but every year at the seder, it’s all good


NEW YORK — Charoset (hah-ROE-set) n. Hebrew. The mixture of apples, sweet red wine and chopped nuts that is placed on the seder plate at Pesach; specific recipes differ according to geography.

Haroset is symbolic of the mortar and bricks the ancient Israelites used to build the pyramids when they were slaves in Egypt. Although charoset is a ritual food, there is no “official” recipe. It’s an integral part of the Passover meal. It has a place of honor on every seder plate, and yet, in 5,000 years of history, no sage has ever recorded the recipe.

No one doubts the ancient origins of charoset, also spelled “haroset.” It’s been around in one form or another since biblical times. The word itself comes from the Hebrew “cheres” for clay, and the lumpy wine-stained mixture does resemble bits of brick and mortar. In ancient times, Passover traditions were passed orally from generation to generation; it wasn’t until 1482 that the first printed Haggadah appeared in Spain. But charoset is not even mentioned in Kaddish Urchatz, the traditional rhyming song that gives a preview of the seder. Sometimes it is included in the Hillel sandwich of matzah and maror, so, as the sages say, we might “taste the bitter with the sweet, as life is both bitter and sweet.”

Occasionally, you might also find charoset on the wall. In an unusual Sephardi custom, the leader of the seder dips the tips of his five fingers into the charoset and makes an impression with his wine-soaked hand just under the mezuzah in the doorway. This “charoset hamsa” symbolizes God’s protection against evil and visibly evokes the story of the Israelites who marked their homes so the Angel of Death would pass them over.

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Apples are mentioned in Solomon’s Song of Songs. Blessings have been recited over wine since ancient times. But these two basic ingredients of charoset aren’t always available. In 1862, the Jewish Messenger published an account of a seder put together by Union soldiers in West Virginia. They couldn’t obtain the ingredients for charoset in the midst of the Civil War, so they placed an actual brick on their makeshift seder plate.

Likewise, Jews around the world have transformed the basic recipe with readily available local ingredients.

The result is that charoset comes in many varieties. Jews in the southern United States use pecans as their nut of choice, and Jews from Surinam sprinkle a little coconut on top. In a Persian version, there are dates, figs and cardamom. Italian Jews like to add chestnuts, which they boil and ground to a paste. Modern Israeli charoset combines Askhenazi sweet wine with native Mediterranean fruits like dates, oranges and almonds. Some cooks add whole cinnamon sticks to the mixture, symbolic of the straw or papyrus stalks the Hebrew slaves mixed with Nile mud to make bricks for Pharaoh.

Though there are hundreds of variations, every family seems to have its favorite. The Scolnic children created their own Passover ritual one year when they went to a seder at a friend’s house. The charoset on the friend’s table was a white paste of shredded apples and finely ground nuts, barely moistened with wine. The teens were so disappointed with the alternative version that when they returned home at 10 p.m., they raided the refrigerator for their charoset, which had been set aside for the second night. They cracked open a bottle of sweet Manischewitz wine, dumped a healthy swig into the mixture and proceeded to eat charoset straight from the bowl.

Because there is no official recipe for charoset, Jews are free to celebrate in the way that is most familiar and beloved to their family, or to experiment and try a new charoset recipe every year.

Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are co-authors of The JPS Dictionary of Jewish Words (Jewish Publication Society, 2001). The second edition is due out in September.