The Mystery of the Maror
With all of the cleaning, scouring, and scrubbing the Jewish nation is collectively doing to properly get ready for Pesach, many jokingly (we hope only jokingly!) sigh that they can really feel the avdut le’cheirut — the sense of going from servitude to freedom — that is required of us at this time of year, the “Season of Redemption”. Yet, one of the proper ways to commemorate this, evoking the bitterness that our ancestors felt from their enslavement at the hands of the cruel, sadistic Egyptians, is the consumption of maror, bitter herbs, at the Seder.
Although essentially a Biblical commandment (Bamidbar 9:11), the Gemara (Pesachim 120a) explains that nowadays, since we do not have the Korban Pesach, this mitzvah is currently Rabbinic.
The question is: Which bitter herb best fits the mitzvah’s criterion? Many will instantly answer: “Why, horseradish of course. This is the tradition from the alter heim, what our zaydies and bubbies used for maror back in Europe.”
Although this is certainly true, on the other hand it turns out that, technically speaking, with all factors considered equal, horseradish may not currently be the optimal choice for maror.
In fact, the Mishnah (Pesachim 39a) lists five different types of herbs that are classified as “maror” and may be used as such at the Pesach Seder. However, the Gemara (ad loc.), and later codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 473:5), and cited by many authorities, maintains that the herb that best fulfills the criteria is “chazeret”, a.k.a. “chasah”. This refers to lettuce (salatin), which starts out soft (the leaves) and ends up hard (the stalk), similar to the enslavement in Egypt that started out “easy”, as a paying job, and deteriorated into total subjugation and inhumane enslavement. Also, lettuce, when it starts to grow is very sweet; the longer it is left in the ground the more bitter it becomes. The Gemara explains that the reason lettuce is referred to as “chasah” (even to this day in modern Hebrew) is because Gd was “chasah” — had mercy — on the Jewish People in Egypt, and redeemed them from slavery.
If so, why is there a tradition for using horseradish instead? Indeed, although several early authorities mention using horseradish at the Seder, it was not actually as maror. Rather, they included horseradish as an ingredient in charoset! So how did this vegetable become the most commonly used bitter herb for maror?
The main reason was due to lettuce’s lack of availability around Pesach time throughout Europe and Russia over the years, especially with the ground still frozen in many areas. This reason, coupled with lettuce’s tendency to be insect-infested, placed horseradish, although further down the Mishnah’s list of acceptable vegetables, as the bitter herb of choice as maror for the Seder.
In fact, the Chasam Sofer and, later, the Mishnah Berurah ruled that even with lettuce available, if one does not know how to properly check for bugs it is still preferential to eat horseradish for maror. More recently, the Steipler Gaon was known to be very stringentwith using horseradish and not lettuce, and is quoted as saying that “it is preferable not to eat maror at all than to eat lettuce, because if one mistakenly eats even one bug he violates four Torah prohibitions”. Certainly while fulfilling a mitzvah one would not want to, Gd forbid, commit transgressions!
Yet, nowadays, the recent influx of the “Gush Katif” type of “Greenhouse Grown Bug-Free” Romaine lettuce allows us to enjoy the best of both worlds: Romaine lettuce for maror that is much easier to check and ensure that it does not contain any uninvited “guests”. Fascinatingly, it turns out that the not-so-bitter truth is that the optimal bitter herb for maror nowadays is the not-so-bitter, but bug-free, Romaine lettuce.