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Horseradish and Other Items on the Seder Plate

April 21, 2019

In the spring of 2000, I had a solo exhibition of my artwork at Peoria’s Contemporary Art  Center.  My exhibition consisted of around thirty paintings based on the Exodus and Passover.  One of my pieces in this show was a seder plate that I painted on a 16-inch diameter wooden platter (featured right).

     Even though we are not obligated to follow all the prescriptions of Jewish tradition, I included the six traditional items on my seder plate, for two reasons.

     One, because extra-Biblical traditions are not wrong when they are not anti-Biblical.  They can actually be good if they help us more clearly understand spiritual principles and help us enter into worship with a greater appreciation for the Lord.

     Two, because without the traditional extra-Biblical items on a seder plate, it would not look like a seder plate and would not be a very visually stimulating piece of art.  The only elements the Bible prescribes for Passover are the roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.  So for my art show, I painted a traditional seder plate.

     The word in the center of the plate is pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover.  This word refers to the festival, as in “I will keep the passover” (Matt. 26:18), or to the sacrificed lamb itself, as in “eat the passover” (Matt. 26:17).

     There is no longer a Temple where lambs can be sacrificed for Passover, so Jews include the shank bone of a lamb on the seder plate in memory of all the Passover lambs that were slain since that night of the first Passover in Egypt.

     The place for the shank bone can be seen at the two o’clock position on my seder plate.  The Hebrew word below the lamb is zaroa’.  This word appears on all seder plates, often accompanied by a picture of a lamb as it is on my plate.  The word zaroa’ also appears in the opening verse of Isaiah 53, where it is translated “arm.”  To the left of the lamb, I painted the Hebrew text of Isaiah 53:1, the opening verse of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy about Yeshua’s suffering as the Lamb of God:  “Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm [zaroa’ ] of Yahweh revealed?”

     On my seder plate, the Hebrew word zaroa’ is painted red both times (below the lamb and in the text of Isaiah) to draw attention to Messiah as Isaiah’s zaroa’/arm of Yahweh.

     Directly below the lamb, at the four o’clock position, is the place for the charoset, a mixture of chopped apples and nuts, usually sweetened with honey, grape juice, cinnamon, or some other combination of sweeteners and spices.  The mortar-like consistency of the charoset is a reminder of the mortar that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt used to make bricks for Pharaoh.  The sweetness of the charoset reminds us of the sweetness of redemption and freedom.  The charoset is not commanded in the Bible, but it is an appropriate way to remember the mortar used in Egypt.  And it is an appropriate aid to help us appreciate the sweetness of redemption and freedom.

     Directly across from the charoset, at the ten o’clock position, is betsah, the hard roasted egg.  No, it’s not an Easter egg.  The egg’s natural color makes it too dull and colorless to be an Easter egg.  More importantly, the hard egg is a reminder of Pharaoh’s hard heart and of the hard hearts of all sinners who stubbornly refuse to do what God tells them to do.

     The other three items on the seder plate are the maror at the twelve o’clock position, the chazeret at the six o’clock position, and the karpas at the eight o’clock position.  This is where things get a little complicated and confusing.  On my seder plate, I painted horseradish for the maror, lettuce for the chazeret, and parsley for the karpas, following Jewish tradition.  To be more precise, following relatively recent Jewish tradition.  Let me explain.

     The only one of these three vegetables the Bible prescribes for Passover is maror, the “bitter herb.”  But which vegetables are bitter enough to qualify as bitter herbs?  Well, according to the Mishnah (tractate Pesachim), the edible plants in Israel that were bitter enough to qualify were ulshin (chicory or endive), tamkha (black salsify), charchavina (probably eryngo), and hazeret (which in Mishnaic Hebrew meant “lettuce” but in modern Hebrew means “horseradish” - which can cause some confusion), and of course maror itself (which in Mishnaic Hebrew meant “sow thistle” but in modern Hebrew can simply mean “horseradish” - which can cause even more confusion).

     Confused yet?  Probably so, because I am.  Just reading and writing about these words and their semantic changes over the centuries is somewhat confusing to me.  If chazeret meant “lettuce” in Mishnaic times, why does it mean “horseradish” in modern Hebrew?  Why is horseradish used instead of sow thistle for maror in the Passover seder?  Maybe because “sow thistle” sounds unkosher?  Probably not, because a horse is just as unkosher as a sow.

     And what about karpas, the parsley?  Why is it on the seder plate when it is not mentioned in either the Mishnah or the Bible (except in Esther, where it is translated “green,” but according to Strong’s lexicon actually means “linen” but according to the Ben Yehudah dictionary means “celery, parsley” or “fine cotton cloth”)?

     And the same question goes for horseradish.  The whole karpas “parsley versus celery (or linen or cotton)” debate is so complex that I’m not even going to discuss it here.  But because horseradish is such an important part of Passover today, I want to write about horseradish.

     Horseradish is so closely associated with Passover that some people cannot think about horseradish in any context other than Passover.  This is especially true of people who eat horseradish only one time a year, at Passover.

     Passover wouldn’t be Passover without horseradish, people think.  But it might surprise you to learn that among Moroccan and Persian Jews horseradish is not used on the seder plate.  These Jews, who still live in the Middle East where their ancestors lived, follow an old tradition of using the plants listed in the Mishnah as “bitter herbs”/maror, because these plants grow well in a Mediterranean climate.  Jews who migrated to Europe lived in a colder climate, where these warm-climate Palestinian plants did not grow.  However, root vegetables grew well in Europe.  One of the most bitter root vegetables is horseradish, so European Jews started using horseradish for their “bitter herb.”  Hebrew formerly had no word for horseradish, so Jews started calling horseradish maror - “bitter herbs.”  Eventually maror came to be used exclusively for horseradish.  So now, unless you are a Jew of Moroccan or Persian ancestry, you eat horseradish for your maror at Passover.

     That tells us how horseradish probably came to be called maror in Hebrew, but how did this root vegetable come to be called “horseradish” in English?  Did people feed it to their horses?  I doubt it.  I’ve fed carrots and apples to horses, but I’ve never tried to feed horseradish to a horse.  Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’d be afraid of how a horse might react if it took a big bite of raw horseradish.

     According to one source, the English word horseradish might have come through a misunderstanding of the German word for horseradish.  Horseradish grew wild by the sea in Europe, so the Germans called it meerettich, which means “sea radish.”  English-speaking people might have mistaken the term “meer-radish” for “mare radish” and thus ended up calling it “horse radish.”

     Horses might not eat horseradish, but people do.  Horseradish is actually very good for you.  I have an old newspaper clipping from 1999.  “Horseradish Kills Bacteria!” the headline screams.  According to the article, horseradish can kill E. coli, listeria, and staphylococcus, dangerous forms of bacteria sometimes found in meats.

     “While it’s long been believed to have curative powers, research into horseradish’s properties now proves it,” the article continues, citing results from researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

     Steve Gold, president of Gold’s Foods, Inc., is quoted as saying, “Horseradish doesn’t only inhibit the germs, it’s also a great flavor enhancer.  And now that it’s both delicious and healthy, I can’t see why everybody would just not want to spoon it straight from the bottle.”  Although the article does not state this, I suspect Steve Gold hopes that the brand of horseradish we spoon out from the bottle will be Gold’s Horseradish.

     Most of the horseradish in the world is grown right here in Illinois, on 1800 acres of rich soil in a tri-county region east of St. Louis.  German immigrants started planting horseradish in southern Illinois in the late 1800s, and today their descendants carry on the tradition of planting, harvesting, and shipping horseradish to food companies across the nation and around the world.

     The heart of horseradish country is Collinsville, Illinois (population 24,707), the self-proclaimed Horseradish Capital of the World.  Since 1998 Collinsville has hosted the International Horseradish Festival every June.  Last year I decided to visit the Horseradish Capital of the World to get more information about horseradish.

     The International Horseradish Festival starts off with an opening ceremony in which the Festival Chairman, Mike, eats a big hearty spoonful of horseradish straight from the bottle, just like Steve Gold recommends.  After Mike recovers, the opening ceremony is followed by other horseradish-related events: a horseradish recipe contest, horseradish-root golfing, horseradish-root tossing contests, a horseradish-root car derby, and the Little Miss Horseradish Beauty Pageant.  (Really.  I’m not making this stuff up.)

     The horseradish company that is the largest supplier of horseradish root is the J.R. Kelly Company in Collinsville.  Before my trip to Collinsville, I looked at their web site and learned that they sell different kinds of horseradish in the retail section of their facility.  So I drove there to get some of their horseradish.

     The building did not look like a retail facility.  It looked more like an industrial building or a warehouse.  But this was the only address I had for the J.R. Kelly Company in Collinsville, so I opened the door and went inside.

     Just inside the door there was a small office with a secretary behind a six-foot counter.

     “Do you have a retail store that sells horseradish?” I asked her.

     “Well, this is basically it,” she answered.  “We just keep some jars here in this little fridge behind the counter, and sell it right here.”

     She took out four jars from the dorm-size refrigerator and showed me the four types of Kelly’s Pride Horseradish: horseradish mustard, horseradish sauce (horseradish in a mayonnaise base), horseradish cocktail sauce (horseradish in ketchup), and plain horseradish.  I don’t like horseradish in mayonnaise, but I bought one jar each of the other three.  All three tasted pretty good, but no better than other brands that I have tasted.

     I asked the secretary if they ship horseradish to Israel for Passover.  She said no, but they ship a lot to the northeastern United States, where lots of Jews live.

     I learned that one company in New York that uses horseradish from Collinsville is Gold’s Foods in Hempstead.  This is the same Gold’s Foods whose president can’t see why everybody would not just want to spoon horseradish straight from the bottle.

     Apparently Jews in Israel get their horseradish from a different source, but lots of Jews in the United States eat horseradish from Collinsville, Illinois.  So this Passover when you spoon out your horseradish straight from the bottle and feel the fire in your nostrils and the hot tears coursing down your cheeks, let it remind you of the bitter tears the Hebrew slaves shed in Egypt.  Then after you have recovered, let it remind you of your brothers and sisters here in Illinois, because chances are that your horseradish was grown in southern Illinois, the Horseradish Capital of the World.

 

| DB

 

Read more articles by Daniel Botkin in his bimonthly magazine Gates of Eden. To get on the mailing list, send your name and mailing address to: danielbotkin49@gmail.com. Be sure to send a physical mailing address, not just an email address, because it is printed on real paper and delivered to your home.

 

 

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Sources

 

Englert, Stuart.  “Relishing its Roots: Illinois town pays homage to horseradish.”  American Profile, 5/15-21/11, pg. 12.

 

The Horseradish House.  Pamphlet published by J.R. Kelly Co., Collinsville, Illinois.

 

“Horseradish Kills Bacteria!”  The Jewish Press, 4/2/99, pg. 35.

 

Philologos, “How Green Was My Seder Plate: Celery or Parsley for the Seder? That Is the Question.”  The Forward, 3/29/13, pg. 13.

 

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Image (Top): Seder Plate, original painting by Daniel Botkin in the Exodus Gallery of his art website, danielbotkin.com

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