Bitter herbs are the last of the three items (Pesach, Matzah, and Marror), without mention of which. the Haggadah tells us, no Seder service is complete. However those of us used to eating crisp and juicy Romaine lettuce might be a little surprised to see the somewhat less luscious relative of this modern cultivar that our ancestors actually ate at their Seder. In fact you may have it growing in your own garden and think of it as a weed!
The Mishna in Pesachim 39a lists five types of greens that can be used for the mitzvah of Marror (Bitter Herbs) at the Seder:
“There are five vegetables that can be used for the mitvah of Marror: Hazeret, Tamcha, Harhavina, ‘Oleshin and Marror.”
I should explain that “Marror” is used both as a general term for all five kinds of “Bitter Herb”, as well as being one of the five.
A casual stroll around Gan Sacher in Jerusalem last week, with a botanically informed friend, produced all five types! Well okay a couple of them may be a matter of dispute among Talmudic commentators, but we certainly saw candidates for all five, and here they are:
Of course my friends who eat horseradish (“chrain”) – delicious as I agree it is as a condiment mixed with beetroot and eaten with Gefilte Fish – are following a custom hailing from parts of Europe where leafy greens were presumably unavailable, as horseradish is not – in fact – real Marror according to any interpretation of the Talmud.
Of the five kinds of Marror identified here, all except Harhavina are Asters. Harḥabina (Eryngium) is in the carrot family (Umbelliferae). Horseradish is related to neither, being in the “cabbage/mustard” family (Cruciferae).
Disclaimer: I’m not guaranteeing we have all the identifications right. I’m still looking into this and will be sticking to Romaine Lettuce and Belgian Endive at my own Seder for now – but I may well put some of these on the table as a conversation piece, and next year who knows?
Interestingly, if left to grow Romaine lettuce can become quite tall, like its ancestor, it’s just that it tends to be harvested young as the leaves are sweeter then.
The fact of the lettuce leaves getting bitter as the plant ages is mentioned in the Talmud as a reason why lettuce is preferred over the other species. It resembles more closely the actual exile in Egypt, that began “sweetly” (with Jacob coming to Egypt to be reunited with his long lost son Joseph) and only later became bitter.
I’m fascinated by the idea that the rabbis were talking about plants that just grow wild, by the roadside and in our gardens, rather than the luscious, cultivated (and costly) salad greens we have come to consider indispensable today.
Its a sobering thought that if you haven’t been weeding your garden properly you may well have several – if not all – of these growing on your lawn or between the cultivated flowers in the flower beds! Who would have thought?
I gratefully acknowledge William Yehudha De Oliveira’s introduction to and guidance on this fascinating subject.