A Second Look at the Second Dipping

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Surprisingly, one favorite Passover food and staple of the Seder is not mentioned by name anywhere in the Haggadah. Rather, it is alluded to only in the third question of the Mah Nishtanah – “Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we only dip once, on this night we dip twice.” The first dipping relates to the Karpas, the herbs or vegetables dipped into salt water. The second dipping refers to the dipping of Marror, bitter herbs, into Haroset.
man at table eating marror

Ms 450 The Conegliano Haggadah, Italy, 1742/1743

So what is Haroset, and where did the traditions surrounding this mixture come from? The first textual mention of Haroset is in the Mishnah, codified in the 3rd century, in Tractate Pesachim (10:3) “They brought before [the leader of the seder] matzah, Hazeret (a type of bitter vegetable), and Haroset, and two cooked dishes, even though Haroset is not a mitzvah (a positive commandment).” Two or three hundred years later, the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds describe the debate among the rabbis regarding the earlier Mishnaic assertion that Haroset is a mitzvah. In those discussions, the rabbis talk about some of the ingredients used to make the Haroset. In the Jerusalem Talmud (10:3), the rabbis state the Haroset should have spices in it, and further discuss Haroset’s consistency – whether it should be thick like mortar, or runny, like blood. It appears that pounding the ingredients is the preferred method for preparation.

Around the same time, but across 500 miles of desert, the rabbis quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (116a) debate the symbolism of the Haroset. One rabbi says that it is in remembrance of the “Tapuah” (either a wild apple or a citron- the “Median apple”) while the other rabbi states that it is in remembrance of the mortar. The inclusion of the “Tapuah” is linked to a passage in Song of Songs and an accompanying Midrash that reports that the Israelite women would give birth to their secret sons out in the orchards where God would watch over their babies. The mortar, of course, is a reference to the materials used by the Israelites to build during their enslavement. The discussion results in a compromise: the Haroset should be both tart like the Tapuah, and thick like mortar. The Talmud concludes with a Baraita (a teaching contemporary to the Mishnah but not included in the final work) saying that the spices of the Haroset are in remembrance of the straw used to make the bricks.

These sources give the reader some clues about what are required components of a good Haroset, but they hardly offer a full-fledged recipe. Rav Amram Gaon of the 9th century gives us a bit more information about the main ingredient for Haroset. He writes in his Siddur “Haroset…which we make in our part of the world from dates.” Interestingly, this statement seems to imply that that there are, in fact, other and perhaps more “authentic” ingredients for the Haroset, different from what he used in Babylon. Rav Saadia Gaon, living in the same region but in the 10th century, described Haroset as a mixture made from dates, nuts, and sesame, kneaded together with vinegar.
Mishnah image

B 2040 Mishneh Torah, Venice 1546/7

Pictured here is one of the early printings of Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah. This was the first work he completed, around the year 1165 when he was 30 years old, after having traveled by sea for many years, running from his oppressors in Spain and then Morocco and ultimately settling in Egypt. In this work, Maimonides writes “Haroset is a mixture which has acidity in it and something similar to straw, and this is memory of the mortar. And we make it like this: Soak figs or dates and cook them and pound them until they are soft, and knead them with spikenard or hyssop or something similar, without grinding them.”

Maimonides’ recipe for Haroset from his commentary on the Mishnah

Roughly ten years later, having lived in Egypt for some time, Maimonides wrote in his next book of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah (chap. 7),“Haroset is a commandment from the words of the Scribes (a rabbinic law), in remembrance of the clay with which they would work in Egypt. And how do we make it? We take dates, or dried fig bulk, or raisins, and that which is similar to them, and crush them. Then we put vinegar into it and add spices, such that it be like clay with straw.”

mishnah torah image

Ms Acc. 216, a late 14th century or early 15th century manuscript copy of the Mishneh Torah

Common between these two recipes is the notion that the mixture would be pounded or crushed, the mixture should be acidic, and should include spices. While in the first recipe, dates and figs are specifically noted, the second recipe allows for any fruit similar to dates, figs, or raisins. Maimonides writes that there should also be some straw-like element (likely this indicates the spices in both recipes, an application of the Baraita above).

Ms Acc. 216, a late 14th century or early 15th century manuscript copy of the Mishneh Torah

If you are from an Ashkenazi background, you will note that neither of these recipes are similar to the traditional Haroset of your experience. From the time of Rashi in the 11th century and then his grandsons, the Tosafists, Haroset evolved with traditional Ashkenazi ingredients incorporating wine (for the acidic component) and apples and nuts (references to Song of Songs) in addition to the spices.

Maimonides’ recipe for Haroset from the Mishneh Torah

In fact, there are Haroset recipes from all over the diaspora, with ingredients as varied as the Jews who make them – date syrup used by Jews in Kurdistan, pomegranates from Jews in Teheran, prunes by Italian Jews, and even ground brick dust by Jews of Gibraltar. Haroset is a quintessentially diaspora food; intensely traditional but adapted and enhanced by the ingredients available to Jews in exile. While the original Haroset recipe of 3rd-century Jews may have been so obvious that it did not bear mentioning in the Mishnah, over time Jews have done what they do best – use whatever is at their disposal to craft a new family tradition that brightly represents their sojourn in a foreign land. May we celebrate next year’s Passover in Jerusalem, bringing all Jews and their wonderful and exotic recipes together!


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