Is it preferable to use horseradish or lettuce for maror at the Seder? I have heard different opinions and am confused as are many people I know. I have heard of people who use both. How can the Jewish people not know what to use for maror?
1. Maror comes from the word "mar" meaning bitter. As everyone knows "bitter" is distinct from "hot" or "sharp". Horseradish and wasabi are sharp but most certainly not bitter; grapefruit and coffee are bitter but most certainly not sharp.
2. The Mishna (P’sahim 2:6; TB 39a) lists several species of yarakot which may serve as maror. Yarakot are not "vegetables" as the term is used in English (or as the term yarakot is misused in spoken Hebrew today). Yarakot, literally "greens" (from the Hebrew word for green "yarok"), are leafy, green vegetables, which is why according to R. Yehuda one says “Bore Mine D’shaim” (Who created different types of greenery) on yarakot as opposed to “Bore P’ri Ha’Adhama” (Who created the fruits of the earth) for foods such as potato or onion (Mishna Berachot 6:1). The Mishna states further that one may use the stalks as well as the leaves; the roots, on the other hand, may not be used for maror (see R. Yaakov Emden’s Sidur Beth Yaakov, Hagada). From all the above we know with certainty that maror is an edible leaf, such as lettuce, and not a root such as horseradish (which is also not green).
3. The yarakot listed in the Mishna are: Hazereth (Romaine lettuce), Ul’shin (chicory), Tamkha, Harhavina (eryngo), Maror (sonchus). The braytha quoted in the Talmud provides the following signs for maror greens: a white, milky substance is exuded by the stalks/ribs when cut, and leaves that are silvery green (i.e. not very dark green). See Pisqe Riaz Pesahim 2:5:2. This fits precisely with the following description of Romaine lettuce: “The thick ribs, especially on the older outer leaves, should have a milky fluid which gives the romaine the typically fine-bitter herb taste… Romaine is the usual lettuce in Middle Eastern cuisine”. None of the above is remotely reminiscent of horseradish which “is mainly cultivated for its large white, tapered root…The leaves of the plant, while edible, are not commonly eaten, and are referred to as "horseradish greens”.
4. I do not know what "horseradish greens" taste like (because they are “not commonly eaten”). Even if it were true that "horseradish greens" may be used for maror, the fact is that those who use horseradish eat the root, not the leaves.
5. The foregoing should convince all but the most obstinate or obtuse that Romaine lettuce (as opposed to round ‘iceberg’ lettuce) or the other greens mentioned are maror, whereas horseradish root is clearly not. It follows that one does not fulfill the mitzvah of maror with horseradish.
6. The reason many Ashkenazim use horseradish is very simple: in colder European climes leafy, green vegetables were unavailable at Pesah time. R. Tzvi Ashkenazi (the Hacham Tzvi) makes this point explicitly. The Hacham Tzvi (Vol. 1, 119), the Ya’abess (Sidur Beth Yaakov mentioned above) and Hatam Sofer (OH 132) – all Ashkenazim – write that one should use Romaine lettuce for maror.
7. This is just one more example that clearly demonstrates the fundamental truth that Galut (Exile) is inimical to authentic Torah Judaism. In answer to your question: the Jewish people know exactly what maror is. All Jews except those who found themselves in cold, northern climates where leafy greens were unobtainable have always used lettuce and the like. For those who became used to the Galut-mode Judaism of northern Europe, it is high time to reacquaint themselves with the real McCoy.
1st of Iyyar, 5771 May 4th 2011