in northern and eastern Europe, charoset is quite different: it is usually made of apples, nuts and wine. The earliest record of this variety comes to us from the 11th century French sage Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud, written in Troyes: “and one needs… to add to it apples and wine” (Pesachim 116a).

Following Rashi, this recipe became the standard among Ashkenazi Jews. We find it elaborated for instance in the German rabbi Eleazar of Worms’ 13th-century Sefer HaRokeah: “The charoset is made of apples… and one adds to it a little… nuts, figs, and pomegranate, and pepper and ginger and cumin and celery and horseradish, but apples and nuts are the main ingredients.”

Paschal lamb out, Syrian cumin in

So far we have seen how charoset and its interpretation developed over the ages but we still haven’t addressed the key question – how did this tradition originally develop? To understand that, we need to understand the origin of the ceremony of the Passover meal itself.

Originally the Passover meal would have been a sort of barbeque eaten in Jerusalem in which a goat or lamb sacrificed in the Temple would have been the main component. But in later generations, after the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E., and the Paschal Lamb no longer eaten, the rabbis created a highly structured ceremonial meal – the Seder. Its first appearance is in the Mishnah, and it developed and evolved over the years into the Passover meal we have today.

We don’t know if the ceremony described in the Mishnah was created by Rabbi Judah the Prince (it first appears in the Mishnah he compiled) or by earlier generations, but what is clear is that whoever created it did so with the Roman symposium in mind. The similarities between the two meals are just too great to be pure coincidence.

Both the Seder and the Roman symposium are structured meals involving discussion and food. Both include drinking plenty of wine and singing the praise of the gods (or God). In both cases, the discussion begins with three easy questions, and the meal with consuming a green leafy vegetable. The origin of dipping the bitter herb in charoset may not lie in the Bible but rather in the culinary traditions of ancient Rome.

Indeed, the famous ancient Roman cookbook Apicius, also known as de re culinaria (“On the Art of Cooking”) discusses the eating of lettuce, saying: "Dress it with vinegar dressing and a little brine stock; which helps digestion and is taken to counteract inflation (i.e. flatulence). And in order that the lettuce may not hurt you take (with it or after it) the following preparation): 2 ounces of ginger, 1 ounce of green rue, 1 ounce of meaty dates, 12 scruples of ground pepper, 1 ounce of good honey, and 8 ounces of either Aethiopian or Syrian cumin. Make an infusion of this in vinegar, the cumin crushed, and strain. Of this liquor use a small spoonful; mix it with stock and a little vinegar: you may take a small spoonful after the meal” (translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling).

Not only does this recipe include many of the same ingredients we see used in charoset (vinegar, honey, cumin, pepper, dates, and ginger): it too is meant to counteract the harmful effects of the lettuce much like the kafa discussed in the Talmud. It seems then that the original charoset was a vinegar extract meant to protect those eating the bitter herbs in the Passover meal from farting. This original purpose was forgotten and as time went by the recipe changed, turning it from a watery extract into a paste thick as mortar, and sweet like apples rather than sour like vinegar.

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