There is an interesting little argument about the meaning of one of the more popular symbols on the seder plate. The “seder plate” holds symbolic foods which tell the story of Passover. There are bitter herbs which are reminiscent of the bitterness of slavery, there is a shank bone which is symbolic of the Passover sacrifice, there are green vegetables or herbs which are resonant with the Spring in which the Exodus took place. Then there is haroset. If you have ever taken part in a seder, or learned about one, you know that while haroset is supposed to play a supporting role—it is eaten together with the bitter herbs to sweeten the experience—it takes a more central role as a respite from the matzohs and the bitter herbs. There are many recipes for the sweet haroset paste which vary based on country of origin, family traditions, and personal taste. Even Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and jurist, published his haroset recipe in his commentary on the Mishnah.
As children, many of us were taught that the haroset is symbolic of the mortar which the Israelite slaves were forced to use to build bricks (cf. Exodus Chapter 5). Many recipes do yield a reddish brown colored paste which might look brick-like. However, the sweetness of the haroset, for me, always stood in stark contrast to its symbolic function—remembering bitter hardship.
The Talmud however is unsettled about the symbolic meaning. In Tractate Pesachim (116a) the question is asked: what is the meaning of haroset. Two answers are given. The first is the one that is commonly known: “In memory of the mortar.” However, the second answer is a bit more cryptic: “In memory of the apple tree.” Which apple tree?
The medieval commentator Rashi cites a verse from Song of Songs: “Under the apple tree I roused you.” This is not a total explanation but rather a signpost. If we follow the sign we get to Tractate Sotah 11a where there is an extended midrashic reading of that verse from Song of Songs (8:5). “Who is this that comes up from the desert? / Leaning upon her beloved? / Under the apple tree I roused you; / It was there your mother conceived you, / There she who bore you conceived you.” The midrashic interpretation takes this scene of arousal and places it historically in Egypt during the time of the Israelite enslavement.
The narrative that is read into and out of this verse is presented by Rav Avira under the title: “In the merit of righteous women that lived in that generation, was Israel redeemed from Egypt.” The rhetorical question “who is this that comes up from the desert” is answered. It was the righteous women. As the men toiled under the sun in the desert, the women were troubled by Pharoah’s decree of infanticide which might ultimately destroy the Jewish people. The men stayed away from the women for fear that a child would be conceived and, when born, killed by Pharaoh and his henchmen. The women thought that this was doing Pharaoh’s work for him and so, the women would go out to the fields and bring the men food and drink and seduce them under the apple trees. (Don’t try fact-checking, this is the stuff of rabbinic fantasy.) When the women gave birth heavenly creatures descended to make sure that the babies could breathe and that they were healthy. The women would then hide the babies in the ground and plow them over so they weren’t discovered. The earth nursed and nurtured the babies so that they grew until they burst through the ground and came marching back to their families. This then is the story that is alluded to by the haroset according to the opinion of Rabbi Levi, the Palestinian Sage who said that it is a symbol for the apple tree. (Rabbi Yohanan authored the opinion that it was a memorial for the mortar.)
Rabbi Levi’s opinion introduces two things to the seder plate which are vitally important. First is the notion of resistance. The Israelites were not mere passive victims until Moses with the help of God came and redeemed them. There were ways in which the Israelites resisted. This was one. Second, it was the women who refused to allow Pharaoh to deprive them and the Israelite men of both sexual pleasure and children. As Rabbi Avira said, it was by the merit of these righteous women who seduced their husbands that Israel was redeemed.
When we eat the haroset we are then called to remember the following: Oppressed and even enslaved people are not passive. They are active agents in their own liberation and we should follow their lead. Resistance can be joyous and we should exult in moments of pleasure. Finally, women have always been central to movements of resistance and liberation.
Haroset may just be the symbolic antidote we need in this moment when the possibility of multiracial democracy seems so far off, and horrible things are happening daily in our prisons, on our borders in our streets.
Let us be joyful warriors for everyone’s liberation.
For one take on Maimonides’ haroset recipe, see here.