Thursday, April 13, 2017


I've planned on writing a post about charoset חרוסת since 2006. But every time I started, the etymology offered by Klein seemed so obvious and convincing that I didn't think I had anything to write about:

חרסת - 'haroseth' - a condiment made of fruits and spices with wine and sugar, used to sweeten the bitter herbs eaten on Passover night. [Probably formed from חרס cheres (=clay), in allusion to its claylike color.]

(As I pointed out here, in Biblical Hebrew cheres was spelt with a sin חרש, not with the samech found in later Hebrew).

But this year, I thought I would try again. I took at look at the Ben Yehuda dictionary, and the footnote comments that the charoset is a word found only in Hebrew and the etymology is unclear. It goes on to mention, like Klein, that it is similar in appearance to cheres, and quotes the Arukh, who brings the passage from the Talmud (Pesachim 116a) where the Rabbi Yochanan says that the charoset should be like the mortar (made of mud) that the Israelites used to make the bricks in Egypt. The Ben Yehuda footnote says, however, that this is "only a drash". (The drash seems to be first found in the medieval works Rokeach and Mordechai who quote a version of the Jerusalem Talmud that is not in our printed editions.)

This got me thinking - just a drash? Then what is the real story behind charoset?

A 19th century commentary on the Aruch, the Aruch Hashalem by Alexander Kohut, gives the first clue. Kohut writes that it appears that the Aruch is making a connection between cheres and charoset (which is not explicitly made in the earlier dictionary), but he thinks it is more likely related to "a mix of chopped meat with flour and the like" which was borrowed by the rabbis to "a sauce that has wine or vinegar, mixed with flour", and only on Pesach was flour not added. This has support from a different passage in Pesachim (the Mishna 2:3, or 40b in the Talmud), which forbids adding flour to charoset because the vinegar in the charoset would cause the flour to become leaven. (This charoset was not used to dilute the effects of the maror as on Seder night, but rather as a rather sour sauce for meat during the whole year. Prof. David Henschke has a new book with an interesting theory - that the charoset was originally used for the meat of the Pesach sacrifice in Temple times, but after the destruction of the Temple was transferred to be used with the maror.)

This law has significance to our quest as well, since if charoset was not only used on Pesach, then the etymology would not be associated specifically with something related to Pesach, or slavery in Egypt, and would likely have a more general origin.

An even later commentary on the Aruch, the Tosefot HeAruch, by Samuel Kraus, continues Kohut's approach, and quotes the 13th century work, the Or Zarua, who in turn quotes an earlier French rabbi, Samuel of Falaise, who defined charoset as meaning "things that are mixed and squashed", and added that the Aramaic translation of Shaar HaAshpot (literally the "Garbage Gate") in Nechemia 2:13 is תרעא דחרסית - tara'a d'charsit - "gate of potsherds, broken pieces of pottery." (This translation is likely influenced by Yirmiyahu 19:2, which mentions Shaar HaCharsit שער החרסית, and which Rashi and others identify with Shaar HaAshpot).

Krauss also mentions Rashi's definition of charsit found in Chullin 88a, as "pulverized pottery" and "crushed tiles" in Bava Kama 69a. The common thread in all of these is a sense of "crushing, grinding, squashing" - and that applies to both charsit and charoset.

Ronnie Haffner, of the site Safa Ivrit, suggested to me that perhaps the suffix -et ת- at the end of some Hebrew words means "leftovers after production", so pesolet פסולת - "chips, stone dust" is what is leftover after carving פסל, and nesoret נסורת - "sawdust" is what remains after sawing נסר. So if this pattern holds, charoset could be the potsherds, which are left after breaking pottery.

A parallel approach is mentioned by Jastrow, who in his entry for charoset suggests we also look at his definition of the Aramaic הרסנא harsana - "fish hash." He quotes Jacob Levy, who in his dictionary, like Kohut, says that charoset is of Arabic origin. Harsana, according to this theory, derives from the Arabic root harasa - which Klein says is cognate with the Hebrew haras הרס ("throw down, tear down") and means "he crushed, squashed, pounded." This Arabic root is the source of the spice paste "harissa", due to the crushing of the peppers in a mortar. This is an interesting theory, for if charoset is cognate with haras, then it has no connection with clay at all (since we saw that the Biblical Hebrew form of cheres is חרש, which is not connected to הרס.) Kohut's theory, on the other hand, still maintains a connection between broken pottery and charoset.

The Ben-Yehuda footnote we saw above rejects both Kohut's and Levy's Arabic etymologies, as "they have no similarity to the thing called charoset." While today's sweet charoset is not like fish-hash or harissa, I don't see why charoset couldn't mean a general type of sauce or condiment, and as we saw above, charoset had uses beyond those on Pesach.

Support for these ideas can be found in a much more recent work, the essay, "How do you say haroset in Greek?" by Dr. Susan Weingarten. I recommend reading the entire piece, but here are some key points. She quotes an ancient glossary found in the Cairo Genizah, which

includes the information that haroset in Greek is tribou enbamous, written טריבו אנבמוס...tribou would seem to come from the verb tribo to pound or grind, whence the Greek term for a sauce, trimma. Archestratus of Gela, a fourth-century BCE food writer whose work is preserved by Athenaeus, writes of a dipping sauce made by pounding (tripsas). Enbamous would appear to refer to the Greek word embamma, which is used to mean a sauce used as a dip, deriving from the verb embapto, embaptomai to dip. Later in the same passage of Archestratus, the verb embapto is used for dipping into a pounded sauce. In their commentary on this passage, the editors Olson and Sens describe the verb embapto as ‘the vox propria for dipping food in a side-dish sauce or the like.’ Thus Archestratus uses both terms found in the glossary as an explanation of haroset in his instructions to dip (embapte) food into a sauce made of pounded (tripsas) ingredients.
Weingarten also quotes the Leiden manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud (10:3) which refers to charoset as dukkeh דוכה (for an extensive discussion of that passage, read this Hebrew article.) The Talmud says that the reason for that name

is because it is pounded [dukhah]. The Hebrew name dukkeh for haroset has survived to the present day. Jews from the Yemen, cut off for many centuries from the mainstream Jewish community, relied on the Jerusalem Talmud as their religious authority, unlike other Jews, for the Babylonian Talmud did not reach them for many hundreds of years. The Yemenite Jews have preserved the tradition of the Jerusalem Talmud, and to this day the Yemenite Jewish community in Israel still calls haroset ‘dukkeh.’ We may also note here the use of the name dukkeh among Palestinian Arabs for a condiment made of pounded hyssop (za’atar) and sesame seeds.

So like dukkeh, while the word charoset is of Hebrew origin, it appears to be a calque, borrowing the Greek concept of a sauce of pounded ingredients. 

Therefore the association with Pesach should not be surprising, as the seder includes many elements (but with significant differences) of the Greek symposium, as we saw in our discussion of afikoman. And like with the afikoman, later scholars who did not live in the Greek and Roman world were not as familiar with the original concept reinterpreted the word and gave it new meaning. So while the connection between charoset and the cheres used to build the bricks in Egypt is a drash, it is not "merely" a drash. For what is more associated with Pesach than reinterpreting and giving new meaning to ancient foods and concepts?

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