Why is there charoset on the Seder plate?
The charoset reminds us of the hay and mud mortar that the Israelite slaves were forced to use to hold together the stones and bricks of Pharaoh’s storehouses as they slaved to build them. The hardship of slavery is also represented on the Seder plate by the Salt-Water representing the tears and sweat of slavery and the Maror made of harsh bitter hay-like strips of shredded horseradish.
But charoset is sweet, if it is to represent the mortar of slavery, how can it also be sweet?
Because in God’s great love for his people, he delivered us from slavery to the sweetness of liberation, bringing us to a land flowing with milk and honey.
Shir haShirim cHaroset: The Song of Songs as a Sacred Recipe telling the bitter story of Slavery, and of the sweet taste of God’s loving Liberation and Salvation
Long tradition holds that on the Sabbath of the week of Passover, we chant the Song of Songs, that beautiful sacred text which tells us of God’s love for his people in the allegory of the love a husband and wife have for each other on their wedding night. Why is this time of year set aside for this extraordinary love poem? Because it celebrates the springtime rebirth of life, when the flowers rise up against winter — just as Passover is a celebration of rebirthing freedom, rising up against Pharaoh. The sweetness of Charoset is an embodiment of the sacred text, Charoset is literally a full-bodied taste of the Song. The text of the Song of Songs subtly, almost secretly, bears the recipe for charoset.
Verses from the Song:
“Feed me with apples and with raisin-cakes;
“Your kisses are sweeter than wine;
“The scent of your breath is like apricots;
“Your cheeks are a bed of spices;
“The fig tree has ripened;
“Then I went down to the walnut grove.”
2:3 Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men.
2:5 Feed me with dainties, refresh me with apples
2:13 The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
4:13 Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
2:15 … our vineyards (grape vines) are in blossom.
6:11 I went down into the walnut grove…
7:7 This thy stature is like to a palm-tree…
1:2 For thy love is better than wine.
4: 13, 14 henna with spikenard plants, Spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spice
See, this is a recipe, but within the free fruitfulness of the Song, and like many ancient recipes, this recipe is free-form with no measures, no teaspoons, no amounts.
shredded red, green, and yellow apples
Spikenard Root (If you cannot get it, lavender can be substituted)
Henna seeds (If you cannot get it, Sesame seeds)
I also include a small amount of:
Since charoset should represent both the salt water tears of slavery and bitter harshness of the hay-mortar, as well as the sweetness of liberation.
As with many ancient recipes, you are going to have to go by taste, texture, and feel; what looks and feels right. Remember that it is supposed to look like the straw hay mixed brown mud mortar of slavery, and taste sweet and fragrant like liberation and salvation.
For the shredding, I recommend using a cow-bell style grater, as the physical labour is an important part of the making of Charoset, as the sweat and toil represents the slaving and the making of the mud mortar in Egypt. We must remember that this is a symbolic meal, it is moreso supposed to represent something, to remind us, and to feed our collective memories, rather than to feed our bellies. But if for physical health reasons you cannot do the grating by hand, you may use a motarized food processor (not to be confused with a blender, they are not the same), but I must stress, don’t be lazy, living out the symbolism is important; you cannot make this loving thing without much work and great effort.
Freely choose when to add apples, apricots, figs, dates, etc. Keep stirring, keep chopping, keep dribbling wine and honey — taste every ten minutes or so to feel it developing like love into a crescendo, with savoury nubs of nuts, suddenly the sweetness of a raisin and a spurting of apricot on your tongue – If you start feeling giddy, good, that’s the wine, and as the Song says, “Your love is sweeter than wine!”
Add in the spices, and remember that a little goes a long way, just sprinkle. Cloves and nutmeg are powerful, sweet and subtly sharp at the same time. Spikenard, frankincense, and myrrh are perfumes, so use very, very small amounts, 2 or 3 small drops at most, even for large batches. Like the wine, spices and perfumes are slightly intoxicating and you will begin to feel dopey like the euphoria of love.
You may still wonder, “This doesn’t seem like a recipe, it is too free? ” But as the Song itself says again and again, “Do not stir up love until it pleases. Do not rouse the lovers till they’re willing.”
Serve at the Pesach Seder, and also in secret on your wedding night. And on every wedding anniversary. And every once in a while, but not too often, on a night when you want to celebrate and embody your love.