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Horseradish became a seder staple- eventually

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Would you like a little bit of gefilte fish with your chrain? (Screencap: St. Charles Jewish Festival)

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What food is an essential component of the traditional wedding dinner in southern Germany and served with cooked beef?

It is also used as salad served with lamb dishes at Easter in Transylvania and other Romanian regions; in Serbia, it is an essential condiment with cooked meat and freshly roasted suckling pig; in Slovenia, it is a traditional Easter dish, grated and mixed with sour cream, hard-boiled eggs or apples; in southern Italy, it is a main course with eggs, cheese and sausage.

Why is it called ‘Horseradish’? The English of the 1590s coined the word combining horse meaning coarse or strong and the word radish.  It is probably indigenous to Eastern Europe but has been cultivated since antiquity and was known in Egypt in 1500 BCE. 

According to the Haggadah, we are to eat it to symbolize the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. “And they embittered their lives with hard labor, with mortar and with bricks and with all manner of labor in the field; any labor that they made them do was with hard labor” (Exodus 1:14)

Maror is one of the foods on the seder plate which we bless then dip into haroset to symbolize the mortar which the Israelites used to bind the bricks. Shaking off the haroset, we eat the minimum amount of maror, the volume of an olive. 

According to John Cooper in Eat and Be Satisfied—A Social History of Jewish food, “the Mishnah enumerated five vegetables that could be utilized as the bitter herb for the Seder service, all of which should have leaves. The five are: chazeret, ilshin, tamcha, charchavina, and maror

Chazeret refers to lettuce; ulshin is either endive or chicory or both; tamcha was a leafy, dull green herb also known as horehoud which has none of the Talmudic characteristics and is used in cough medicine and liqueur; charchavina was either field eryngo or sea eryngo. Maror may be wormwood or a thistle. Sephardim interpret chazeret as Romaine lettuce. 

Rabbi Alexander Suslin of Frankfurt, who died in 1394, was the first authority to permit the use of horseradish, where lettuce was not available, although this vegetable was primarily a fleshy root that did not strictly conform with the halahic requirement of eating leaves. The Talmud also says, besides leaves, maror should have latex sap and dull green foilage, neither of which is in horseradish. The medieval German rabbinic authorities appear to have identified horseradish incorrectly, Merretich in German with merirta, the Aramaic form of maror, the Hebrew for bitter.

Prior to this, according to Gil Marks (z”l) in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Eliezer ben Nathan of Mainz who lived from 1090 to 1170, mentions chrain to make charoset. Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah of Worms in Sefer ha-Rokeach (published around 1200) included it in his charoset ingredients.

Germans used whole pieces of horseradish for maror while Eastern Europeans grated it.

It was not until Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Ben Nathan Heller (1579-1654) of Moravia, in his commentary on the Mishnah, considered it to be one mentioned in the Talmud, tamchah. In Central and Eastern Europe it is called khren/chrain which is also Yiddish. Red horseradish is mixed with red beetroot and white khren contains no beet. 

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In Hebrew, it is called chazeret, which is on the Talmudic list of accepted types of maror. Horseradish is actually a root vegetable in the same family as mustard, wasabi, broccoli and cabbage.

When this plant grows, it can reach 4.9 feet and is cultivated for its root which has hardly any aroma. When the root is cut or grated, cells break down and produce an oil which irritates the nose and eyes.

German immigrants in the late 1800s began growing it in Collinsville, Illinois, a Mississippi River basin area adjacent to St. Louis. The self-proclaimed horseradish capital of the world has been hosting the Horseradish Festival since 1988 since this is where most of the world’s supply is grown. Six million gallons are produced here annually.

The first American Jewish cookbook, published as Jewish Cookery in 1871, included a recipe for “Horseradish Stew.” When the Settlement Cookbook was published in 1901, “Horseradish Sauce” and “Beer and Horseradish Relish” were included.

H.J. Heinz processed and bottled horseradish in 1869. In 1932, Hyman Gold and his wife, Tillie, processed and bottled horseradish in their Brooklyn apartment. Today, Gold’s and other private labels, produce 90,000 bottles a day of the classic plain and grated beet horseradish without sugar.

My late husband liked to tell the story of coming home from school one day before Passover, at the age of eight, and going into the kitchen where his grandmother (z”l) was grating horseradish. She would make horseradish almost every week. He jumped up on a chair, took one big whiff and fell over backwards! Thank goodness his father was in the room and caught him.  

Think about some of this history when you take a piece of horseradish for the blessing over maror this Passover or place some on your gefilte fish.

Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, food writer and author (Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel), nine cookbooks (including What’s Cooking at Hadassah College.) She lived in Israel from 1970-1980; she and her late husband, Barry, came to live in Jerusalem in 2008, where she works as a foreign correspondent for North American Jewish publications, lectures to senior citizen residences, walks in English in Machaneh Yehudah, the Jewish produce market. She has been book reviewing for 40 years. 

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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