Pesachim 39

Bitter bitter herbs.

Writing about a lively Passover seder held by Union soldiers in the midst of the Civil War, J.A. Joel of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment delighted in describing what this remarkable feast of freedom on a battlefield entailed. Thanks to “Yankee ingenuity,” the group imported matzah and haggadahs from Cincinnati to West Virginia, devoured an entire lamb (since they didn’t know which part was the shankbone), and substituted actual brick dust for haroset. And because no horseradish was available to serve as the bitter herb, the company dug up a local weed to serve the purpose. It turned out to be quite bitter, as Joel describes:

“The herb was very bitter and very fiery like Cayenne pepper, and excited our thirst to such a degree, that we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and the consequence was we drank up all the cider. Those that drank the more freely became excited, and one thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself a Pharaoh. The consequence was a skirmish, with nobody hurt, only Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh, had to be carried to the camp, and there left in the arms of Morpheus.”

The catharsis this scrappy seder-turned-bar-fight offered to weary Union soldiers in the midst of a grueling war is palpable. The alternative bitter herb, an unknown weed growing in the wilds of West Virginia, was clearly a memorable highlight. But what would the Talmud say about this substitute maror?

Exodus 12:8 commands the Israelites to eat “bitter herbs” on Passover and the mishnah that begins today’s page lists specific species that are acceptable. (The Gemara later notes that more than one species is acceptable because the Torah refers to “bitter herbs” in the plural.) Even the Gemara is not entirely sure what all these species are, but let me offer some educated guesses with a bit of help from the translation available on Sefaria: lettuce, chervil, field eryngo, endives, and horseradish.

As the Gemara begins discussing this mishnah, several things become clear. The bitter herbs must be flora, not fauna (so the bile of the kufya fish, while bitter, does not fulfill one’s obligation in this regard). They must have sap and a light green or greyish color. They can be fresh or dried. And one can use leaf, stem or root. And while horseradish is considered the most bitter of the options, lettuce (hazeret) is actually the preferred species. This is not just because the mishnah lists it first:

And Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said that Rabbi Yohanan said: Why are the Egyptians likened to bitter herbs in the verse: “And they embittered their lives” (Exodus 1:14)? This comparison serves to tell you that just as these bitter herbs are soft at first and harsh in the end, so too, the Egyptians were soft at first (when they paid the Jews for their work) but were harsh in the end (when they enslaved them). 

This teaching is brought as proof that lettuce, which initially tastes sweet but gives a bitter aftertaste, is in fact the preferred bitter herb to fulfill the obligation laid out in Exodus 12:8. Today, most people use horseradish, the most bitter option (though probably not as bitter as whatever those Union soldiers ate in West Virginia), though hazeret still has a place on the seder plate. But under no circumstances, the Gemara chides, may one pickle or boil the bitter taste completely out of the herb. One might argue this makes beet-pickled chrain a poor choice for the seder — though certainly a delicious condiment to enjoy throughout the holiday. One is not necessarily commanded to swallow something so bitter as those Union troops, but neither is one supposed to completely wimp out.

See you tomorrow!

Read all of Pesachim 39 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 30th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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