Thursday, April 2, 2015

The History and Symbolism of Haroset... With Recipes!

We're taking a break from henna-related posts to compile some resources about haroset, a traditional Passover food. We'll be back to henna after the holiday!

The Passover seder includes a series of symbolic foods placed on a seder plate, most of which are explained over the course of the meal: the matzah, the parsley, the bitter herbs, the shankbone... But one element is left unexplained: the haroset, a paste-like mixture of fruit, nuts, and spices, differing wildly in recipe from community to community. Although it is eaten with matza and maror during korekh, just before the meal, there is no discussion of its significance or acknowledgement of its symbolism.

Haroset is not mentioned in the Biblical descriptions of Passover, which stipulate only the eating of a sacrificial lamb (qorban pesah) with unleavened bread (matza) and bitter herbs (maror). The word haroset first appears in the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:3) and seems to be related to the Hebrew heres or harsit, meaning clay. The sages explain that haroset is part of the seder (along with matza, greens, and two cooked dishes) but not obligatory; Rabbi El'azar ben Tsadoq disagrees and maintains that haroset is, in fact, part of the mitzva of Pesah.

Expanding on the Mishnah, the Talmud (BT Pesahim 115b-116a) explains that haroset was used for dipping the greens into, and that before Passover the spice merchants of Jerusalem used to call out, “Come, buy the spices for the mitzva [of haroset]” (implying that it was part of the commandment). The Jerusalem Talmud (JT Pesahim 10:3) notes that it is also called dukkeh because it is pounded [dakha] into a paste. The Babylonian Talmud adds that the haroset was thought to counteract something in the maror called kappa — a bad enzyme? kind of worm? — but leaving the maror in too long, one rabbi warned, would allow the sweetness of the haroset to neutralize the essential bitterness of the maror.

Maror, apparently a giant artichoke, in the Sarajevo Haggada
(Barcelona, ca. 1350).

But what does the haroset represent? The haroset is often explained as symbolizing the clay that the Israelites used to make bricks during their labour in Egypt. So then why is it so good? Haroset is one of the most popular foods at the seder, and it is usually consumed in much larger quantities than the bitter herbs or even the parsley. If it symbolizes the hard work of slavery, then fruit and spices are not the immediate logical choices.

The Talmud, in fact, offers differing explanations: R. Yohanan says, zekher latit, “in memory of the clay” — that is, the mud and straw with which the Israelite slaves made bricks. R. Levi says, zekher latapuah, “in memory of the apple trees” — that is, the apple trees under which, according to the midrash, the Israelite women seduced their husbands. Abaye merges the two explanations, saying that one should therefore make it thick in memory of the clay and add grated spices in memory of the straw, and make it sharp in memory of the apples (recall that in Talmudic times apples were sour, like crabapples, not the sweet apples of today).

The midrash alluded to by R. Levi draws on the verse from Song of Songs, “under the apple tree I aroused you” (8:5) as referring to the Israelite women in Egypt, who brought their husbands to the orchards and convinced them that they should continue having children in defiance of the pharaoh’s decree of death. Through this brave act, the midrash concludes, the Israelites merited their salvation. The sweet haroset, often made with ingredients pulled from the verdant pages of Song of Songs — apples, figs, cinnamon, spikenard, walnuts, wine — reminds us of the joy and sweetness of life, present even in the most bitter of circumstances.



"Joseph Sold into Egypt," Gustave Doré, 1866
The Jerusalem Talmud adds one more explanation: zekher ladam, in memory of the blood — presumably the blood of the paschal sacrifice, painted on the doorposts of Israelite homes the night before the Exodus. There is another moment of blood, though, that the haroset calls to mind — the blood painted on Joseph’s torn robe, the blood that set in motion the whole narrative arc of descent into Egypt, slavery, and redemption. As shown by Gilad Gevaryahu, medieval rabbis connected Joseph’s robe — ketonet passim — which was dipped in blood, with the karpas, the fresh herb which at the beginning of the seder is dipped in salt water or red wine vinegar, according to some traditions, or according to others, into the sweet-and-sour paste of the haroset.

What was haroset made of? From references elsewhere in the Talmud, it seems that haroset was a condiment eaten not only on Passover but throughout the year, stored in a bowl called beit haroset. Jewish food historian Susan Weingarten (who has written not one, but two articles about haroset!) observes that since the seder was modeled on the Greek symposium, there may be parallels between haroset and various Hellenistic sweet-and-sour dipping sauces made with herbs, vinegar, and honey, and served with bitter lettuces. Over the centuries, recipes proliferated as Jews spread across the Diaspora, adapting to the various foodways and ingredients around them.

The geonim of Babylonia made haroset from boiled dates, as Iraqi Jews still do today, calling it hilqa or haliq (possibly derived from halqan, an Arabic term for ripe dates). Maimonides mixed hyssop with pounded dates and raisins, and Ovadia of Bartenura made haroset with figs, nuts, and strands of cinnamon to represent the straw. The Tosafists suggested making haroset from ingredients mentioned in the Song of Songs — apples, pomegranates, figs, dates, and walnuts — and one Italian rabbi even recorded the custom of putting a little ground brick in the haroset to remember the clay.



Iraqi haroset, or haliq, made by Jennifer Abadi
at TooGoodToPassover.com.

Today there are as many haroset recipes as there are Jewish communities (scroll down to the bottom for some suggestions!). Yemenite haroset, still called dukkeh as in the Jerusalem Talmud, adds heat with chili pepper and fresh ginger. Haroset recipes from the Caribbean use coconut, Italian recipes use chestnuts, and a recipe from Kentucky uses pecans. A Libyan haroset recipe suggests using pomegranate seeds saved from Rosh haShana. Moroccan haroset is formed into balls, rolled in chopped nuts, and served as sweet truffles; Jamaican haroset is served in little ‘bricks’ coated in cinnamon.

The haroset is a symbol with many meanings, a silent seder guest, a paradox. The haroset is a mix of sweet and sour, crunchy and soft, plain and spiced. Everything is mixed together, and it’s hard to separate the individual elements. It is an ambiguous symbol of slavery and freedom, of boundaries all mixed up and transgressed. It is at once the bitterness of the bricks of slavery and the bravery of the Israelite women, the exuberant sexuality of the Song of Songs and the terror of that long, dark, night hoping for the moment of liberation. It is the blood of life and the blood of death, the blood of a slaughtered goat that begins a story that reverberates through generations, all the way to my seder table and another little goat, one that my father bought for two zuzim.

The haroset is the complexity of life, where freedom and slavery, joy and sadness, love and pain, are all mixed together, like Hillel’s sandwich: the matza of freedom and the maror of slavery, stuck together with a little haroset. Real life, like haroset, is messy and mixed up and sometimes a little bit muddy. Leaving Egypt is a process, not a one-time event; we are continuously redeeming ourselves and being redeemed. The haroset is not explained in the seder perhaps because it challenges the very “order” (seder) of Pesah itself and its rigid boundaries. The seder may be an incredible vision of future universal redemption, but haroset is the day after the seder, when it’s back to reality and there’s a sink full of dirty dishes and a life that’s maybe not entirely full of freedom. Haroset is about things pounded together, and messiness, and mud, and love that’s mixed with sadness but still overflowing, and real life, a crunchy sandwich with chunks of bitterness and a sweet taste that lingers on the tongue.

And now for some recipes! I've written out below some of the 'recipes' (more like ingredient suggestions) from historical sources, and some of the many haroset recipes I've collected over the years from various cookbooks. Enjoy! And have a happy — and delicious — Passover.



Syrian haroset, with apricots, made by Jennifer Abadi
at TooGoodToPassover.com.


Historical Haroset Recipes

Oxyporium Dressing (Greco-Roman ancestor of haroset?), from Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria (ca. 5th century CE), 3:18.2-3:
Lactutas: cum oxyporio et aceto modico liquamine. Ad digestionem et inflationem et ne lactucae laedant: cumini unc. ii, gingiberis unc. i, rutae viridis unc. i, dactilorum pinguium scripulos xii, piperis unc. i, mellis unc. ix: cuminum aut Aethiopicum aut Siriacum aut Libicum. Tundes cuminum et postea infundes in aceto. Cum siccaverit, postea melle omnia comprehendes. Cum necesse fuerit, dimidium coclearium aceto et liquamine modico misces.
Lettuces: [serve] with oxyporium dressing and vinegar with a little liquamen [fish sauce]. To [aid] digestion and [ease] wind and prevent the lettuces from doing harm: [mix] two ounces of cumin, one ounce of ginger, one ounce of green rue, twelve scruples [approx. ¼ cup] juicy dates, one ounce of pepper, nine ounces of honey, and Ethiopian, Syrian or Libyan cumin. Pound the cumin after it has been steeped in vinegar. When it has dried, mix everything with the honey. When needed, mix half a spoon with vinegar and a little liquamen.

Babylonian Haroset, from Sa’adia Gaon (882-942), Commentary on the Haggadah:

ויכין רוטב תמרים ואגוזים ושומשום וילוש בחומץ וזה נקרא חליק.

Prepare a sauce of dates, walnuts, and sesame, and knead them together with vinegar; this is called haliq.

Andalusi Haroset, from Maimonides (1136-1204), Perush Mishnayot, Pesahim 10:3:

וחרוסת הוא תערובת שיש בו קיהוי ודמות תבן, וזה זכר לטיט, ואנחנו עושין אותו כך שורין תאנים או תמרים ומבשילין אותם ודכין אותן עד שירטבו ולשין הכל בחומץ ונותנין בו שבולת נרד או איזוב וכיוצא בו בלי שחוקים.
Haroset is a mixture which has sharpness and something like straw, in memory of the clay, and we make it in this manner: soak figs or dates and cook them. Pound them until they become soft, and knead them with vinegar. Then put in spikenard or hyssop or something like this in it, without grinding.

Provençal Haroset, from Manoah of Narbonne (13th-14th century), Sefer haMenuha, Hamets uMatza 7:11:
מנהגנו לעשותה כן: לוקחים ערמונים קלופין ומבשלין אותן ואחר כך מנקין אותן ודכין אותן במדוכה היטב ואחר כך לוקחין שקדים ומנקין אותן מקליפתן הדקה ודכין אותן ומעט מהאגוזים ולוקחין גרוגרות וצמוקים סורי החרצן ותמרים ודורסין אותן אחד אחד לבד ולוקחין תפוחים חמוצים ומקלפין אותם וכותשין אותן היטב ואחר כך מערבין הכל תוך המדוכה במכתש וממחין בחומץ יין חזק מעט מעט כדי שיתערב יפה ומתבלין אותם בתבלין כגון זנגביל וקנה בשם ותבן מישא הנקראת אשקננט ובמסמרות הכפר ומעט משבלת נרד הוא הנקרא אשפיק נרדי אחרי שחיקתן.
Our custom is to make [haroset] like this: take chestnuts, peel them, cook them, and then clean them and pound them well in a mortar. Afterwards take almonds, remove their thin skin and pound them, and a few walnuts. Then take dried figs, raisins without pips, and dates, and tread them, each one separately. Then take sour apples, peel them, and crush them well. Afterwards mix everything in the mortar with a pestle and pound with strong wine vinegar, little by little, so it is well mixed. Season with spices such as ginger, sweet calamus, and grass of Mecca, called esquinant [lemongrass] and nails of cloves and a little spikenard, which is called espica nardi, after they have been ground.

Song of Songs Haroset, from the Tosafot (14th century):
בתשובת הגאונים מפרש לעשות חרוסת בפירות שנדמה לכנסת ישראל בשיר השירים תחת התפוח עוררתיך כפלח הרמון התאנה חנטה אמרתי אעלה בתמר אגוז אל גנת אגוז ירדתי ושקדים על שם ששקד הקב''ה על הקץ.
In Teshuvat haGe’onim [a lost work], it explains that you should make haroset from fruits which are compared to the community of Israel in the Song of Songs: ‘under the apple-tree I aroused you’ [8:5]; ‘like a pomegranate split open’ [4:3]; ‘the fig tree puts forth her green figs’ [2:13]; ‘I said: I will climb up the date palm’ [7:9]; [and] walnuts: ‘I went down to the nut grove’ [6:11]; and almonds [sheqedim], since the Holy Blessed One watches [shaqad] for the End of Days.

Ashkenazi Haroset, from Joseph ben Moses of Bavaria (1423-1490), Leket Yosher, Orah Hayyim 84:
ודרש שמצוה לתן לחרוסת רמונים וכל הפירות הנזכרים בשיר השירים, אבל אגסים שקורין בירן אינן ידוע לי למה יתן בחרוסת, מ״מ אין לשנות המנהג, וזכורני ששמעתי מאבי ר׳ משה ז״ל הנותן אגסים בחרוסת כשעור בתוך תפוחים ואגוזים יהא לו צבע כמו טיט פירושו חמר, וכן ראיתי, אבל מסתמא הגאון סבר לעשותו עב זכר לטיט, אבל לעשות לו צבע כמו טיט מסתמא זה לא מצינו בספרים.
It was taught that the haroset should be made from pomegranates and all the fruit mentioned in Song of Songs, but [regarding the custom of adding] pears that are called [in German] birn I do not know [a reason] to add them in haroset. In any case the custom should not be changed, and I remember that I heard from my father R. Moses of blessed memory that putting pears in haroset along with apples and walnuts gives it a colour like clay, meaning mortar, and I have seen this; though presumably the intention of the gaon was to make it thick in memory of the clay, but to make its colour like clay we have not found in the books [a reason to do so].

Italian Haroset, from Ovadia of Bartenura (ca. 1450-­1516), Pesahim 10:3
וחרוסת: שעושים מתאנים ולוזים בטנים ושקדים וכמה מיני פירות ומשימין בה תפוחים ודכין הכל במדוכה ומערבין בחומץ ונותנין עליה תבלין קנה וקנמון כעין פתילות דקות ארוכות זכר לקש וצריך שתהיה עבה זכר לטיט.
Haroset: you make this from figs, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, and several sorts of fruits. Put in apples and pound everything in a mortar. Mix it with vinegar and put spices on it, cinnamon and calamus, in the form of long thin threads, in memory of the straw, and it must be thick, in memory of the clay.


Traditional Recipes

Silver haroset dish, Germany, 1797,
Center for Jewish History (YU Museum).
• Ashkenazi: 3 apples, 1/2 cup walnuts, 1 tsp grated ginger, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp lemon rind, 1/4 cup sweet red wine

• Turkish: 1/2 cup raisins, 1/2 cup dates, 1 orange, 2 apples, 1/4 cup sweet wine

• Yemenite (dukkeh): 1 cup dates, 1/2 cup walnuts, 1 tbsp grated fresh ginger, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp hot chili pepper, 1/2 cup grape juice or wine

• Greek: 1/2 cup golden raisins, 1/2 cup dried apricots, 1/2 cup pine nuts, 1/2 cup chopped figs, 1 tbsp lemon juice, 2 tbsp honey

• Georgian: 2 apples, 1 pear, 1/4 cup hazelnuts, 1 tsp ground cloves, 2 tbsp honey

• Persian: 1/2 cup pistachios, 1/2 cup almonds, 1 apple, 2 pears, 1/2 cup white wine

• Iraqi (haliq or silan): 1 cup dates, pitted and boiled with 1/4 cup water and blended

• Moroccan: 1/2 cup dates, 1/2 cup dried plums, 1/4 cup dried figs, 1/4 cup dried apricots, 1/2 cup walnuts, 2 tbsp honey, 1/4 cup red wine or grape juice, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp black pepper. This and the Libyan recipe which follow are traditionally formed into balls, rolled in cinnamon or chopped nuts, and served as haroset ‘truffles’.


• Libyan (lahliq): 1/2 cup dates, 1/4 cup walnuts, 1/4 cup almonds, 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds, 1/4 cup raisins, 1apple, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp black pepper

• Cochini: 1/2 cup dates, 1/2 cup raisins, 1/4 cup almonds, 2 tablespoons sesame, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup wine vinegar, 1/2 cup water. Blend into paste and simmer for half an hour.

• Surinamese: 1/4 cup dried apricots, 1/4 cup dried plums, 1/4 cup cherries, 1/2 cup cashews, 1/4 cup raisins, 1/2 cup shredded coconut, 1/4 cup sweet wine. Dried ingredients should be simmered in the liquid until soft and then blended.



Jamaican: ½ cup dates, ½ cup raisins. Soak in orange juice, add 1 tsp grated lemon rind, ¼ cup port wine, and ¼ cup shredded coconut. Blend into paste, shape into little bricks, and dust with cinnamon.


• Venetian: 1/2 cup chestnuts (ground to paste), 1/2 cup dates, 1/4 cup walnuts, 1 orange, 1 tbsp grated ginger, 2 tbsp brandy, 2 tbsp honey

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