Charoset is the sweet thick dip made of fruits and nuts that is a tasty component of the Pesach Seder. Although some have argued that eating charoset is actually a mitzvah1 for which a special blessing is to be recited,2 the halacha is not in accordance with this view. The Talmud does require, however, that charoset be placed on the Seder table, and so it has the status of a rabbinical mitzvah.3
There are a number of reasons why charoset is a part of the Seder.4 One is medicinal – to neutralize any harmful effects of kappa.5 Kappa is a small wormy insect often found on the surface of vegetables. Although one is allowed to consume kappa despite kashrut-related concerns, it can be poisonous.6 Therefore, the maror (a vegetable that might contain kappa) is dipped into charoset before it is eaten in order to neutralize the possible poisonous effects of kappa. It is even believed that charoset has the power to neutralize the effects of kappa merely by being on the table with the maror, without the need to actually dip the maror into it.7 There is also a view that the purpose of the charoset is to prevent bloating and flatulence that might be caused by eating the maror.8
The other purpose of charoset is symbolic. The traditional ingredients of the charoset mixture – nuts, figs, and apples – are used in Scripture to describe the Jewish people.9 So too, its thick texture and cloudy color serve to recall the mortar that the Jewish slaves used for making bricks in Egypt.10 In fact, the word charoset is a derivative of cheres, meaning “clay.” The red wine content of the charoset serves to recall the first of the ten plagues – the plague of blood.11 Additionally, the apple content of the charoset is to remind us of the apple orchards where the women would go to meet their husbands with food and drink.12 The husbands, exhausted after a day of slave labor, had no interest in or strength for intimacy. Therefore, the women would beautify themselves and bring their husbands refreshments in order to maintain marital life and allow the Jewish people to continue. When the women were ready to give birth they would do so in these same orchards in order to avoid the spying eyes of Pharaoh’s officers.13
It goes without saying that there are no kappa-related health concerns in our day;14 the role of charoset is strictly symbolic.15 In fact, not only is there no requirement to eat charoset as part of the Seder, but when one dips the maror into the charoset one must be sure to shake off any charoset remaining on the maror before eating it.16 Some people have the custom to dip the entire piece of maror into the charoset,17 while others simply dip a portion of it.18 There is an opinion that the matzah must also be dipped into charoset before it is eaten, though common custom does not follow this view.19
- Pesachim 114a, 116a.
- Rambam, Pirush Hamishna to Pesachim 10:3.
- Rambam, Hilchot Chametz U’matza 7:11.
- Pesachim 114a.
- Ibid., 116a.
- Tosafot, Pesachim 115b.
- Pesachim 115a.
- Abudraham, Seder Hagada. See there for an alternative interpretation of kappa. With thanks to Dr. Eli Dipoce, who provided me with the source.
- Shir Hashirim 2:3, 13, 6:11; Sefer Kushiot 167.
- Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:3.
- Tosafot, Pesachim 116a.
- It is interesting to note that the “tapuach” of the Talmud and rabbinic literature is likely not an apple, but rather a citrus fruit, such as an etrog or the like. See Tosafot, Shabbat 88a, s.v. “Piryo”; Tosafot, Ta’anit 29b, s.v. “Shel.” Nevertheless, there are those who insist that “tapuach” indeed refers to the common apple. Zohar, Mishpatim, Acharei Mot.
- Rashi, Pesachim 116a; Sota 11b. See Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 472:24, for additional reasons.
- Shulchan Aruch Harav, OC 473:11.
- Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 472:24.
- OC 475:1.
- Mishna Berura 475:13.
- Rambam, Hilchot Chametz U’matza 8:8. See the Raavad.