Romaine Lettuce is No Joke

Question:

You wrote in a previous post: “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.”

I am not such a meivin to be able to distinguish between sharp and bitter, but certainly a lemon in halacha is called a davar harif, and whatever lemon has got, grapefruit has got. If you eat the rind, it may be bitter, but the usual thing is to eat the soft parts, which are sharp and sweet.

Romaine lettuce is not bitter and to say that it is is a joke. When I first brought the idea of Romaine lettuce as maror home from yeshiva, my parents laughed at me. My mother snacked on the romaine lettuce throughout the Seder, she couldn't even wait for the right time. The part of horseradish usually eaten is indeed the root, but we ate the leaves also. Romaine lettuce is no more bitter than iceberg lettuce.


Answer:

1. When it comes to taste buds and the information they impart, I am no more a maven than the next person. Any healthy person, in any cultural context, can distinguish between sharp/hot/spicy and bitter flavors. Do you know of anyone who would describe a cayenne or chili pepper as "bitter"?


2. A "davar harif", for the purposes of ta'arovoth and ma'akhaloth asuroth, is a food stuff that, due to its astringency, seals in flavors; it has nothing to do with the taste. A lemon, which is sour (but not bitter) is "harif" because it is acerbic and astringent due to its high acidity. Grapefruit too is acidic, but is more bitter than sour. Lemons and grapefruit share acidity, not flavor. An onion is referred to as harif because it too is astringent. These three items represent three distinct flavors, which are detected by distinct sets of taste buds on the tongue. Their common feature is astringency.


3. Grapefruit is not sharp, nor is it truly sweet; its essential flavor is bitter. The level of bitterness varies from one cultivar to another. In the case of grapefruit bred to be only mildly bitter, the natural sugars come through more, resulting in the bitter-sweet taste common in Israeli grapefruits today. (The grapefruit we had growing in our back yard when I was a teenager were far more bitter than those I come across today.)


4. Seeing that many people do not like foods with a decidedly bitter flavor, growers of grapefruit and romaine lettuce have successfully produced strains with a milder flavor. There are many varieties of lettuce, ranging from very bitter (like some red-topped varieties) to others (more common today) that retain only a trace of bitterness (particularly in the lower parts of the lettuce). According to Wikipedia (“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." I can taste it, and so can Wikipedia. A person who cannot should consult a physician.


5. Everyone knows that Ashkenazim used horseradish root for "maror". I have never seen anyone eat horseradish leaves, and have no idea how they taste; if you do, please tell me. Go to any store just before Pesah; you will see roots on sale, but not a single leaf.


6. See Rashi to Sh’moth 12:8 who writes (based on the Mishna and TB Pesahim 39a): “Any bitter herb is referred to as maror”. A herb is a plant eaten for its green leaves or stalks, such as lettuce, mint, basil, thyme and dill — not a plant eaten for its root, such as horseradish, wasabi, turnip, carrot, and beet (also known as beetroot for this very reason). The former are all herbs, but only lettuce has a fine-bitter flavor; the latter are not herbs, but root vegetables.


7. The fact that your mother, together with millions if not billions of other people, likes the taste of romaine lettuce proves nothing. You seem to be laboring under the misconception that maror has to be so bitter as to be nearly inedible. Nothing could be further from the truth. See Da’ath Miqra to the above-mentioned pasuk: “והם ירקות שטעמן מר במקצת, אבל ערב לחך, ואוכלים אותן בסעודה כדי לעורר את תאות האכילה ולהרבות את הנאתה". Or HaHayim (ad loc.) states the same: כי כן דרך אוכלי צלי לאכול עמו דבר חד כי בזה יערב לחיך האוכל ויאכל בכל אות” נפשו..”. (Note: the word “haad” here refers to both sharp and bitter condiments and herbs, which complement the taste of roast meat. Sharp condiments include sahug, arissa, mustard, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, and wasabi sauce. Bitter condiments are usually based on citrus peels (including the entire fruit of the etrog) or bitter melon. Olives too are naturally bitter when not pickled with too much salt. The very idea that the Torah would command us to eat something that is nearly inedible is inane, and suggests a serious misapprehension of what Torah is all about.


8. You wrote: “Romaine lettuce is not bitter and to say that it is, is a joke”. This is a curious statement coming from a talmidh hakhamim; the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesahim 2:5) states that the Hazereth of the Mishna is known in the Aramaic vernacular as Hasin, while the Talmud Bavli says it refers to Hasa, the very same word used today in Hebrew for romaine lettuce. The Talmud Yerushalmi remarks that Hazereth is only mildly bitter, particularly when young, but that nevertheless it is considered preferable to other types of maror because like our sojourn in Egypt, it starts off sweet (i.e. very slightly bitter), but becomes more and more bitter as it grows and develops; see Ra’avya #473. Similar explanations are given in the Talmud Bavli (Pesahim 39a) as to why Hasa is to be preferred to other types of maror even though it is less bitter. From all this it is plain that maror need not be very bitter (even though it must be maror, i.e. a bitter herb, and not something else).


9. You wrote further: “Romaine lettuce is no more bitter than iceberg lettuce”. Not so. “Crisphead, also called Iceberg, forms tight, dense heads that resemble cabbage. They are generally the mildest of the lettuces, valued more for their crunchy texture than for flavor. Cultivars of iceberg lettuce are the most familiar lettuces in the USA… Some lettuces (especially iceberg) have been specifically bred to remove the bitterness from their leaves. These lettuces have high water content and so are less "nutritionally dense" than are the more bitter lettuces and those with darker leaves.” I rest my case.


10. I wish to express my amazement that you would adopt such a position and make such wild claims. To what end?


11. There is nothing new about any of this; it is not a great discovery, nor a view that required “resurrection” as suggested by one writer. Romaine lettuce, or other types of leafy maror, have been used for the mitzvah of maror on Pesah by all Jews in all parts of the world from time immemorial and up to the present day. HaRav Ovadiah Yosef stresses this fact every year anew (with the addition of a few snide remarks directed at Ashkenazim). The only exception were those Ashkenazi Jews in Northern and Eastern Europe who could not obtain maror at that time of year, and were forced to come up with a substitute (see Arthur Schaffer’s article on the subject.) This is not intended to impute any fault or blame on the part of our Ashkenazi forefathers. It is simply a fact.


12. In summary: this is a classic example of a galut-induced aberration. How thankful we ought to be to Hashem that we can all now return to the authentic Torah tradition as recorded in the Mishna.


19th of Adar, 5772 Monday, 12 March 2012

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