Horseradish Isn't Bitter – So Why Do Jews Eat It on Passover as a 'Bitter Herb'?

Centuries of semantic interpretations and rituals are part of the story of this herb, which some Jews pass over in favor of the even-less bitter lettuce. At least they're better than the hemlock mentioned in the Bible.

Horseradish, consumed as the "bitter herb," as part of the Passover seder ritual.

One of the central rituals of the festive Passover seder is the eating of the “bitter herb” – maror, in Hebrew. Oddly enough, many Jews observe this part of the ceremony by eating horseradish root, which isn’t actually bitter. Why?

The tradition of eating bitter herbs is derived from a single passage in Exodus, in which God commands the ancient Hebrews to hold a Passover feast every year to commemorate their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Among the instructions, God commands: “They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (12:8).

The passage does not specify which “bitter herbs” – or, in Hebrew, merorim – are supposed to be eaten, but we can get an idea of what it connotes from examining other biblical passages using the same word. In Deuteronomy (32:32), for example, we find that word appearing in poetic verse in reference to rosh, Hebrew for hemlock, an herb that is indeed bitter – but also poisonous. In Lamentations (3:15), it again appears in poetic verse, this time along with mention of la’anah, Hebrew for wormwood, which indeed is bitter.

Luckily, the rabbis decided we should eat other bitter herbs, which they list in the all-important compendium of Jewish law, the Mishnah (about 200 C.E.): “And these are the vegetables that a person may meet his requirements with on Passover: Lettuce, endive, cardoon, eryngo, and sea sow-thistle” (Pesachim 2:6).

Since the list is in ancient Hebrew, the identity of the particular vegetables listed is somewhat disputed and has been for centuries, but from the illustrations in Passover Haggadahs it is quite clear that most Jews in 14th-century Spain, at least, ate lettuce or cardoon (a kind of artichoke) as their bitter herb.

If you are wondering how lettuce could be used at the seder as the bitter herb since it isn’t really bitter, you aren’t alone. The Talmud in fact makes a comment on this (Pesachim 39a), explaining that lettuce begins sweet and ends bitter, like the Israelite sojourn in Egypt, and that consumption of lettuce is an expression of God’s compassion.

Indeed Jewish communities in the Arab world over the years have continued to this very day to eat lettuce during Passover seders. Rabbinic writings throughout the Medieval period confirm that European Jews were eating lettuce as well. So how did horseradish enter the mix?

The first reference to horseradish in rabbinic literature is in “Even Ezer,” by Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan (1090-1170) of Mainz, where it appears (rendered into the German word Meerrettich) not as a bitter herb, but as an ingredient in haroset, the fruit-and-nut delicacy also eaten during the seder ritual. Another rabbi, Eleazar of Worms (1176-1238) mentions it as an ingredient in haroset as well.

Lack of lettuce

The earliest reference of horseradish being related to the festive meal as a bitter herb can be found in “Haggahot Maimuniyyot,” a commentary on Maimonides written by Meir HaKohen, a 13th-century German rabbinic scholar. But it is likely that this term was cited as part of an explanation later added by a copyist; none of the other scholars in HaKohen’s milieu mentions it.

It seems, then, that the first real reference to horseradish being consumed as the bitter herb during the seder is in “Sefer Ha'Aguddah,” by Rabbi Alexander Suslin HaKohen (d. 1349). In it, Suslin, one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of his day, writes that when lettuce is not obtainable it may be substituted with horseradish. Since lettuce grows in the spring, as one travels eastward and northward in Europe and the winters get colder and longer – lettuce becomes more and more difficult to come by on Passover, especially when it falls early do to the irregular nature of the Hebrew calendar.

And indeed, during the late Middle Ages more and more Jews were moving from Central Europe to Eastern Europe and had trouble finding lettuce on the holiday. As they moved east they gradually dropped the German word for horseradish and picked up the Slavic word chrein from their Russian and Polish neighbors – the Yiddish word for horseradish to this day.

At first horseradish was only seen as a substitute for the preferred lettuce, but over time, as the tradition took hold, Ashkenazi Jews took to eating horseradish even when lettuce was available. To justify this practice, a number of rabbis identified the tamcha – the third in the list of five bitter herbs cited in the Mishnah (which we rendered here as cardoon, although the actual identity of the plant is uncertain and disputed) as horseradish. This association, however, is surely incorrect since horseradish didn’t even grow in the Middle East until recently.

Over time, horseradish became so commonly accepted by Ashkenazi Jews as the traditional Passover bitter herb, that when they moved to Palestine and started growing it, they referred to it by using the ancient Hebrew word for lettuce, which appears first in the Mishnaic list of bitter herbs: hazeret. It then became the modern Hebrew word for horseradish as well, used to this very day.

So, in a twist of fate, while Sephardic Jews have preserved the original Mishnaic bitter herb, they call it by its Aramaic name khasa, while Ashkenazi Jews use the original Hebrew word that appears in the Mishnah, but consume an altogether different vegetable: hazeret, horseradish. Unless they refer to it by the Yiddish word chrein, as my family does.