By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
It’s tough to get some kids to eat their veggies. Kids come up with all sorts of excuses. In the Jewish household, kids have an added reason not to eat their salad. “Ma, we eat this as marror! This salad reminds me of slavery!” Of course, the romaine lettuce we eat isn’t really bitter at all. Even if Boston, iceberg, or Simpson lettuce is used in the salad, the child can still have the same retort. HaRav Dovid Feinstein, shlita, writes in his Kol Dodi Haggadah, “All kinds of lettuce are essentially the same species. . . . Consequently, it seems that one may use any kind of lettuce [for marror], especially any of those that are identical to romaine. Indeed, I have heard that a renowned gaon of recent times has permitted for marror the use of common lettuce.”
The renowned gaon is presumably Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l. My zeide Rav Yosef Isaac Samson, of blessed memory, reported that when he attended Rav Aharon’s Seder, he witnessed that the rosh yeshiva used iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce, due to the way it grows, has a much lower incidence of insect infestation than romaine.
Why do we choose lettuce as our bitter herb if it really isn’t bitter? It might amuse the reader that some people ask the opposite question. “Why is the romaine lettuce I grew in my garden so bitter? I carefully watered it and fertilized it. It’s now three feet tall but it’s so bitter!” The following is the actual question a gardener posed: “This is the first year I have started a garden. We planted romaine lettuce but I was disappointed when I tasted it. It is very bitter. So bitter that I don’t think it can be eaten in a salad. Why is this lettuce more bitter than store-bought?”
That is one of the most common mistakes amateur gardeners make when growing lettuce. They wait until the plant has matured before harvesting the leaves. The head has to be harvested when young. As it matures, it turns bitter. Have you ever wondered where the seeds on the romaine lettuce head are? People grow romaine lettuce from seed, don’t they? If your romaine lettuce head had seeds, you wouldn’t be eating it. At that point the leaves would already be bitter. As the lettuce plant matures, it bolts. It produces an elongated stalk that flowers and produces seeds. Excessive heat and sun can also turn the lettuce bitter by encouraging earlier bolting.
Burpee recommends, therefore, that romaine lettuce be planted only in the spring or the fall. Regardless of when it is planted, it is important that romaine lettuce be picked young while its leaves are still sweet before the plant starts to bolt.
So in truth, mature romaine lettuce is bitter. The Chazon Ish (Pesachim 39a) was of the opinion that romaine lettuce should only be used as marror when its bitter taste is already detectable. However, Rav Dovid Feinstein writes, “It is well known that the common practice is to use lettuce even if it is not bitter at all.”
Suppose that an individual would like to be stringent and not eat everyday salad for marror. He grows his own romaine lettuce and lets it stay in the ground until it bolts. Now it’s really bitter. Did he fulfill the mitzvah in the optimum way? No. In fact, he didn’t fulfill the mitzvah at all! HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, writes that if someone eats truly bitter romaine lettuce, he has not fulfilled his obligation to eat marror. Since romaine lettuce is not usually eaten while it is that bitter, it’s considered not derech achilah if someone consumes it in that way; perhaps it wouldn’t even require a berachah. This is similar to the Chofetz Chaim’s ruling that someone who uses raw horseradish as marror, without grinding it first, has not fulfilled the mitzvah of marror and might possibly have performed an aveirah for eating unhealthy foods.
The Shulchan Aruch rules that the optimum way to perform the mitzvah of marror is to use lettuce. The Acharonim write that one should even spend more money to acquire romaine lettuce if horseradish is cheaper. This would be a situation of spending more money for a hiddur mitzvah. These rulings are surprising, especially in light of our custom that the lettuce need not be bitter at all. Why should mere lettuce be preferred over horseradish, a bona fide bitter herb? The Gemara offers two insights. The Hebrew term for lettuce is “chasa,” which means “compassion.” According to Rashi, lettuce was specifically called “chasa” to help us recall that Hashem had compassion on us and took us out of Egypt. It is therefore appropriate to use the vegetable for marror whose very name brings to mind our redemption from Egypt.
Rebbe Yonasan offers another reason that lettuce is specifically apropos for use as marror. “Just as lettuce starts out soft and ends up hard, so too the Egyptians started out soft and ended up hard.” As noted above, when romaine lettuce is young, it is sweet. When left in the ground, it becomes hard and bitter. Rashi says that this pattern is similar to the way the Egyptians treated us. Initially, they paid the Jews to work for them. The Egyptians treated us fairly. Later, they forced the Jewish nation to work without pay, under deteriorating conditions. Lettuce, which undergoes a transformation in bitterness, symbolizes the Egyptians’ changing attitude towards us, from friendly to outright hatred.
The Talmud Yerushalmi says that the change in Egyptian attitude is even more striking if we take into account some earlier history. When Yaakov and his sons initially settled in Egypt, Pharaoh welcomed them with open arms. He told them they could choose the best lands in Egypt to live in. In the end, the Jews were enslaved to perform backbreaking labor. Therefore, just as the Jewish nation’s sojourn in Egypt underwent a transformation, from their being welcome guests to becoming downtrodden slaves, we use lettuce for marror which undergoes a transformation of its own, from healthy and refreshing to downright inedible.
The Chofetz Chaim notes that even with all the symbolism behind using lettuce for marror, one should only use it if he can be sure that it is insect-free. He writes, “Heaven forbid that one should transgress the Torah prohibition of eating insects to fulfill the rabbinic mitzvah of marror. This is especially so since once can fulfill by precepts by using horseradish instead.”
So if your kids complain about eating their salad, explain to them that you specifically used sweet lettuce for the salad for their pleasure. Maybe then they’ll eat a little before they bolt. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.