Though the central mitzvah of the Seder night is remembering the Exodus from Egypt, the night includes three individual mitzvahs as well: eating matzah, maror and the paschal lamb (the lamb is no longer eaten).
Let’s delve into the mitzvah of maror, the bitter herbs.
The Torah states,
“They embittered our lives with hard work.”
The bitter taste of the herbs reminds us of the bitterness of our slavery in Egypt.
The actual source of the biblical commandment to eat maror is found in a later verse, where G‑d commands us to make the paschal lamb:
Eat [the lamb] with the matzahs and maror.
The phraseology of this command is very precise: eating the maror is a part of the mitzvah of the paschal lamb. Rather than being an independent mitzvah, it is merely a prerequisite for the paschal lamb. Accordingly, since we no longer have the obligation to offer the paschal lamb, there is no biblical command to eat maror. However, even though the biblical notion of eating maror to remember our slavery no longer applies, the rabbis decreed that we should eat maror anyway to remember what we did in Temple days.
By definition, maror is something bitter. But what?
The Mishnah lists five herbs that fit the bill. There is some discussion as to how to translate the Hebrew/Aramaic words of the Mishnah, but it is generally accepted that romaine lettuce, horseradish and endives (escarole) are included in the list.
Now we get into the specific details of how to eat the maror.
During the Seder nights, after we have eaten the matzah, we prepare to eat maror. First, we take maror and dip it into charoset. This was originally done to kill a dangerous worm that could be found in the herbs. Some say that the reason we still do it nowadays is because charoset resembles the cement we were forced to use in building the Egyptian cities. Although we dip the bitter maror in the sweet charoset, be sure not to let the maror linger in the charoset so as not to dilute the taste, and shake off the charoset straight away.
Once this is done, we make the blessing of al achilat maror:
Blessed are You . . . who has commanded us regarding the eating of maror.
Once the blessing is made, eat the maror straight away. You should not speak between making the blessing and eating the maror.
After we eat the maror, the herbs are used one more time for what is known as the korech, a sandwich comprised of matzah and maror. This is done as follows: First, one takes the matzah and snaps it in half to make two parts of a sandwich. Next, take maror and place it between the two slices of matzah.
We then said that nowadays, since there is no paschal lamb, there is no biblical commandment to eat maror—and there is therefore no reason to eat maror in remembrance of the slavery. Instead, we eat it only to remind us of the Temple. Once again, this seems difficult to understand—just because we have no biblical commandment, we shouldn’t eat maror to remind us of the slavery? Our slavery in Egypt is surely something worth remembering!
To explain this, it’s necessary to take a moment to analyze the Seder night—and to embark on a path towards a deeper understanding of maror. Externally, the Seder seems split into two distinct parts. First we gather our family together and recount the tale of our time in Egypt, reliving once again one of the most defining chapters of our history. Then, when that is done, we return to the present and fulfill the physical mitzvahs of the night—eating matzah and maror. These two parts seem to have little in connection with each other.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains however that this viewpoint is superficial. Once we begin to analyze the Seder, we realize that these two parts share a common thread; they are the two acts of a single play, each one working in sync with the other to bring about the theme of the Seder night. That theme is remembering Egypt. First, we sit down for maggid, the step of the Seder when we use our gifts of speech, creativity and imagination to recount the story of our slavery and redemption. But that’s not enough; the story is still limited solely to our mind. So when we’re done, we take out the Passover foods to internalize that feeling of freedom through our very actions. When we eat the maror, the bitter taste grants us an appreciation for the hardships our forefathers endured, and ideally, if we were able to savor the paschal lamb, its rich sweetness would show us the freedom that followed.
This is why the maror is so important. We must sense the bitterness of slavery to really taste the joy of freedom. Freedom is meaningless if one has never felt confined. Therefore, the maror is considered a preparation for the paschal lamb—its bitterness lends an appreciation for the value of the paschal lamb.
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