You may have wondered what that piece of lettuce is doing on the seder plate. What is that for? Where does it go on the plate? The answer to these questions all comes down to a little-understood problem – Missing Maror Syndrome.
Maror, of course, is the "bitter herb" that was introduced by the biblical commandment: "They shall eat [the Paschal sacrifice]…with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs" (Exodus 12:8). You probably knew that already. However, you may not know what herb (or vegetable) we are supposed to eat to fulfill the commandment. If you say that it's horseradish, I have some disturbing news for you.
Horseradish is not bitter and it's not an herb. Think about it. You know what bitterness tastes like – it is the taste of foods like coffee, unsweetened chocolate, and tonic water. It is a taste that many people find unpleasant, so it is often offset by sweeteners like milk and sugar in your coffee and chocolate.
Horseradish, in contrast is "sharp," not bitter. The experience we most associate with eating horseradish is that burning and tearing sensation you get in your mouth, eyes and sinuses. It is the result of an enzyme that is released when horseradish root is cut or grated. (The enzyme is called allyl isothiocyanate, if you want to get all scientific about it). It's a powerful sensation … but it is not bitterness.
Furthermore, the word "herb" in English usually refers to an aromatic leaf of a plant, either fresh or dried, to give food added flavor. When you think of herbs, you probably think of dill, mint, oregano, basil and parsley, which all come from leaves. You don't usually think of horseradish, which is made from the root of the plant. So, again, horseradish is neither bitter nor an herb.
The real bitter herb on your seder plate is that piece of romaine lettuce. It is specifically mentioned (as chazeret in Hebrew) in the Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) as the best option for fulfilling the mitzvah. The Mishnah also mentions the names of four other vegetables, but it is uncertain which specific species are meant. The words are ulshin (endive), tamcha (another kind of endive?), charchavinah (field eryngo?), and maror (bitter coriander?). Endives can indeed be used as the bitter herb for the seder, and some people do, but romaine lettuce is the more popular choice.
Why is lettuce considered so ideal to eat as the bitter herb? There is a compelling answer in the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 2:5) which says that lettuce is sweet when it first sprouts but the leaves gradually grow bitter as the plant matures. This is symbolic of the way that, initially, the Egyptians were very welcoming of the Israelites, but over time they gradually "made life bitter for them with harsh labor."
The Jerusalem Talmud's recommendation of romaine lettuce for maror is symbolic of one of the central meanings of Passover. Repeatedly, the Haggadah reminds us that there have been many versions of Pharaoh throughout history, and more will certainly come in the future. We must always be on guard against being seduced into slavery again, in one form or another. Romaine lettuce reminds us of how the sweetness of insincere hospitality can turn into bitter oppression.
So, how did horseradish (which, again, is not bitter, and is not an herb) take the place of lettuce as Passover's bitter herb? Well, for one thing, people today do not often think of lettuce as being a very bitter plant. That is, in part, because modern cultivars of lettuce are much less bitter than the wild lettuces eaten in ancient times.
It also has to do with availability. Jews living in Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia in premodern times had to eat what they were able to grow and only when it was in season. In early- or mid-April, lettuce was still months away from harvesting in these northern countries. Most Jews could not afford to purchase foods from far away and, without refrigeration, perishable foods like lettuce were not available at any price. Using romaine lettuce as the bitter herb was just not realistic. That was the Missing Maror Syndrome. They needed to find something else to put on their seder plate.
If you were a Jewish peasant living in Russia in the 15th century, the only vegetables you had to eat in April were those you had stored in your root cellar from the previous year's harvest. There you would find the inevitable answer: horseradish root. It may not have tasted exactly bitter, but it made you cry when you ate it, so it seemed to fulfill the commandment to eat it in remembrance of the bitterness of slavery. You sliced up the root, or ground it into a paste, and you placed it on your seder plate as the bitter herb. Syndrome solved.
Once the practice of using horseradish was established by necessity, it soon took on legal and religious authority. By the 17th century, rabbis from northern Europe (places where lettuce does not grow in springtime), were stating that horseradish was, in fact, a the best vegetable to fulfill the mitzvah. One Polish authority (Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller) even justified the use of horseradish by claiming that it was the true meaning of the word tamcha in the Mishnah, despite the fact that horseradish was unknown in the ancient Middle East.
Over time, Jews in northern Europe began to make the association in their minds: "bitter herb" equals horseradish. When the language of Modern Hebrew was developed in the late 19th century, the word chazeret, which originally meant romaine lettuce in the Mishnah, came to be used to mean horseradish.
Today, in a time when lettuce can easily be transported in refrigerated storage on trains and ships, most Jews follow both traditions and include both horseradish and romaine lettuce on their seder plate. The lettuce is often used for the korech, the so-called "Hillel Sandwich."
There is still confusion, though, about where to place the romaine lettuce on the seder plate. Should it go on the spot labeled maror, or on the spot labeled chazeret? Both are correct, because romaine lettuce, which the Mishnah calls chazeret, is the ancient rabbis' favored variety of maror. You can put the lettuce in the spot marked chazeret and the horseradish in the spot marked maror. However, if you speak Israeli Modern Hebrew, you will probably do the opposite, placing the horseradish in the spot labeled chazeret, because that is what the word means to you. You will then put your lettuce in the place marked maror.
Either way, have a sweet and kosher Passover, one that brings to mind the bitterness of slavery and our faith in God's promise of deliverance and freedom.