The Mystery of Charoset
Click here to read a longer version of this article on TOI, with more sources (and midrash about mud):
for more Pesach Torah
"The Mystery of Charoset: A lesson about leaving trauma".
The Haggadah is about telling a story, and it's about the order in which we tell the story. The story is about how things can transform, but it becomes a seder because the order in which we recall each set of symbols represents a transformation from slavery to freedom, or as the Talmud says, "from g'nut/degradation to shevach/praise". The template for this order is the four stages in the process of liberation: slavery, leaving Egypt, entering the land, and anticipating Mashiach.
Many important foods, symbols and verses appear in the Haggadah four times with different meanings, and their meanings are ordered in this way – hence the ritual is a seder, an "ordering". (Learn more on this page, where you can also download "The Haggadah of the Inner Seder" and listen to the Beit Midrash Ruach v'Lev session on this theme.) For example, matsah is used to remember four different experiences (lechem oni—sorrow/poverty, matsah zo al shum ma—leaving in haste, korekh—sacrificing in the Temple, and the afikoman, which points toward the future redemption), there are four children ordered from lowest to highest (that's right – wicked above wise), and we explain the verse, "Because of this God acted for me by bringing me out of Egypt" four times (see if you can find all four – the transformation is stunning).
The different meanings are always ordered from the least to the most liberated. The four cups of wine—the symbolic four that everyone knows—allude to this deep structure.
However, there's one important symbol that we don't explain or mention even once: the charoset.
The essence of charoset according to the Talmud is not that it should be sweet, but that it should be tart like apples, and thick like mud. (Pesachim 116a) But the Talmud does not explain what that means or why we have charoset on the seder plate. Not only that, it can't even decide if it's a mitsvah to have charoset at all, though it does recount the story of the spice-sellers in Jerusalem yelling out from their shop windows, "Spices for the mitzvah!" So even on the most basic level, the status of charoset is up for grabs.
Rashi (but not the Talmud) interprets these qualities in terms of the Pesach story: the tartness is a reminder of the tart apple trees in Egypt under which the Israelites made love and gave birth; the thickness is a reminder of the mud and straw the slaves used to make the bricks.
But the Haggadah doesn't put those meanings in an order (e.g. from mixing straw to making love to giving birth) because, like the Talmud itself, it doesn't explain any meaning for charoset at all. Why then is charoset not explained in the Haggadah? We can make a guess by studying the Talmud's definition of charoset.
The word for tartness in the Talmud comes from the same root (QHH קהה) as the words said about the wicked child: "set his teeth on edge/heq'heh et shinav". The midrash uses these same words to describe what happened when Adam and Chavah ate from the tree of knowledge: their teeth were "set on edge". (Avot d’Rabi Natan B, ch.1; Bahir, sec.200)
What happened when Adam and Chavah ate from that tree? One interpretation is that they could no longer experience good separate from evil. The effect of the fruit was that in all subsequent human experience, good and evil came mixed together.
Charoset might be the stuff of what happens when we can't separate out what is good, when our symbols get stuck to each other, when slavery and freedom are mishmashed together. That is the thickness the Talmud talks about, which turns our past experiences into walls that limit and define us.
As in the wicked child's picture of the world, charoset represents our experience when there's no separation between worship or service and enslavement—both are called Avodah עבודה, after all. Like the tree of knowledge, literally the tree of knowing good and evil, that is, knowing good mixed together with evil, charoset represents our normal lived experience.
We come to the seder in order to transform that confusing experience through ritual, so that we can move from slavery to freedom, rather than remaining stuck in between them. But even in that process, there are things we are not ready to transform, things we cannot yet transform. That's the charoset – a symbol of whatever is too "thick" to be given a meaning or interpretation.
When we leave Egypt, we bring our confusion along with us, along with the joy of freedom, along with the bitterness of slavery – that's the Hillel sandwich, combining the sweet/tart/thick charoset with matsah and maror. So one lesson of the Haggadah could be: don't separate your normal muddled state from the holy and mystical and transformative. Even if you're stuck in the mud, hold onto the sweet, and leave Egypt.
This suggests a new interpretation of the verse in the Torah that describes the Israelites, b'ney Yisrael, leaving Egypt misha'arotam tz'rurot b'simlotam 'al shikhmam. (Exodus 12:34) This is the verse Sefardim say when we hold the afikoman over our shoulders at the beginning of the seder. Literally, it means that Israel left Egypt with "their remaining stuff tied up in their cloaks on their shoulders"—imagine a hobo with a makeshift cloth bag on a stick. But these words can also mean that when we leave slavery, we take some slavery along with us—we take our legacies of angst and pain and trouble (tsarot, i.e., Mitsrayim stuff), which are leftover (nish'arot), still waiting to be liberated and unpacked, hidden from view, dragging along behind us or weighing us down.
The teaching of the charoset, then, is this: even with all your "stuff", even with the unprocessed remnants of slavery, with still unfulfilled hopes for freedom, and with everything in between, EVEN STILL, LEAVE, GO OUT, OUT TO FREEDOM!
May we have the strength of our ancestors to do this!
a blessed Pesach to you, kasher u m'shachrer,
Reb Duvid Mevorach Seidenberg