Is your maror too strong?

The ways of our Torah are pleasant. They are not supposed to cause us pain or discomfort, physically or emotionally. This is especially important to remember on Passover.

Passover should not be too bitter. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Passover should not be too bitter.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While many have the custom of eating raw horseradish at the Passover Seder, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook questioned whether one can fulfill the mitzva of maror (bitter herbs) if the maror is too strong. The mitzva, after all, is to eat the maror. If it burns one’s mouth and tongue and throat, Rabbi Kook reasons, that is not “eating.” Rabbi Kook writes that the commandments are not supposed to cause pain. He invokes Proverbs 3:17: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”
The ways of our Torah are pleasant. They are not supposed to cause us pain or discomfort, physically or emotionally. This is especially important to remember on Passover.
Unfortunately, today many are confused by unnecessary stringencies. They mistake the Festival of Freedom for the Festival of Stringency. Whether it’s cleaning the home, throwing out food products that can instead be sold or donated, or prohibiting products that are technically permissible, many go overboard, doing more than Jewish law requires. They drive themselves – and their families – crazy.
Some of these stringencies are innocuous, but some are dangerous. Every year there are house fires all over Israel and abroad caused by those improperly “kashering” the kitchen.
Sadly, some rabbis even mislead their congregations. Just last week the website Kikar Hashabbat reported on a rabbi in Petah Tikva who instructed his community to “kasher” their mouths before Passover with boiling water.
The hassidic master Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) was against stringencies in general, and on Passover in particular. His disciple, Natan of Nemirov, records: “Our Rebbe cautioned us not to be overly stringent in any observance, as ‘God does not rule over His creatures with tyranny,’ and ‘The Torah was not given to the ministering angels....
“He did not agree at all with those who observe additional stringencies on Passover, as it brings them to a deep, dark depression. He spoke about this at length. One of his followers once asked him how to act with regard to a stringency. And he [Rebbe Nachman] made a joke of it.
“...Once he [Rebbe Nachman] worried about the drinking water used during Passover. He was afraid that a small amount of leaven might have fallen into the well from which they drew water. The only alternative would be to prepare water in advance, as some people do. But this was also not good enough, for the water had to be carefully safeguarded from leaven from the day before Passover, and this proved very difficult. The Rebbe finally came to the conclusion that the only satisfactory water would be water drawn from a flowing spring. He could then obtain perfectly fresh water without any possibility of it being contaminated. The problem was that the only such spring in the area was very far from his home. He thought about traveling to a place near a spring, and spending Passover there.
“The Rebbe had become involved in such unnecessary stringencies and entered into a dark depression. But then he later ridiculed this, and taught that one does not have to search for additional stringencies, even on Passover.
“The Rebbe spoke about this at length and concluded: ‘True devotion consists mainly of simplicity and sincerity. Pray much, study much Torah, do many good deeds, and do not worry yourself with unnecessary restrictions. Just walk in the way of our forefathers.’”
Another hassidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, was famous for being scrupulous when baking matza for Passover. One year, Levi Yitzchak was ill and unable to participate in the baking himself. His students asked, “Rebbe, what stringencies should we employ in order to bake the matza to your liking?” The rabbi answered: “Let me tell you where I am most stringent. The women that work baking the matza are very poor. Some of the men who oversee the baking, do not always treat them well. At times they even raise their voices due to the great pressure involved. In this area I am most stringent. Be sensitive to them. Do not raise your voice at them. Anyone who gets angry with them during the baking of the matza makes the matza into hametz!’
The very same Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev used to wish everyone a “Kosher Purim” and a “Happy Passover,” the opposite of the traditional greetings. He explained: “On Purim one needs to be sure not to go overboard while celebrating, so the day should be observed in a kosher way. However, on Passover everyone is very careful to make sure that everything is kosher, but in the midst of all our concern we might forget to be full of joy!”
One is indeed obligated to “rejoice in the festival” (Deuteronomy 16:14). Part of that obligation is to “make the members of his household happy on the festival” (Pesachim 109a). This means purchasing nice things for them to enjoy over the holiday (see Rambam, Hil. Yom Tov 6:18; Shulchan Aruch, OC 529:2). This mitzva, of course, should also include not burdening them with additional work and stress because of unnecessary stringencies.
We are obligated to leave the Seder table with the taste of the Afikoman on our tongues. How sad and tragic if Passover leaves a bitter taste in our mouths.
The author lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as rabbi of Har Nof’s Kehilat Zichron Yosef.