On the eve of the first day of Passover each spring Jews around the world partake in a feast known as the Seder. The celebration is an opportunity for families to gather around the table and enjoy a meal while honoring Jewish prayers, history, and traditions. While each of the eight main foods served at the feast hold great symbolic significance, the preparation and use of charoset has evolved as the Jewish diaspora spread across the globe. Thus charoset is not simply a ritual food, but a window into the unique international flavors of the families and individuals who prepare it. Here, now, is a crash course in charoset.
What is charoset?
Charoset (pronounced har-o-set) comes from the Hebrew word cheres that means "clay," though it goes by many different names around the world. It is a sweet relish made with fruits, nuts, spices, as well as wine and a binder such as honey.
Scholars believe charoset was adopted by Jewish communities during the first century. “The institution of charoset, as with much of the Seder not mandated by the Bible, derived from classical Greco-Roman practices two thousand years ago,” author Gil Marks writes in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. During that period it was common for Roman elites to eat greens with accompanying condiments. He continues, “The emergence of charoset was also probably influenced by the fruit relishes served at the Roman symposium, although the ingredients of the original charoset are based upon Middle Eastern produce.” It’s believed that rabbis later assigned symbolic meaning to charoset to tie it into the Passover ritual.
When is charoset consumed?
Though some authorities suggest eating charoset for breakfast or as a snack, it's primarily eaten during the Jewish spring holiday of Passover. Passover occurs during the Jewish calendar month Nisan (roughly coinciding with the secular months of March or April). The celebration commemorates the freeing of the Jews from slavery under the Egyptian pharaoh as told in the Book of Exodus. Depending on where and by whom it's practiced, Passover lasts between seven and eight days and begins with one or two nights of ritual feasts known as Seders. During the Seder, families gather together to retell the story of the Israelites escape from Egypt, while saying blessings and feasting on symbolic foods.
What ritual foods are eaten during Passover?
The Passover feast utilizes several ritual foods steeped in symbolic meaning. During feast days unleavened bread known as matzoh is consumed. Each person is also provided with four cups of kosher wine. Salt water or vinegar is generally included in the table setup. Central to the ritual is a Seder plate that's filled with specially prepared foods. Seder plates include the following: A roasted lamb shank bone known as a zeroa; a hard boiled egg or baytzah; leafy greens known as karpas (usually celery, parsley, or lettuce); bitter herbs such as horseradish or romaine lettuce called maror; another bitter herb called chazeret; and charoset.
What does charoset symbolize?
While on the surface charoset may look similar to fruit and nut salad or a pliable sweet truffle, during the Passover meal charoset and the five other ritual foods take on symbolic properties. According to The Biblical and Historical Background of Jewish Customs and Ceremonies, the sticky, granular mixture of fruit and nuts is meant to recall the mortar that the Jews used to build the Egyptian pharaohs' buildings (not the pyramids). Cinnamon and other spices represent straw used in brick making.
Other rabbis contend that charoset is a reference to tupu'ach, a fruiting plant mentioned in the Song of Songs and the Talmud that's often interpreted as an apple tree. In one story, Jewish women in Egypt evaded prohibitions enforced by the pharaohs against giving birth to males by delivering their babies in apple orchards. Some have also suggested that charoset served a more practical purpose. In Authenticity in the Kitchen, Susan Weingarten writes that a Babylonian Talmud references kappa, a type of poisonous worm or juice found in bitter herbs. In this context, charoset is presented as a home remedy to protect against kappa.
What are the different varieties of charoset?
According to Weingarten the earliest available references to charoset focus on the symbolism of the condiment rather than its specific recipe. This has lead to a debate among rabbis about correct preparations and numerous iterations of the dish appear on Seder plates today. Some families believe in using ingredients mentioned in the Song of Songs, including apples, wine, figs, and spices.
Traditions vary by region and ethnic community. Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors established communities in Central and Eastern Europe, typically use an apple-based recipe because the ingredients are found readily in that region. This is also the most commonly used recipe in the United States. Sephardic Jews — from Spain, Italy, North Africa, and the Middle East — tend towards a date-based recipe with inclusions like cardamom and honey. In the Balkans, communities generally use raisins, while in Persian communities pomegranates are the dominant fruit. Moroccan Passover often features rolled charoset truffles. Some Persian Jews used the term halegh rather than charoset and employ 40 ingredients to represent the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert following their exodus from Egypt.
In one very literal example of the brick symbolism, a Spanish and Hebrew text from 1813 suggests making charoset with "almonds, figs, apples, nuts, and the like, and well-pounded spices, mixed with the dust of potsherds ground very fine." The individual who used the recipe tells Weingarten his family boiled the sherds to soften them before grinding and consuming the clay in charoset.
Ben & Jerry's Israeli branch has given condiment a modern spin, releasing a special Passover charoset ice cream that combines flavors found in traditional Ashkenazi and Sephardic recipes.
How is charoset used during the Passover Seder?
Charoset is considered an essential part of Passover and there are specific ritual methods for consuming it. While modern procedures often start with the dipping of karpas into salt water, Marks cites some early rabbinical sources that require the karpas be dipped in charoset. Ancient Sephardic Jewish philosopher Maimonides called for all foods at Seder be eaten with the relish — a technique some Yemeni Jews still practice during Passover today.
In most Jewish communities charoset is reserved as an accompaniment for the bitter herbs — maror and chazeret. In the case of the maror a small dollop of charoset is consumed with the herbs. During the chazeret step of the ritual charoset is eaten in the form of a korech or Hillel's sandwich. The korech is made with two pieces of matzo bread surrounding the chazeret herbs and charoset.