When Is Horseradish Not a Bitter Herb? Originally Published April 9-10, 2021.

“But Daddy, that’s a leaf!  Rabbi says we dunk leafs into salt water, and for Maror we cry about horseradish!”

“Leave it alone, Shelly, this is what Aunt Ruthie does for Maror.”

Even though generally we tend to think that the whole world does exactly as we do, we are sometimes wrong about that, even for the Passover Seder.

For 35 years I’ve wondered why the beautiful Pesah plate I received as a wedding gift has places for both “Bitter Herbs” and “Horseradish,” yet I never thought to risk embarrassment and shaking my faith in my early learning with Rabbi Weiss (z”l) to inquire.  However, this year we were presented at seder with both items, so I had to find out.

The rawest answer is because in Eastern Europe in springtime it was easier to find horseradish and potatoes than to find fresh greens.  It seems scholars feel that the original bitter herb was Romaine lettuce, endive, or chicory, all of which leave a bitter taste behind.  However, horseradish came in for locales from which Jack Frost had not yet left.  The potato, too, was brought to the table when the same frost-bitten Europeans needed a veggie to dunk in salt water.  (Any vegetable may be used, as long as it is not one of the “bitter” ones.)

Apparently in Israel they are more likely to eat greens as “bitter herbs” (which are known as hazeret, which scholars think originally referred to lettuce, though the word now is used in Israel for “horseradish,” go figure).  Additionally, around the world there are apparently some hybrid traditions in which horseradish is eaten with haroset and then the leafy bitters are eaten in the Hillel sandwich.

Now, then.  Young Shelly also asked, “Why does the plate say ‘parsley’ but not ‘karpas’?”  The better question to ask would be why some plates say both.  Again, any veggie may be used, but some folks have a specific tradition of parsley.  Some seder plates say karpas may be “onion, lettuce, parsley,” but some having a separate place for parsley besides the karpas we cannot understand.  Of course one also may wonder why there is no place on the plate for a bowl of salt water, which is the specific reminder of tears, so maybe that bowl was what they intended for the place labeled “karpas.”

Of course, there are many more nuanced differences around the world.  The goal, though, is to remember the tears, the bitterness, and the back-breaking work of slavery, along with the faith that allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt for the desert wilderness.  It is all about leaving.

And Shelly, the plural of “leaf” is “leaves.”  Maybe next year we can have a few more of them in our tables as well as on them.