David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam

The Mystery of Charoset: A lesson about leaving trauma

British Library, public domain
British Library, public domain

The Haggadah is not just about telling a story, it’s about the order in which we tell the story. That story is about how things can transform. Many symbols of the seder have multiple meanings. It becomes a seder because we transform those symbols by putting their meanings in an order, from slavery to freedom, or as the Talmud says, “from g’nut/degradation to shevach/praise”. The template for this order is based on the four stages of the Exodus liberation: slavery, leaving Egypt, entering the land, and anticipating Mashiach, the Messianic redemption. But there is one ritual food we eat at the seder that isn’t given an order because it isn’t even mentioned: the charoset.

Other important foods, symbols and verses each appear in the Haggadah four times with different meanings, always ordered according to this pattern – that’s why the ritual is called a seder, an “ordering”. (Learn more here.) For example, matzah is ritually used four different times: lechem oni—the bread of sorrow/poverty we ate in Egypt, matsah zo al shum ma—the bread of leaving in haste, korekh—the bread eaten with the sacrifice in the Temple, and the afikoman, which points toward the future redemption. (We even break the middle matzah at Yachatz to make sure there are four.) There are four children ordered from lowest to highest (that’s right – wicked above wise). And we explain the verse, “Because of this God acted for me by bringing me out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8) four times. (See if you can find all four in your haggadah – the transformation is stunning!)

The different meanings are always ordered from the least to the most liberated. The four cups of wine—the symbolic four that everyone knows—allude to this deep structure. However, the Haggadah doesn’t explain or mention even once: the charoset.

Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The Talmud has some words about charoset which do not solve the mystery. The essence of charoset, according to the Talmud, is not that it should be sweet, but that it should be tart to remember the apple (tapuach תפוח), and thick to remember the mud (tayit טיט) (Pesachim 116a). But the Talmud still doesn’t explain what that means. Not only that, it can’t even decide if it’s a mitzvah to have charoset at all, though it does recount a story of spice-sellers in Jerusalem yelling out from their shop windows, “Spices for the mitzvah!” So even on the most basic level, the status of charoset is up for grabs.

Rashi (but not the Talmud) explains these qualities in terms of the Pesach story: the tartness is a reminder of the tart apple trees in Egypt under which the Israelites made love and gave birth; the thickness is a reminder of the mud and straw the slaves used to make the bricks.

But the Haggadah doesn’t put those meanings in an order (e.g., from mixing straw to making love to giving birth to crossing the sea) because, like the Talmud itself, it doesn’t explain or even mention charoset. Why is charoset not explained in the Haggadah? I have a guess based on delving further into the Talmud’s definition of charoset.

The word for tartness in the Talmud (קהוייה) comes from the same root (QHH קהה) as the words said about the wicked child: “set his teeth on edge/heq’heh et shinav הקהה את שיניו”. The midrash uses these same words to describe what happened when Adam and Chavah ate from the tree of knowledge: their teeth were “set on edge”. (Avot d’Rabi Natan B, ch.1; Bahir, sec.200)

What happened when Adam and Chavah ate from that tree? One interpretation is that they could no longer experience good separate from evil. The effect of the fruit was that in all subsequent human experience, good and evil came mixed together.

Charoset may be the stuff of what happens when we can’t separate out what is good, when our symbols get stuck to each other, when slavery and freedom are mishmashed inseparably. Maybe that is the thickness the Talmud is talking about, which can turn our past experiences into obstacles that limit and define us.

Like the wicked child, who seems unable (unwilling?) to distinguish between serving God and serving Pharaoh, charoset represents our experience when there’s no separation between worship or service and enslavement—both are called Avodah עבודה, after all. Like the tree of knowledge, literally the tree of knowing good and evil, that is, knowing good mixed together with evil, charoset represents our normal lived experience.

One implication of this is that the wicked child, unlike the wise one, is ready to face the complexity of good and evil, to taste the fruit that we all must eventually confront. “Set his teeth on edge” can mean: expose him or her to this complexity.

The invitation of the Haggadah is to come to the seder in order to transform that confusing experience, through ritual and story, so that we can move from slavery to freedom, from evil to good, rather than remaining stuck in between them. But even in the middle of that process, there are things we are not ready to transform, things we cannot yet transform. That’s the charoset – a symbol of whatever is too “thick” to be given a linear meaning or interpretation.

Escape across the Red Sea
British Library, public domain

Thickness, mud, doesn’t just mean any mud used to make bricks. One midrash describes the archangel Gabriel searching for a particular mud brick into which a Hebrew infant had fallen and been encased. Gabriel brings this brick to God to force God’s hand to drown the Egyptians in the sea (Yalkut Shimoni 243; Midrash Avkir). In another midrash, it is the archangel Michael who brings the brick to lobby God to kill the Egyptian firstborn (Yalkut Shimoni 176; Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer 48). So mud can also refer to the trauma symbolized by this brick, which keeps returning, out of redemptive order, stimulating retribution.

Mud also has another meaning in the Passover story, beyond brick-making. According to Numbers Rabbah (24:3), when the children of Israel crossed the sea, they had to trudge through the muddy silt left behind after the sea parted, and one Reuven said, “In Egypt it’s mud and in the sea, mud.” Like the wicked child, Reuven couldn’t unstick one thing from the other. All of this is mixed together, like the straw and the mud themselves.

This is always part of leaving Egypt, of emerging from any trauma. When we leave, we necessarily bring our muddy confusion along with us, along with the joy of freedom, along with the bitterness of slavery – that’s the Hillel sandwich, combining the sweet/tart/thick charoset with matsah and maror. And yet, now, right here at the seder, is the moment to seize one’s freedom. Other wisdom can come later. So one lesson of the charoset may be: don’t separate your muddled state from the holy and mystical and transformative. Even if you’re stuck in the mud, hold onto the sweet, and leave Egypt, leave Mitzrayim.

This suggests a special interpretation of a verse in the Torah that describes the Israelites, b’ney Yisrael, leaving Egypt “misha’arotam tz’rurot b’simlotam ‘al shikhmam” (Exodus 12:34). Literally, it means that Israel left Egypt with “their remaining stuff tied up in their cloaks on their shoulders”—imagine a hobo with a makeshift cloth bag on a stick. This is the verse some Sefardim recite when we hold the afikoman over our shoulders at the beginning of the seder and wave it over our heads.

But these words can also mean that when we leave slavery, we take some slavery along with us—we carry legacies of angst and pain and troubles, our tzarot, the internalized stuff of Mitzrayim, which are leftover, nish’arot, waiting to be liberated and unpacked, perhaps hidden from view, dragging along behind us or maybe weighing us down.

The teaching of the charoset, then, is this: even with all your “stuff”, even with the unprocessed legacy of slavery, with still unfulfilled hopes for freedom, and with everything in between, EVEN STILL, LEAVE, GO OUT, OUT TO FREEDOM!

May we all have the strength of our ancestors to do this!

Read more about the deep structure of the haggadah, and download the free Haggadah of the Inner Seder from! The Haggadah of the Inner Seder also includes the full Hebrew text, midrash, and connections related to the Earth, refugees, asylum seekers, peace, and Israel. You can also follow links from that page to get this year’s Omer Counter for iOS and Droid.

About the Author
Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. David is also the Shmita scholar-in-residence at Abundance Farm in Northampton MA. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and an acclaimed English translation of Eikhah ("Laments"). David also teaches nigunim and is a composer of Jewish music and an avid dancer.
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