Comprehending “Charoset”

hero image
13 Mar 2020

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

One of the symbolic foods on the Seder plate is charoset, generally comprised of apples, nuts, wine, cinnamon and perhaps some other spices and dates and figs. Unlike the other symbolic foods, the charoset seems to have little innate significance on its own. We dip the marror/bitter herbs into it, much as we dip the vegetable into salt water. Yet it is not simply on the side, but an integral part of the Seder plate. The Gemarra  asks what is the basis for this mitzvah. The charoset, according to differing opinions, is symbolic of both the clay and mortar used to make the bricks, in color and consistency,  and of the apple tree, as one of its major ingredients. How do we reconcile these two remembrances for the sweetness of redemption, represented by the apple, and the bitterness of servitude, represented by the marror, within the charoset? Since there is no specific action other than intellectual remembrance associated with the mitzvah of charoset, we make no brachah over it, explains the Torah Vodaath Haggadah in spite of its appearance on the Seder plate.

Rabbi Pincus explains the symbolism of the ingredients, symbolism mostly associated with verses from Shir Hashirim/Song of Songs: Apples – “…under the apple [tree] I aroused you.” Nuts – “… I descended to the nut orchard…” and other nuts to which Bnei Yisroel is compared, and other fruits associated with Eretz Yisroel, like dates and figs. This is all combined with wine, symbolic of our blood. 

What does the apple tree have to do with Pesach through the charoset? The Medrash fills in the gaps in Jewish survival and the role of women. When the men would be slaving, the women would go to the river to draw water to bring to their husbands. Hashem miraculously filled their pails with both water and fish which they could then boil and bring to their husbands. The women would then entice their husbands, for they wanted more children. When the women went into labor, they went to the orchard where they gave birth “under the apple trees.” Then Hashem miraculously sent angels to care for the babies until they grew up and went home. The bitterness of the enslavement was tempered with the sweetness of Hashem’s caring for these children. The women, who had already witnessed Hashem’s chesed, were the first to recognize Hashem’s hand at the splitting of the sea and declare,  “This is my God and I will glorify Him.” The apples represent the miracles Hashem did for Bnei Yisroel when the babies were born.

The Haggadah Ma’ayan Lamoed makes a simple, ironic follow up point. Although the babies were saved, when they grew up, they were enslaved. In the charoset, we have both the sweetness and the bitterness represented. It represents both the overt miracles and the hidden miracles, Hashem’s interaction with us on both a personal and national level. Hashem works on all these levels simultaneously, and we must recognize Him in all.

Homiletically, and Kabbalistically everything on the Seder plate is symbolic not only of our Egypt experience, but also of the ways Hashem and the world interact with each other, writes Rabbi Pincus. The three upper symbols, the zeroa/[arm] bone, beitza/egg, and marror represents the characteristic traits Hakodosh Boruch Hu uses to interact with us; the lower three, charoset, karpas/vegetable and chazeret/another form of marror represent how we interact with Hashem and mirror the above three traits. The right side represent the spiritual aspects, the left ones represent the natural methods of interaction, and the central ones represent the challenges. They all rest on the plate representing the of the sovereignty of our Creator.

While the “bitters” come from Hashem, its purpose is not to inflict suffering upon us, but for us down below to find the benefit Hashem wants us to derive from this suffering. Therefore we dip the marror into the sweet charoset.

Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv explains our dipping the marror into the charoset in a very esoteric way. He begins by citing the Chasam Sofer. One must dip the marror into the charoset to kill the “kapa” within the marror, the kapa being the snakelike poison of Egypt.  The antidote for this poison was an anagram of charoset, cherut s(amech)/freedom [of the] 60[x10,000]. What was this poison and shell that we are getting rid of? It was the aim of the Egyptians to separate us from the Aleph, to sever our connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Continuing in this manner, Halekach Vehalebuv explains that ale”ph is an acronym for the three areas of our spiritual being that the Egyptians sought to enslave. Our (a)ozen/ear would not be able to hear spiritual words of Torah, our lev/hearts were enslaved, and our peh/mouth could not speak freely. These three body parts, when added together, equal 381, the same as kapa.

These are also the three body parts, aside from the male organ, that we are told to circumcise, to remove their hard shell that separates us from Hashem, and let Him in. Therefore we are commanded to, “Tell it (with our mouths) into the ears of your son,” that “wine will gladden man’s heart,” by drinking the four cups of wine as we re-experience Pesach.

Halekach Vehalebuv continues by saying that when Pharaoh “made houses” for the Jews, not only for the midwives, his purpose was to surround Bnei Yisroel with Egyptian culture so they would forget Hashem, erase Him from their hearts and begin speaking and listening only Egyptianese.  Our job is to keep the ale”ph free and remain receptive to Hashem, to always remember the apple tree. The Egyptians hoped that we would be so involved with forming the bricks of our livelihood, that we would forget about Hashem.

In Lilah Kayom Yair, Rabbi Baum likens the ingredients in charoset to the Klal Yisroel experience. The wine represents our blood and the spices represent bricks. The entire mixture is cheres/dried out and compressed, like the clay to form pottery. It represents the oppression of Bnei Yisroel. Yet people like it because of its sweetness. Somehow, when you put two bitter things together, sweetness emerges, like throwing a bitter tree into the bitter waters at Marah. It is through the bitterness and the challenges that we grow and come closer to Hashem.

Even when we cry in pain, we can still see Hashem’s hand and our salvation, reminds us the Alshich zt”l. He notes that when Yaakov and Esau met upon Yaakov’s return, they fell on each other’s neck and both cried. The medrash says that Esau cried because he had tried to bite Yaakov while pretending to kiss him, but Hashem had turned Yaakov’s neck to a slab of marble. Yaakov cried because his neck nevertheless hurt. Even in the cries of pain, Yaakov could still recognize his salvation.

  The word charoset itself seems to allude to both bitterness and sweetness. The first and last letters spell chas/mercy, while the middle letters spell out the name of Ruth, writes Rabbi Spero in Touched by a Story. Ruth’s life was indeed hard and bitter, Having converted to Judaism and married, she became a young widow, remarried in a quasi levirate marriage, was widowed again only to become a single mother. But she lived to see her great grandson ascend the throne as King David, known as the one who composed the sweet songs of Yisroel, the Tehillim/Psalms. We must anticipate our impending salvation even as we face our challenges. Her suffering refined her so that she had the qualities to become the Mother of Royalty while Orpah, her sister in law, turned her back on the suffering and returned to her father’s home and remains an anagram for Paroh, writes Rabbi Kluger.

Rabbi Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim makes an interesting point that supports our overall theme. After Bnei Yisroel built the Mishkan, every time they traveled, the Mishkan would be disassembled and the Leviim would transport the parts to the new camping ground. The wagons to carry the Mishkan parts and vessels were not distributed evenly. The family of Merori was given more wagons because the load they carried was heavier than the loads of the other Levite families. [Yet I would venture they considered their load “sweet” rather than bitter, as the name Merori suggests. CKS] If Hashem gives us challenges, He always gives us the tools to carry the load.

These conflicting emotions are reflected in the positions we take while we perform the rituals of the Seder, writes Rabbi Biederman. When we eat the marror itself, we do not lean. After all, we are re-experiencing the full bitterness of the enslavement, although minimally tempered with a dip in the charoset. However, this is followed by eating the sandwich of marror within the matzoh. The matzoh symbolizes our faith, and with this comfort, we can lean more comfortably and accept the bitterness.

Until now, we have discussed the apple as symbolic of love and sweetness. But Rabbi Baum takes a different approach. The apple is associated with the sense of smell, as Yaakov smelled the scent of Gan Eden in the clothes that Yaakov wore. But we smell through our af/nose. Throughout Tanach, the term charon af is translated as extreme anger. [Picture the nostrils flaring in anger. CKS] The nose, and smell, are therefore associated with the attribute of judgment. But the entire universe was created with the attribute of judgment. In truth, nothing new is formed without forcefully breaking that which contains it. But the aroma that enters through the nose can also be the source of blessing,

When Bnei Yisroel complained about the deaths of the rebellious Korach and his gang, Hashem brought a plague to destroy the people. But an angel had taught Moshe the antidote to Hashem’s anger, the ketoret/incense offering. Moshe instructed Aharon to take from the incense offering and run between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped.

So although the sense of smell and apples in particular can be associated with judgment and anger, it also carries within it the seeds of salvation. When the women gave birth beneath the apple tree, they were under the cruel judgment of Pharaoh, And because of this cruel judgment, Hashem increased the fertility of the women so that the nation’s population would grow exponentially, leading to their eventual salvation.

The oppression and challenges of Mitzrayim represented the purification process Bnei Yisroel needed in order to become appropriate vessels for God’s presence, writes Rabbi Kluger in Bni Bechori Yisroel. The negative characteristics had to be refined out to leave the pure souls of the nation. This refinement process began long before our descent to Egypt and continued after, and much of it is recorded in the piyut/holy song we read at the Seder, Va’amartem Zevach Pesach/And You Shall Say: This is the Feast of Pesach. Among the steps recorded is Avraham being told of both the enslavement and the redemption of his descendents on the night of Pesach, the angels prophesying Yiztchak’s birth and the salvation of Lot from Sodom, both on the night of Pesach. Yaakov received his father’s blessing on Pesach, and we hope for the future redemption every Pesach, may it be this year.

Rabbi Baum continues interpreting the symbolic foods on the Seder plate. The egg, eaten at the beginning of a mourning period, reminds us of the death of Avraham Avinu on erev Pesach. It is also a reminder that the more we are challenged and put into “boiling water,” the harder we get. The charoset reminds us that all the bricks and hard labor were necessary in the refinement process, just as labor must precede a birth. The Egyptian experience is the ultimate birth of redemption.

Dovid Hamelech will be the ancestor of Moshiach. Dovid’s life was full of hardship and challenge from which he grew. Not only did he sing beautiful songs, but he played the harp. The harp too, writes Rabbi Feuer in Tehillim Treasury, also plays more strongly the tighter you pull the strings.

The challenges enable us to become who we are meant to be. We are living in challenging, charoset times. May we overcome the challenges of the coronavirus and grow to coronate Hashem, our King, and recognize His sovereignty over all.

Download PDF