The Case for Hazereth

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The well known idiom “a bitter pill to swallow” takes a literal seat at the forefront of the seder with the commandment to eat maror.  Maror occupies a crucial role in the evening’s events, its consumption “uncomfortable” at best, serving as a window into our forefather’s slavery - slavery.  As many people are aware, there are a variety of different customs that dictate people’s choice regarding the consumption of the bitter herb. For those who eat romaine lettuce, consuming leaf after leaf is certainly not an enjoyable culinary experience. For those who choose horseradish, especially the raw type, the red eyes and flushed cheeks are demonstrative of the strong effects of this type of maror. Which vegetable is preferable? Is there a preference at all? 

An initial foray into maror leads to the observation that there is a lack of a specific, defined entity. The Oral Law for example, identifies the esrog as the only fruit befitting the description in the Torah of kapos temarim--it is not up for debate. Most mitzvos reflect a certain precision in their structure and composition, without any room for discrepancy. Yet, regarding maror, we see different options:

“The School of Samuel taught: These are the herbs with which a man discharges his obligation on Passover: With lettuce, with endives, with tamka, with harhabinin, with harginin, and with hardofannim.” (Pesachim 39a)

It is clear there is no set prescribed vegetable to fulfill ones obligation of maror on Pesach.

On the other hand, the idea maror is supposed to convey is seemingly clear, regardless of the choice of bitter herb. In the famous dictum of Rabban Gamliel (as written in the haggada), we see as follows:

“This maror that we eat for what reason? Because the Egyptians embittered our fathers' lives in Egypt, as it is said: "They made their lives bitter with hard service, with mortar and with bricks, and with all manner of service in the field; all their service which they made them serve with rigor.”

It would therefore seem the maror is the categorical vehicle to experiencing the bitterness of Bnai Yisrael’s slavery.

So, which maror should we use?

The Talmud (ibid), in its investigation of the different vegetables to be designated as maror, looks to chazeres:

“...and the School of Samuel taught, Hazereth; while R. Oshaia said: The obligation is properly [fulfilled with] Hazereth. And Raba said: What is Hazereth? Hassa. What does hassa [symbolize]? That the Merciful One had pity [has] upon us. Further, R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan's name: Why were the Egyptians compared to maror? To teach you: just as this maror, the beginning of which is soft while its end is hard, so were the Egyptians: their beginning was soft [mild] but their end was hard [cruel]”

One can see from this description that chazeres seems to offer more than Raban Gamliel’s notion of maror as a reflection of being embittered. One additional idea is that chazeres is synonymous with “hassa,” thereby connoting mercy from God. This seems odd--how does the attribute of God’s mercy find its way into remembering the suffering we encountered in Mitzrayim? The second reasoning also adds more to the picture. Rashi explains that the “soft” referred to regarding the Egyptians was their method in transforming the Jews into slaves. At first, they enticed the Jews to work, hiring them for their labor at a reasonable cost. However, as time went on, they changed to becoming “hard,” mercilessly oppressing Bnai Yisrael. An expression of mere bitterness alone, seems to be incomplete--if possible, a vegetable with the feature of “soft to hard,” reflecting the evolution of Bnai Yisrael’s slavery, would be more apropos. What is this additional concept bringing to the table? 

Maror occupies a unique place in the pantheon of mitzvos, a commandment where the physical, culinary 'effect' produced by the object at hand, rather than the entity itself, is the objective of the action. The taste and effect of the maror serves as the vehicle to reflect on our state of slavery, the means to focus and contemplate our existence prior to the redemption from Mitzrayim. The consumption of the maror, and the subsequent “bitter” effect it produces, is the ideal mechanism to best reflect upon the state of slavery. It is important to emphasize that the idea is not to recreate the feeling of slavery. To eat something bitter or sharp, while maybe uncomfortable, obviously could never be physically comparable to being enslaved, a life replete with daily suffering. So, one can see that the maror functions to bring about a certain reflective state, focusing our thoughts on the phenomenon of slavery. This is Raban Gamliel’s concept, and it can be achieved through any of the vegetables listed in the Talmud. 

Chazeres adds another dimension. The Talmud shows that secondary characteristics in the vegetable, namely its name and its texture, help enhance the understanding of this unique slavery.  First of all, there is the issue of God’s mercy and its place in the contemplation of our slavery. It could be that while reflecting on slavery is important in and of itself, one must be careful to put it in its proper context. To isolate it as a separate, distinct event might lead one to view that period of time as objectively bad, an incorrect conclusion in the context of God’s justice. The mercy here might refer to the fact that the slavery was part of an overall process, a step in the imminent geula from Mitzrayim. The mercy, therefore, alludes to God’s removing the physical and psychological shackles of slavery, the knowledge that the slavery had an ending point. The soft-to-hard transition also adds a distinctive character to the nature of the slavery. Different nations and diverse peoples have faced the threat of being enslaved throughout history. Quite often, it is a sudden event, a physical enslavement occurring at the onset. For example, during war, conquering armies turn their prisoners into slaves. Yet psychologically, it takes years of enslavement until the conquered become tied to their masters, their sense of freedom destroyed. In the case of Bnai Yisrael, it was the opposite. The Egyptians at first employed Bnai Yisrael, establishing a more business type of relationship. As they settled into this, becoming more and more dependent on the Egyptians, the slave mentality began to emerge. It became easier over time to shift Bnai Yisrael into more backbreaking labor, ensuring a complete and total slavery. These two ideas are expressed with the eating of chazeres, and add to our overall contemplation of the slavery of Bnai Yisrael. 

Certainly, the above demonstrates a philosophical superiority in using chazeres. Yet, there are even halachic discussions that seem to indicate a preference for chazeres. 

Chazeres is normally understood today to be a type of lettuce, usually romaine lettuce (the vast majority of poskim agree with this, although there is some debate as to the veracity of chazeres being lettuce). Yet there are those who choose horseradish (tamcha of the Talmud, according to many poskim), whether raw or not, as their choice of maror. It is interesting to see how the poskim deal with a stronger type of bitter herb, such as horseradish. A baseline for this debate can be found as early as the times of the Rishonim. The Ritva (Pesachim 39a) quotes the Ra’ah, who explains that the vegetable chosen for maror should be one that is capable of being eaten “a bit” whereas one should not use one where the “sharpness” is so intense that it is not considered edible. Clearly, supreme spiciness is not the defining characteristic. The Chacham Tzvi (Responsa 119) offers an extensive review of how chazeres should be the maror of choice. He discusses how horseradish became the replacement for chazeres due to climate conditions in Europe, among other reasons. However, he admonishes those who use horseradish, explaining that due to its intensity, most people are unable to consume the necessary quantity to fulfill one’s obligation. Furthermore, it is damaging to eat it raw. As a result, he strongly urges those who have the choice to stick with romaine lettuce. But not all is lost for those who choose horseradish. The Chasam Sofer (OC 132) writes that since most people are not experts at detecting the bugs located on romaine lettuce, it would be preferable to use horseradish, and this is cited by the Mishna Berura (OC 473:42). R Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Daat 1:17) refutes this concern in his recommendation that one use chazeres as maror. He cites R Shlomo Kluger (1783-1869), who explains that one should not use a magnifying glass when searching for bugs in lettuce. The system of halacha was given to humans, not angels, and therefore one has the right to rely on his/her own eyes to clean off the problematic bugs. With all this said, there is still considerable debate amongst modern day poskim as to the preference of one over the either. Of course, a posek should be consulted as to which direction to take. 

Clearly, whether you are a consumer of romaine lettuce or raw horseradish on the seder night, the significance of maror is not to be found in the redness of your face, the clearing of your sinuses or your expression of disgust. Rather, the significance of maror lies in its consumption leading to our reflection on our pre-redemption state, how we got there,  and the mercy of God in bringing about our redemption.