Bitter herbs play an important role in the Jewish Passover celebration. They serve as a reminder of the bitter suffering of the Israelites while enslaved by the Egyptians.
Passover is the Jewish tradition celebrating the liberty of Jewish slaves from the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses. According to the book of Exodus in the Old Testament, because Ramesses denied Moses and his people their request for freedom, the Egyptians were condemned to suffer ten plagues.
The final plague was to be the most devastating and severe, killing every firstborn in the land of Egypt. To escape the plague, the Israelites marked their doors with the blood of a sacrificial lamb. As a result, the Lord "passed over" their homes. Pharaoh Ramesses was not so fortunate. After losing his firstborn son in the final plague, he finally granted the Israelite's their freedom.
Bitter Herbs as Reminders
Today, the escape of the final plague, as well as the Israelite's freedom, is celebrated during Passover, an eight-day festival highlighted by the Seder feast. Bitter herbs, known in Hebrew as "Maror" have a prominent role in the traditional Passover Seder meal.
Technically, any herb with a bitter flavor could be used during Seder but, according to Rabbi Micah Becker-Klein of Temple Beth El in Delaware, "Horseradish is the most common herb used for Maror. Romaine lettuce is next, but much less common." Endive is also sometimes used.
Although romaine lettuce may not taste bitter at first bite, it quickly becomes bitter when chewed, especially the stem. Rabbi Becker-Klein compares this sweet-to-bitter experience to that of the Israelites - "at first pleasant, but over time became hard and bitter."
How to Eat
According to Rabbi Becker-Klein, bitter herbs are usually eaten two different ways during the Seder meal. First, the herbs are eaten alone or with a piece of matza or dipped in haroset. Haroset is a spread made of sweet fruits and nuts with a thick consistency that represents the mortar used by enslaved Israelites when building Egyptian structures.
Bitter herbs are next eaten in the traditional Hillel sandwich (known as "Korech" in Hebrew). The Hillel sandwich is credited to a pre-rabbinic scholar named Hillel the Elder who believed the matza and bitter herbs should be eaten together. The sandwich is usually made of matza, maror and haroset. Since some Jewish scholars believed the bitter herbs should be eaten alone, Jewish tradition has elected to eat the herbs both ways during the Seder feast.
Amount to Eat
As for how much maror is consumed, Rabbit Becker-Klein states, "One is asked to minimally eat an olive's worth to fulfill the obligation. The ritual helps us engage in the deeper conversation of mindful living in community."
An Enduring Symbol
Bitter herbs play a significant role in the experience of Passover, one of the most important celebrations in Jewish tradition. They are an enduring symbol of the suffering of the Jewish people.
States Rabbi Becker-Klein, "Using a bitter herb as part of the Passover table Seder ritual helps embody some aspect of the physical experiences and triggers our memories. Of course, no one would compare eating spicy or hot food with slavery, yet it helps create the conversation and the experience of discussing hard or difficult life situations. The ritual helps us engage in the deeper conversation of mindful living in community."