Gardening: Holy horseradish

On the Seder plate, Romaine lettuce is often used for maror.

seder plate 88 (photo credit: )
seder plate 88
(photo credit: )
Many years ago, it so happened that a poor Jew and a poor German crossed paths and became friends. They moved about from town to town, relying on charity to keep body and soul together. The Jew taught the German Yiddish and instructed him how to act in order to blend in with and receive maximum sympathy from other Jews. Just before Pessah, the Jew taught the German about the Seder and the various ceremonial foods and fine dinner he could expect to eat. Inadvertently, however, the Jew forgot to mention maror, the bitter herb consumed just before the Seder meal. On the first night of Pessah, sure enough, they were invited to a Seder. The German sat himself down at the table and was soon salivating in eager expectation of a fabulous feast. However, as the Seder moved along at a leisurely pace, the German slowly became ravenously hungry. Finally, it was time to eat the bitter herbs and the German, upon tasting and swallowing the horseradish on his plate, became uncontrollably agitated and left the Seder so quickly that his friend could not stop him. The Jew stayed until the conclusion of the Seder and afterwards met up with the German. "What happened to you?" asked the Jew. "It was unbearable," replied the German. "All that talking and waiting and then nothing to eat except big bland crackers and horseradish." "Ignoramus!" the Jew shouted. "You only had to stay a few more minutes, like I did, and you would have been served the most delicious and satisfying meal of your life." What happened to the German in this story, as explained by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, parallels the experience of many Jews, especially if you felt distant from Jewish observance or from God, but then finally started the return journey back to your roots. Yet just when you thought you were really making progress, something happened. There was a bitter turn of events. Suddenly, you thought this single unfortunate circumstance was what Judaism was all about; you drew drastic conclusions, and fled once again from your heritage. But what you failed to appreciate, according to Rebbe Nachman, was that the bitterness you experienced was only meant to cleanse you of your own murky past. If you would only have stayed with it a little longer, you would have been rewarded with incredible delicacies. Being impatient, self-centered or simply caught up with your own uncontrollable appetites, you tragically missed out on the spiritual delights waiting just around the bend. Besides, Hassidim do not fear - and may even welcome - bitterness with its sharp call to action. On the Seder plate, Romaine lettuce is often used for maror. The reason has to do with the experience of the Hebrew people in Egypt, which parallels the development - taste wise - of lettuce leaves themselves. The initial experience of the Hebrew people in Egypt was benign enough, even sweet at first, but grew progressively bitter. In Egypt, the descendants of Jacob went from being prosperous farmers to wage-earning employees to slaves. Lettuce reminds us of this because it is sweet tasting when young, becoming increasingly acerbic with age. When lettuce begins to bolt or send out flower stalks in its final stage of growth, the leaves that appear alongside its flowers are absolutely inedible. Because the Torah instructs us to eat the plural marorim, or bitters, there is a place for hazeret, a second type of bitter herb, on the Seder plate. Hazeret is derived from the word for return, perhaps referring to the purification and return of the nation to God after leaving Egypt and before receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, or to the return of the people to the land of Israel as the end goal of the Egyptian exodus. In Modern Hebrew, hazeret means horseradish, even as its meaning in Mishnaic Hebrew is lettuce. Yet there is no clear proof, for purposes of placement on the Seder plate, as to whether maror should be lettuce and hazeret should be horseradish or the other way around. There are scholarly arguments for each opinion. Lettuce can be grown throughout the year, even though it thrives in spring and fall when temperatures are cool. Lettuce seeds are among the easiest and quickest to germinate, reliably sprouting within seven to 10 days. You can grow lettuce in the ground or in balcony or window box containers. Lettuce turns bitter when it gets too much heat; if you plan on growing lettuce in the summer, give it a shadier location than you would during the cooler seasons. Horseradish is also easy to grow. The part we eat is a fleshy underground stem known as a rhizome. Take six to eight inch rhizome pieces you find at the market and bury them as deep as 12 inches in well-drained soil. You should wait at least a year before excavating your fattened rhizome but some people wait as long as three years between planting and harvest. The longer you keep the rhizomes in the earth, the sharper their taste becomes.