The varieties of vegetables suitable for bitter herbs are listed in the Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) and include: chazeres, ulshin, tamcha, charchavina, and maror. This sequence is understood to be the order of preference (Orach Chaim 473:5). The problem is that different halachic authorities have differing botanical definitions for these five species. The least problematic is chazeres, which most consider to be chasah, or lettuce, with Romaine lettuce (Lactuca sativa L. var. longifolia) being the variety used most often. This plant grows as a long bunch of sturdy leaves, with each leaf having a firm thick rib running down its center. These ribs, when on the outer, older leaves, contain a milky fluid giving Romaine lettuce its bitter herb taste (Wikipedia, 2009). However, when harvested early in its growing season, Romaine lettuce sweet; this is usually the lettuce used at the seder.
What is the connection between lettuce and maror, bitterness? As explained in the Talmud (Pesachim, 39a), chazeres is chasah (lettuce), which is similar to the term chas, pity. Rava explained, phonetically chasah (chazeres) and chas are similar, indicating that HaShem took pity upon us and saved us from the Egyptians. Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani in the name of Rav Yonasan further explained the connection between bitterness and Egypt: “The Egyptians embittered the lives” of the Jews (Shemos 1:14). Just as lettuce is soft and sweet in the beginning, but is hard and bitter when old, similarly, the Egyptian exile began with softness (i.e., the Jews were paid to build the pyramids) but subsequently ended in bitterness (i.e., they were enslaved).
Nutritionally, Romaine lettuce is a most healthy vegetable. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) included Romaine lettuce in the list of dark green leafy vegetables that help fight cancer. The carotenoid pigments in Romaine lettuce act as antioxidants to scavenge free radicals, which possibly could damage DNA thereby transforming a normal cell into a malignant cell. In addition, Romaine lettuce is an excellent source of folate, vitamins K, A, and C, and dietary fiber. The high dietary fiber content of Romaine lettuce may explain the Talmud’s (Avodah Zarah 11a) statement that lettuce facilitates digestion by aiding the turning over of the ingested food. Possibly, this meant that the dietary fiber in lettuce provides the needed insoluble roughage to promote peristaltic contractions of the muscles of the small intestines to move the materials along the digestive tract.
Ulshin, the second vegetable listed as maror, is thought to be the common chicory (Cichorium intybus) or the endive (Cichorium endivia), which, as noted by their genus name, are very similar. To make it a bit more confusing, endive is also a name for some types of chicory, e.g., the common chicory includes the Belgian endive. Escarole is a broad-leaved endive (i.e., classified as C. endivia L. latifolia). Rav Shimon Eider (1998) noted that ulshin refers specifically to endive or escarole. The various species within the genus Cichorium are similar in that they are bitter-leafed vegetables. As with Romaine lettuce, the AICR included endive in the list of cancer fighters and it is an excellent source of dietary fiber, folate and vitamins K and A (Wikipedia, 2009).
As reviewed by Zivotofsky (2006), tamcha, the third species mentioned in the Mishnah, is problematic. In some rabbinic literature, tamcha, is often translated as horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), a perennial herb cultivated for its large, tapered, white root.. However, as Zivotofsky noted, “it is fairly certain that this translation is inaccurate.” (also see: Feliks, 1995). Several reasons are cited: (a) it is unlikely that horseradish existed in the Middle East in the Talmudic period; (b) grated horseradish has a sharp, not a bitter, taste; (c) the Mishnah (Pesachim 39a) states that one fulfills the obligation to eat maror with the leaves or the stem of the plant. Bitter vegetables classified as maror share two characteristics, they are pale green in color and a milky white sap exudes upon cutting their stems and leaves. For horseradish, however, it is the root that is used as maror. Regarding maror, the Shulcan Aruch (Orach Chaim 463,5), stated “not the root.”
If it correct that tamcha is not horseradish, then how did horseradish slip into the seder as maror? Horseradish for maror was a by-product of Jewish wanderings in the Diaspora. Throughout Southern and Western Europe and in the Middle East countries, lettuce and endive/escarole were used for maror. As Jews moved to the colder climates of Northern and Eastern Europe, maror became problematic, as lettuce, endive, and escarole were unavailable during the winter months. During the 14th century in the cold countries of the Diaspora, out of necessity, the term tamcha was attached to horseradish (Feliks, 1995). However, in the winter, lettuce was available in Israel. As cited in Meorot HaDaf Ha Yomi (vol. 353; 2006): “European poskim cite testimony they heard from fundraisers who came from Eretz Yisrael that lettuce was available there for Pesach and was in fact used for maror. However, since lettuce only begins to grow in Europe during that season, it was not available for use as maror”(Chok Yaakov, Chaya Adam 130:3). In summary, Jews living in frigid Poland and Russia were without suitable vegetables for maror, apparently needed an unpleasant tasting substitute, and horseradish roots, which grew beneath the frozen soil and which were available in the winter, were the selected alternative.
There is another side to the story. The above-cited Meorot HaDaf Ha Yomi also stated that, “Horseradish is in fact the tamcha listed in our Mishnah. We see this in the rishonim who identify tamcha as chrain, which we know in Yiddish to be horseradish (Hagahos Maimones, Chametz U’Matza 7:13,5).” Rav Eider (1995) also identified tamcha as horseradish. Customs vary, some use lettuce for maror and horseradish for korach. Zivotofsky (2006) noted, “it is reported that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik would eat horseradish and the lettuce to fulfill the mitzvah of maror.
The pungent, sharp taste of horseradish is associated with its glucosinolates, sinigrin and gluconasturtin. For use in the seder, the root is cut and grated; enzymes from the damaged root plant cells breakdown the sinigrin to allyl isothiocyanate (mustard oil), the volatile that irritates the eyes and sinuses. Once grated, the root darkens and loses its pungency and becomes unpleasantly bitter when exposed to air (Wikipedia, 2009).
Although an irritant, allyl isothiocyanate has antimicrobial properties (Lin et al., 2000). Health benefits associated with horseradish root include it acting as an antioxidant and scavenger of free radicals and as an inhibitor of mutagenesis (Kinae et al., 2000). Horseradish peroxidase, an enzyme found in the root, is used extensively in molecular biology for antibody detection and in immunohistochemistry (Wikipedia, 2009).
Although not for use as maror, chrain is a sweetened horseradish-vinegar sauce, frequently used with gefilte fish. Vinegar neutralizes the sharpness of horseradish. Red chrain is horseradish mixed with red beets, whereas white chrain contains no beets. The largest manufacturer of prepared horseradish in the United States is Gold’s Horseradish in New York, selling about 2,500,000 jars/year (Wikipedia 2009).
For the last two species. charchavina, and maror, most poskim hold that their definitions are no longer known to us through tradition (Eider, 1995). Feliks (1985), however, defined charchavina as Eryngium creticum and maror as Sonchus oleraceus.
The korbon pesach must be eaten with both maror and matzah. In Peschim (39a), similarities between matzah and maror are enumerated: (a) just as matzah is produced from a herb and not from a tree, so to maror; (b) just as maror includes several species of vegetation, similarly matzah may be made from several types of grain. The types of grains suitable for matzah are wheat, rye, oats, barley and spelt, provided that have not been allowed to ferment (Pesachim, 35b; Blech, 2004); (c) both matzah and maror may be bought with maser sheni money; and (d) both matzah and maror must be grown from a substance that grows from soil. Although this seems obvious, if the emphasis was only to consume something that is bitter, then perhaps anything that is bitter may be appropriate, such as the gall of the kufya fish, however, this is not so.
Matzah is described as the “bread of affliction (oni),” “You shall not eat leavened bread with it (i.e., the korbon pesach), for seven days you shall eat matzos because of it, a bread of affliction, for you departed from the land of Egypt in haste - so that you shall remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life” (Devarim 16:3). The word “oni” is phonetically similar to the word “onin” (i.e., speaks or declares) and also to the word “ani” (i.e., poor). As noted in Pesachim (115b), matzah is also the bread upon which much is said or declared, meaning during the seder, with the matzos on the table, we read the haggadah and discuss our leaving Egypt, with the many accompanying miracles. Additionally, matzah is the bread of poor people, meaning that just as the poor do not entire an entire loaf of bread at one sitting, similarly, at the seder, we break the middle matzah and eat it during two different sections of the seder. On the above-mentioned pasuk in Devarim (16:3), Rashi explained that this matzah brings to mind the afflictions by which we were afflicted in Egypt. The affliction was the unleavened bread (matzah), which the commentaries on Rashi further explained that this was a poor person’s bread and was not enriched with wine, fruit juices, oil, honey, etc. The Malbim further explained that this matzah was hard to digest. Furthermore, the Talmud (Pesachim 115b) provides a second explanation of matzah as being the bread of the poor. The poor usually are hungry and have a limited supply of firewood to keep their oven hot. So, as the husband lights the wood to heat the oven, the wife quickly adds water to the flour, kneads and rolls the dough, and places it into the oven. The famished couple then rapidly consumed the quickly baked matzah.
As an aside, a noted American dentist now living in Israel, Dr. David Kallus (’96, YC), mentioned that during Pesach, he sees patients with the ailment, matzah gingivitis, i.e., inflammation of the gums due to pieces of matzah lodged within the gums. Apparently, this adds another dimension to matzah as the bread of affliction.
Matzah, described as unleavened bread, is in contrast to our leavened, or fermented, bread, termed chometz. In the bread making process, dry yeasts (baker’s yeast = Saccharomyces cerevisiae) are mixed with flour and water and kneaded into dough, which is placed in a warm environment to activate the yeasts. When activated, the yeasts secrete the enzyme, zymase, and begin the metabolism of the sugars within the dough. As the dough is thick and viscous, atmospheric oxygen cannot permeate into the dough and the inside of the dough itself lacks sufficient oxygen, i.e., the internal conditions are anaerobic. The yeasts, therefore, undergo an anaerobic respiration, termed fermentation, and catalyze the sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide, a gas, is trapped within the viscous dough, causing it to rise. [When you slice bread, the wholes within the loaf are the regions that contained the trapped carbon dioxide gas]. When baked in the oven, the heat causes the alcohol to dissipate, thereby contributing to the bread aroma.
Obviously, yeasts are not added to the dough used to make matzah. However, yeasts are ubiquitous in nature. Undoubtedly, yeasts were on the harvested grains and perhaps airborne yeast deposited onto the dough. Once water is added to the flour, the enzyme, amylase, naturally found in flour is activated and it degrades the starch in the flour to sugar, which, if yeasts are present, will start, albeit slowly, the fermentation process (Blech, 2004). Thus, when baking matzos time is precious, from the addition of water to the flour, the kneading and rolling of the dough, to the quick baking of the matzoh, every second is monitored. This hurriedness in matzah making is reminiscent of our going out from Egypt in haste. “They baked the dough that they took out of Egypt into unleavened cake, for they could not be leavened, for they were driven from Egypt, for they could not delay, nor had they made provisions for themselves” (Shemos 12:39).
The leavening of chometz has been compared to the devious workings of the yeizer hara, which causes a person’s ego to swell. Rav Alexandra, on concluding his prayer, was accustomed to add the following: “Sovereign of the Universe, it is known full well to You that our will is to perform Your will. And what prevents us? The yeast in the dough and the subjugation to the foreign powers. May it be Your will to deliver us from their hand, so that we may return to perform the statutes of Your will with a perfect heart (Berachos 17a). Rashi comments, “The yeast in the dough is the yeitzer hara in our hearts, causing a ferment in us.
Interesting, the biology of S. cerevisiae is similar to the cunningness of the yeitzer hara. For years, S. cerevisiae was thought to exist only as a yeast, a unicellular fungus. However, recent studies showed that under conditions of nitrogen starvation, this unicellular microbe can change its morphology to that of a multicellular filamentous fungus, or mold (Gimeno et al., 1992). This microbial change in shape to accommodate differing environmental conditions, is similar to the yeitzer hara, changing its form to fit the various desires and ambitions of a person. (For a more complete analysis of the yeitzer hara and yeast, see Schapiro, 1997).
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