Passover, like all the other holidays set forth in the Bible, originated before we got to the Promised Land. The biblical basis of the holiday was revealed during the 40 years we wandered in the desert. And yet, the holiday clearly contains both historical and agricultural elements. Passover is the festival of freedom, the commemoration of the exodus but it is also the festival of spring, of renewal and of the beginning of the harvest in the agricultural cycle of life in Eretz Yisrael .
The Mishnah, the first compilation of the oral tradition that arose after the Bible, was written in Israel around 200 C.E. It is most definitely rooted in the natural environment and agricultural rhythms of Jewish life in the land of Israel. Much of the Passover Haggadah and many of the laws and customs of Passover originate in the Mishnah.
They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs ( maror ). -Exodus 12:8
And these are the vegetables by which one fulfills the requirement of eating [bitter] herbs on Passover: lettuce ( chazeret ), endive, chervil, sea holly, and sow-thistle ( maror ). -Mishnah Pesachim 2:6
The translation of the last three of the five herbs is subject to debate among the commentators ancient and modern. It seems that all five are common leafy vegetables or weeds that grow in the springtime in Israel (except in the desert). All of them are known to be more or less bitter at least at some stage in their development (romaine lettuce doesnt really get bitter until it goes to seed). In any case, they are all part of the spring landscape of Israel. Just today I passed a family of local Arabs combing the weeds by the roadside for the wild Arab lettuce that they pick for their table at this season.
So wheres the horseradish? It seems pretty certain that horseradish was unknown in Israel at the time of the Mishnah; it is a European import. All of the medieval commentators agree that the first and preferred vegetable for the bitter herb is chazeret, which they all translate as lettuce certainly not the modern iceberg head lettuce, but the more common leafy romaine type which has always been found here. Somewhere along the line, in Europe, Jews started using horseradish, which in fact is not bitter, but pungent and irritating. On the one hand, I have always felt that the way horseradish brings tears to our eyes is just what the Haggadah has in mind: when we eat it, it reminds us of the tears of slavery. On the other hand, when we look at the original catalog of permitted bitter herbs, it is clear that what the Bible and the Mishnah meant was not tearjerking, but simply bitter.
But wait theres more: in modern Hebrew, chazeret is the word for horseradish, not lettuce. And the word maror , which we take to be the generic term for a bitter herb (from mar , which means bitter) actually refers in the Mishnah to a specific plant, apparently the common, edible but quite bitter weed called in English sow-thistle. To confuse things even more, most seder plates have two separate compartments labeled chazeret and maror . If we put horseradish in one, maybe we should put some nice bitter endive leaves in the other, thus recognizing our roots in both Israel and in the Diaspora, and stimulating an interesting discussion at the table about our ability as Jews to make fine distinctions between different qualities of suffering, different memories of the bitterness of slavery.