Chol Ha’Moed Pesach (Day 1)
What’s charoset like at your seder table? I grew up with the Ashkenazi recipe of chopped apples, nuts and wine. Maybe your version is the Yemenite paste of dates and figs, or perhaps your family is Persian or Sephardic, and you use ginger or apricots.
We’ve all learned that charoset symbolizes the mortar that we used in building for Pharaoh while enslaved in Egypt. But that’s only half the explanation of charoset. After all, whatever your family’s recipe, didn’t you also learn to make it sweet and delicious?
The recipe for charoset is found not only in Passover cookbooks, but in the Talmud. Several rabbinic opinions are offered to explain how and why charoset is made. In Pesachim 116a, Rabbi Yochanan offers the reason for the texture: It’s a remembrance of the clay used to make bricks, and so it must be pressed like clay.
Rabbi Levi, however, gives a different reason for the ingredients: It’s a remembrance of the apple. What apple, you ask? Rashi explains in his commentary: the apple tree under which the Israelite women gave birth to their children, as it is written in the Song of Songs, “Under the apple tree, I aroused you. There your mother conceived you, there the one who conceived you gave birth to you” (Song of Songs 8:5).
Rashi is referring to the midrashes, rabbinic legends, which explain that despite Pharoah’s attempt at killing Israelite babies, and despite the hopelessness that the men felt from the oppression of slavery, the women had hope for the future of their people: they seduced their husbands, conceived, and gave birth to a new generation under the apple tree. This apple tree is the one described in the Song of Songs, that romantic poem that gives us a taste of the love between God and Israel, which we read on this Shabbat of Passover.
One midrash explains that when Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys should be thrown into the Nile, Miriam’s father led all the Israelite men to divorce their wives; they thought, “Why reproduce if our babies will be killed?” However, Miriam urged her father to go back to his wife. Because her father took her advice, Moses would be born and would lead his people out of slavery.
In another midrash, it was Pharaoh who decreed that men were forbidden from sleeping at home with their wives. Once again, the women stood up to Pharaoh’s tyranny — they went to the fields with food and wine to awaken the desire of their husbands. As a result, they were fruitful and multiplied, populating the Israelites to the mighty legion of the 600,000 that left Egypt.
The women in the midrashes, like the women in the biblical Exodus — Moses’ mother and sister, the Hebrew midwives and even Pharaoh’s daughter — defy Pharaoh through a particular kind of civil disobedience. Against the darkness and death of his oppression, their rebellion is one that nurtures love, creates new life and has hope for the future. All this is represented by the Song of Song’s apple tree, which makes its way into the charoset on our seder tables.
That’s the beauty of the seder — thousands of years of biblical, midrashic and talmudic texts in one delicious apple. In fact, because the charoset is meant to represent this, all of the ingredients, no matter which recipe you use, are mentioned in the Song of Songs:
“Your love is better than wine.”
“Feed me raisin cakes, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love.”
“Earth nourishing tree and vine, green figs and tender grape, green and tender fragrance. Come with me, my love, come away.”
You can find your charoset recipe in the Song of Songs, and you’ll know that it symbolizes more than the mortar of our slavery. It’s the sweet taste of love that makes for redemption and creates hope for the future.
A zissen Pesach (a sweet Pesach)!
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.