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Romaine Lettuce or Horseradish: Will the Real Maror Please Stand Up?

Pesach
Responsa by David Golinkin
Symbols and Rituals

In memory of
Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg z”l
Rabbi, scholar, mentsch.

Question: Most Jews in the Diaspora use horseradish for maror at the seder, while most Israeli Jews use Romaine lettuce. Which custom is more correct?

Responsum: The Torah commands us to eat merorim on Pesah together with matzot and the Paschal lamb (Exodus 12:8, Numbers 9:11), but does not elaborate. The Mishnah (Pesahim 2:6) lists five plants which may be used for maror. The translations in parentheses are based on the research of Prof. Yehudah Feliks and other scholars:

And these are vegetables through which a person fulfills his obligation on Pesah: Hazeret (romaine lettuce), olshin(chicory), tamkha (see below), harhavina (eryngo), and maror(sonchus oleracheus; Arabic: murar).

As is frequently the case with ancient texts, the author of thismishnah and his audience knew exactly what he was talking about, but rabbis throughout the centuries were puzzled by most of these terms because Jews moved around so much that they were hard pressed to find local vegetables that fit these terms.

Today, the common Israeli practice is to eat hazeret which is Romaine lettuce, while Diaspora Jews tend to eat horseradish which is the way they identified tamkha beginning in the 14th-15thcenturies.

I) Hazeret is Romaine Lettuce

As Prof. Yehuda Feliks and many others have pointed out, there is no question that hazeret is Romaine lettuce (as opposed to iceberg lettuce). Rashi to Pesahim 39a calls it lituga which isleituge in medieval French. The Babylonian Talmud (ibid.) says that hazeret is hassa (lettuce) while the Yerushalmi says it ishassin (Pesahim 2:5, fol. 29c). The Yerushalmi asks how hazeretcould be maror if hazeret is sweet? Rabbi Hiyya replies in the name of Rabbi Hoshaya: “Just as hazeret‘s beginning is sweet and end is bitter, so did the Egyptians to our ancestors in Egypt.” So it is with Romaine lettuce – at the beginning it is sweet, but if you leave it in the field it becomes more and more bitter until it is inedible. The words hassa and hassin in Aramaic are equivalent to hassu in Akkadian, hassta in Syriac, and hash in Arabic.

In the Babylonian Talmud (ibid.), Rabbi Oshaya says: “Mitzvah bahazeret”, which means that the best way to fulfill the mitzvah of eating maror is by eating hazeret or lettuce.

II) Tamkha

Tamkha is the only one of the five plants in the mishnah above which has not been clearly identified.

1) Tamkha is Gingidion, which no longer exists

In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 39a), Rabbah bar bar Hanna says that tamkha in Hebrew is tamkhita in Aramiac which, of course, does not help us. The Yerushalmi (Pesahim 2:5, fol. 29c) says that tamkha is gingidinGingidion is mentioned by a number of famous Greek scientists. Pliny (23-79 c.e.) says that “the Syrians have many vegetables, They plant a vegetable, which some call gingidion, which is very close to stapilinus [a purple carrot], but is lighter and more bitter” (Naturalis Historia 20, 33 quoted by Feliks, 5755, p. 81). Dioscorides (40-90 c.e.) writes that “Gingidion grew plentifully in Sicily and Syria, It is a small plant, similar to wild pastinak [parsnip], but thinner, with a short thick root, whitish and bitter, eaten live, boiled or pickled and good for the stomach” (De Materia Medica 1, 167 quoted ibid.). Prof. Yehudah Feliks (Feliks, 5755) includes a drawing of this plant from the sixth century in one of his articles (sic!) but unfortunately we can no longer identify this plant today. We can only say that that it belongs to the Apiaceae family, similar to the parsnip. It would appear that it was no longer cultivated after the Byzantine period. There is no question that this is the correct definition of tamkha.

2) Tamkha is Cardoon

Rabbi Natan ben Yehiel of Rome (1035-ca. 1110) says in his Talmudic dictionary Ha’arukh (ed. Kohut, Vol. 8, p. 245) thattamkha is cardo, which is cardoon. Prof. Feliks says that this iscarduus argentatus or silver thistle, while Dr. Schaffer says that it iscynara cardunculus or artichoke thistle.

3) Tamkha is Horehound

Rabbi Natan adds “and some say marubio” which is marrubium vulgare which is horehound. Tamkha was also defined as marubioby many of the Rishonim or early authorities:

France: Rashi (1040-1105, to Pesahim 39a); the school of Rashi (Hapardess, Ha’oreh, Siddur Rashi, Mahzor Vitri – see Schaffer, note 18); Rabbi Moshe of Coucy  (13th century, Semag, Asin 41, fol. 118b).

Provence: Rabbi Yitzhak ben Abba Mari (1119-1190, Sefer Ha’ittur, Lemberg, 1860, Part II, fol. 54a); Rabbi Aharon of Lunel (14th century, Orhot Hayyim, Florence, 1750, Seder Leil Pesah, parag. 10, fol. 79a).

Spain: Rabbi Moshe Halava (ca. 1350, Peirush Maharam Halava al Massekhet Pesahim, Jerusalem, 1966, p. 114); Rabbi Yosef Haviva (ca. 1400, Nimukei Yosef to Pesahim,New York, 1960, p. 130).

Ashkenaz (Germany): Rabbi Elazar of Worms (1165-1236, Sefer Harokeah, parag. 283) who says that tamkha is agrorn which is a corruption of andorn which is horehound in German.

Italy: Rabbi Yehiel Anav and Rabbi Zidkiyahu Anav (13th century,Tanya, ed.  Baron, Jerusalem, 2011, parag. 47, p. 170 andShiboley Haleket, ed. Buber, parag. 218, p. 184).

4) Seris

Maimonides (1135-1204) in his commentary to our Mishnah inPesahim (ed. Kafih, Vol. 2, p. 168) defines tamkha as seris, a Greek word which is a type of chicory or endive.

5) Meeretich or Horseradish

Dr. Arthur Schaffer points out (note 26) that the word meeretich is a combination of meer = sea and retich = radish, a radish which grows near a body of water. Meeretich may have evolved into horseradish by taking meer to mean mare, a horse, and thus sea radish became horseradish!

All modern scholars agree that horseradish was not grown in Israelin the Talmudic period. Its origin is in Eastern Europewhere it is plentiful and easily grown even in very cold climates. It is also not bitter but rather hot and sharp (harif). Apparently it became popular at the seder inGermany andEastern Europe because lettuce was expensive or hard to obtain.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Natan, the Ra’avan (1090-1170) is the first in rabbinic literature to metion meeretich not as bitter herb for marorbut rather as an ingredient in his recipe for haroset! (Sefer Ra’avan, ed. Prague, 1610, fol. 74b). A similar mention is found inSefer Harokeah by Rabbi Elazar ofWorms (1165-1236, parag. 284).

The first to say that tamkha is horseradish may have been Rabbi Meir Hakohen (Germany, ca. 1300), student of the Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, in his Hagahot Maimoniot to the Rambam (Hilkhot Hametz Umatzah 7:13, note kaf). However, this may have been added by copyists because every manuscript of Hagahot Maimoniot has a different reading (see Schaffer, note 45) and the first to quote this explanation is Rabbi Yozl ben Moshe in Leket Yosher (Berlin, 1903, p. 92) which was written over 150 years later.

Thus, the first to clearly recommend using meeretich or horseradish at the seder was Rabbi Alexander Susslin Hakohen (died 1349) in his Sefer Ha’agudah who does not connect it totamkha: “And I saw my teachers try to obtain lettuce and if they did not find it, they took meeretich” (ed. Brizel, Moed, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1968, p. 152). Rabbi Ya’akov Mollin, the Maharil (1360-1427) says: “the Agudah wrote meeretich, i.e. tamkha in our Mishnah (Responsa Maharil, No. 58, ed. Satz, Jerusalem, 1980, p. 65) but it seems that the reference to tamkha is by the Maharil, not by the Agudah.

Once tamkha was identified as horseradish, another problem arose which was debated for hundreds of years. Rabbeinu Tam (d. 1171) ruled that one may not use a plant root for maror since the Mishnah states (Pesahim 2:6) that “one fulfills the obligation with its stalk” (quoted by the Semag, Asin 41, fol. 118b). Yet most Jews who used horseradish for maror used the root of the horseradish. Some halakhic authorities forbade the use of the root, some said that one may only use the leaves of the horseradish, and some said you can only use the roots bish’at hadhak, in time of emergency. In seventeenth-century Poland they used the leaves of the horseradish for eating maror at the seder and the root only forkorekh, the Hillel sandwich. This was because the leaves were relatively scarce, while the root was readily available (see Schaffer, pp. 231-236).

By the 18th century, the horseradish root had become thoroughly accepted. In 1822, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the founder of Haredi Judaism, gave increased status to horseradish when he wrote that it may even be preferable to lettuce due to the difficulty of cleaning lettuce leaves of insects! This is quite ironic – Rabbi Sofer prefers horseradish, which we now know is not tamkha, to lettuce which ishazeret, the preferred mitzvah! Finally, in modern Israel, horseradish is mistakenly called hazeret which all commentators agree means lettuce!

III) The Visual Evidence

Most of the modern scholars who wrote about our topic were botanists, which may explain why they did not adduce any visual evidence as to what Jews actually ate for maror at the seder. It appears, however, from illuminated haggadot that medieval Ashkenazic Jews used lettuce or other large leafy vegetables while Sefardic Jews used artichokes as maror at the seder. None of thehaggadot I have seen depict maror as horseradish (and cf. Tabory, p. 266, note 56):

Birds’ Head Haggadah,Germany, ca. 1300, at Maror: a green leafy vegetable, probably lettuce.
Yoel ben Shimon, BritishLibrary,GermanyorNorthern Italy, ca. 1450, fol. 22b = The Schechter Haggadah, figure 27: a large leafy green vegetable, probably lettuce.
Yoel ben Shimon, JNUL, ca. 1450: a large leafy green vegetable, probably lettuce.
Yoel ben Shimon, Washington Haggadah, ca. 1450, fol. 16a: a large leafy green vegetable, probably lettuce.
The Rothschild Miscellany,Northern Italy, ca. 1470, fol. 160a = The Schechter Haggadah, figure 28.2: a green, oval-shaped vegetable.
Florsheim Haggadah,Germany, 1502, fol. 17: a large leafy green vegetable, probably lettuce.
Prague Haggadah,1526, ablack and white woodcut:  a long leafy vegetable.
Mantua Haggadah,1560, ablack and white woodcut: a long leafy vegetable.
Copenhagen Haggadah, 1739, fol. 18a: a long green-stalked vegetable.

Sarajevo Haggadah,Northern Spain, after 1350, fol. 27a: an artichoke.
John Rylands Haggadah, Catalonia, 14th century, fol. 31b: an artichoke.
The Brother Haggadah, Catalonia, 14th century, fol. 18a = The Schechter Haggadah, figure 28.1: an artichoke.

IV) Summary and Conclusions

An eloquent case for lettuce vs. horseradish was already made by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, the Hakham Zevi (Amsterdam, 1660-1718) in his Responsa, No. 119:

To benefit the public regarding eating maror, I have seen that it is good to announce that the hazeret taught in our Mishnah and called hassa by the Sages, it is a mitzvah to find it because it is the first plant taught in our Mishnah, it is the vegetable called in German salat and in Spanish salata, and its noun is latuga in all the languages which I have heard, in Turkey and Italy and Germany and Spain and Portugal and in the books of medicine and science. And it is called latuga salat, and there is no doubt in the world about this and it has the characteristics [of maror] mentioned in the Gemara [Pesahim 39a]: sap and its face is gray and its beginning is soft and its end hard and its beginning is sweet and its end bitter as wormwood.
And because in the lands of Germany and Poland which are cold, [lettuce] is not found at Pesah time, they were not used to taking it for the required mitzvah of maror, or because they were not experts in the nature of explaining the names of the vegetables like the people of the lands close to Israel and Bavel, they did not know what it was and they took chrein[horseradish] which is tamkha according to some of the rabbis, and this has led to destruction. Because many ignorant Jews do not eat even half a zayit [olive’s worth] because of its sharpness and because it harms when eaten raw, and they abolish the mitzvah of maror. And even those who “fear the word of God” and eat a zayit of the chreinendanger themselves… and I say of the chrein “it is a danger but not a mitzvah” [cf. Mishnah Megillah 4:8]. And any whom God has touched his heart will fulfill the mitzvah as it should be and will buy latuga salat for the mitzvah of maror, even if it is expensive…

In light of the research of modern Talmudic botanists such as Loew, Feliks and Schaffer, there us no question that the Hakham Zevi was correct. Hazeret which is Romaine lettuce is the preferredmitzvah according to the Talmud. Tamkha was a plant calledgingidion, but we no longer know what that is. In the 14th-15thcenturies, the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe decided thattamkha was horseradish because it was difficult or expensive to obtain lettuce. But horseradish was not cultivated in Israel in the time of the Mishnah, it is sharp and not bitter, most Jews eat the root and not the leaf despite the ruling of Rabbeinu Tam, and one cannot eat the correct amount of k’zayit, an olive’s worth, without endangering one’s health.

Of course, it is not easy to get Jews to change their customs. Marla Fogelman describes the loving way in which her Bubby who had been born in Eastern Europegrew horseradish for the seder in her American garden. On the other hand, Prof. Feliks relates that when he first published his findings that horseradish is not tamkha in 1967, he was physically attacked by a hassid at a wedding for having the audacity to say that chrein is not maror and that his Rebbe was wrong! (Feliks 5755, note 52)

In our day, we have been privileged to witness the miraculous rebirth of the State of Israel. This has allowed us to return to the Landof Israeland to relearn the Mishnah and Talmud with greater understanding. We now know that hazeret is Romaine lettuce and that horseradish is not tamkha. I hope that in time more and more Jews will adopt the original Israeli practice of using Romaine lettuce as maror at the seder.

David Golinkin
Jerusalem
10 Nissan 5772

 Bibliography

Gustav Dalman, Arbeit und Sitte in Palastina, Vol. II,Gutersloh, 1928, p. 274

Yehudah Feliks, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 11, cols. 62-63, s.v. Lettuce and cols. 1014-1015, s.v. Maror

Idem, Marot Hamishnah, Jerusalem, 1967, pp. 44, 58, 88, 96, 168 = Hatzomeah V’hahay Bamishnah,Jerusalem, 1983, pp. 58, 72, 102, 110, and 182

Idem, Kiley Zera’im V’harkava,Jerusalem, 1967, pp. 56-58

Idem, Olam Hatzomeah Hamikra’i,Ramat Gan, 1968, pp. 194-196

Idem, “L’zihui Hazeret V’tamkha L’mitzvat Maror“, B.D.D. 1 (Summer 5755), pp. 77-90 (a very thorough article)

Marla Brown Fogelman, “The Sweetness of Maror”, Moment, April 2004, pp. 36-37

Ya’acov Friedler, “Alternative Bitterherbs”, The Jerusalem Post Magazine, March 29, 1991, pp. 46-47

Daniel Goldschmidt, Seder Haggadah Shel Pesah,Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1948, p. 7, notes 2 and 4

Rabbi Mordechai Ya’akov Golinkin, an unpublished Yiddish responsum to his son Rabbi Noah Golinkin, 3 Elul 5734

Heinrich Guggenheimer, The Scholar’s Haggadah,Northvale,New Jersey, 1995, p. 333

Ephraim Hareuveni, Leshonenu 9 (1938), p. 270

Rabbi Yosef Kafih, Haggadat Teiman, Jeruslem , 1995, p. 21

Joshua Kulp in: The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary, by Joshua Kulp and David Golinkin,Jerusalem, 2009, pp. 252-253

I. Loew, Die Flora der Juden, Vol. 1, Wien und Leipzig, 1924, pp. 424-439

Harold N. Moldenke, Plants of the Bible, 1952, pp. 6, 34, 74ff., 140

Arthur Schaffer, “The History of Horseradish as the Bitter Herb of Passover”, Gesher 8 (1981), pp. 217-237 (a very thorough article)

Yosef Tabory, Pesah Dorot, Tel Aviv, 1996, pp. 266-268

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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