Everything Ashkenazi Jews know about a favorite Passover dish is a lie. Usually made with apples, walnuts, and sweet wine, haroset is a well-appreciated mainstay on countless Passover seder tables. It is often so sweet it can make gums ache. But it should be sour.
A new comprehensive book about the roots and routes of the traditional dish, “Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History,” by food historian Dr. Susan Weingarten, states that by connecting the food to apples, the Talmudic rabbis’ intent was to invoke an indelible acidic sourness.
A slim but enlightening volume, the genesis for “Haroset” began at an academic symposium as a quest to find the most authentic recipe for the varied traditional dish. Her journey took her from Greco-Roman feasts to Talmudic discourse, from the Land of Israel to all over the Middle East and throughout Europe.
Today, haroset is consumed during the section of the Passover Hagaddah dealing with bitter herbs. Many Jews symbolically connect it was the mortar used by Hebrew slaves in Egypt and believe the super-sweetness is meant to neutralize the palate-challenging maror.
However, only relatively recently were apples bred for sweetness: Today a Jerusalemite grandmother, the 71-year-old Weingarten recalled the English apples of her youth — in particular the bramley cooking apple — as being overwhelmingly more sour than those on the market today. Apples of the ancient world were bitingly sour, said Weingarten in conversation with The Times of Israel this week. In her book, she quotes the Roman author Pliny (23-79 CE), who writes of apples having “a horrible sourness… so powerful it will blunt the edge of a sword.”
As part of her research, Weingarten said she had “great fun” trying to reconstruct historical haroset recipes, which she discovered in the Talmud and its commentaries, as well as antique recipe books.
“They taste amazing,” she said. “Some are completely way out there.”
Depending upon ancestral roots, throughout the centuries haroset has been made with variations of the classic Ashkenazi apple recipe — or with a grocers’ market of fruits and vegetables. Often there was a push-pull between congregants and their rabbis, who attempted to legislate its contents, however, ingredients shifted due to economic factors and availability.
Amid the historical gems, haroset FAQs, and recipes, the book also sheds light upon an almost forgotten dark episode in the dish’s history: Medieval blood libel. While the anti-Semitic trumped-up allegations are usually associated with the unleavened bread, or matza, there are a couple of documented trials against Jews accused of chopping up Christian children into their haroset. Weingarten notes that the accused were acquitted — but in the 1453 case of Acelin from Savoie, France, the edict from le bon roi Rene came too late. He had already died in prison from torture.
When being a sourpuss was popular
In the Middle Ages, the general populous particularly craved a sour taste, said Weingarten. That was also true of the Jews, it appears. The great Talmudic commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1005) called his haroset aigros, a Medieval French word for “sour.” His recipe included apples, wine (presumably dry) and spices (which he called yerakot or greens).
Weingarten cited a similar contemporary recipe for a popular sour green sauce, sauce verte, which was sold on the streets of Paris. It includes ground parsley, sorrel or sage, and seasoned with ginger and vinegar. She noted that until today, some French Jews include this sauce on their Passover table.
“I tried the recipe, and with dry wine, boy is it is wow! You put it on your tongue and — wow!” Weingarten said. She had a similar reaction to the recipe given by the Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, circa 1135-1204), which included vinegar, dates, and zaatar. “It was more like a chutney than a haroset,” she said.
The dish is as rich in symbolism as taste: The apples harken to a midrash tale of righteous wives enslaved in Pharaoh’s Egypt who seduced their husbands under apple trees to propagate the next generation during the decree of the killing of all male children, a time of perilous existential danger. Drawing upon a verse in the Song of Songs 8:5, “I roused you under the apple tree; there your mother conceived you, there she travailed and brought you forth,” the sour apple was marked by the rabbis to commemorate this act.
As in many cases in the Talmud, however, there is disagreement over the the dish’s real character. The Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim 116a records a dispute between two Land of Israel rabbis: Rabbi Levi, who said the dish was in memory of the apple, and Rabbi Yohanan, who said the dish was to be thick, in memory of the clay used in making the bricks in Egypt. Abbaye seemingly resolves the issue and says, “Therefore you have to make it acidic and to make it thick.”
The connection to the apple verse in the Song of Songs opened the door to a rich variety of fruits also mentioned in the text, including grapes, figs, apples, pomegranates, date honey, nuts, and even flower blossoms (which is still used in some Italian communities).
From early on, traditional Sephardic haroset is usually date based. A recipe from Rabbi Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon (circa 882-942) includes dates, nuts, and sesame kneaded together with vinegar, thereby preserving the brick-like texture and the sour taste.
Elsewhere, the straw used by the Hebrew slaves in making bricks is preserved through spices added to the dish. Eventually, the quest for extravagant spices priced the common Jew out of the haroset game and large vats were made for communal consumption by wealthy benefactors. A recipe from 12-century Lunel, France, calls for huge quantities of vinegar, cooked chestnuts, almonds, dates, and apples, with a variety of expensive spices. A footnote to the recipe text explains that it was still “barely sufficient for us.”
Error in judgement?
In some communities, the date haroset is formed into balls, or even bricks, noted Weingarten. Originally these balls were usually thinned into a paste at the table with wine.
But it is also this connection to the biblical bricks that led to the most unusual tradition of adding clay or dust from pottery sherds to the dish.
“That starts in Rome in the 14th-15th century and then it’s just mentioned as a bit of brick dust or pottery dust,” said Weingarten. “By the 18th century, rabbis are objecting, saying it’s a crazy thing to do, absolutely ridiculous — that you’re supposed to go from misery to joy,” she said.
Weingarten explains that the errant ingredient actually stems from a Hebrew scribal error in which the final letter of haroset was left off, turning the word into heres or pottery. “It’s clearly just a mistake, but people keep on doing it,” she said. “It’s this very interesting see-saw between what the rabbis think you should do and what you actually do. The rabbis, in the end, often okay a custom in retrospect.”
The end of the lively book is filled with many unusual versions of haroset recipes from around the world that Weingarten preserved from the cooks — often male — themselves.
However, when asked which haroset recipe the author serves at her own Passover seder, she laughed and said her grandmother Cecilia Pomerantz’s Ashkenazic apple and walnut haroset, of course.
After her deep dive into the origins of the dish, said Weingarten, she’s come to the conclusion that “the most authentic haroset is the one that is the tradition of your own family.”