What Is Maror?

A Guide to Buying and Cooking With Maror

Anita Schecter

The term maror refers to the bitter herbs that are eaten during Passover. They are served as part of the Seder along with other traditional food offerings, such as lamb and unleavened bread in the form of matzoh. The word maror itself is Hebrew for bitter.

Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is one of the most widely celebrated of the Jewish holidays. It takes place in spring, on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan and continues for seven days. The holiday commemorates the Jewish people's freedom from enslavement in ancient Egypt. In the Hebrew Bible story of the exodus, God helped them escape by inflicting ten plagues on the Egyptians before the Pharoah agreed to release them. The worst of the plagues was the death of the first born in each house. But the Israelites were told to mark their doors with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb so that the plague would pass over their homes. This is the origin of the holiday's name, Passover. Moses then parted the Red Sea and led the Israelites out of Egypt in approximately 1300 BCE.

The Symbolism of the Seder Plate

It is said that the enslaved Israelites left in such a hurry that their bread dough did not have a chance to rise. Hence, only unleavened bread, such as matzoh, is eaten during Passover. The commemorative meal, the Seder, includes a reading of the Haggadah, a sacred text of Passover which defines the customs of the holiday, and the eating of symbolic foods placed on a Seder Plate. The book dictates that just reading the story of Passover is not enough and you must actually "experience" it through taste. Hence the inclusion of foods like charoset, a chopped apple mixture that symbolizes the mortar that the enslaved Israelites made to build the Egyptian monuments; zeroa, a shank bone to remind us of the mighty arm of God; baytzah, a roasted egg to symbolize the cycle of life; karpas, a green herb (usually parsley) dipped in saltwater to represent the tears of the enslaved people; and maror, the bitter herbs, to symbolize the bitterness of enslavement.

During the meal, each Seder participant recites a specific blessing from the Haggadah over the maror and then eats it. Jewish law prescribes the minimum amount of the maror that must be eaten to fulfill the requirement and that is the volume of an olive. It also dictates that the bitter flavor cannot be adulterated or softened by cooking, preserving or sweetening, as well as the amount of time it should take to eat the maror, about 2 to 4 minutes.

Which Foods and Herbs Qualify as Maror?

There is some debate about exactly which foods qualify and different sects may have different customs and traditions. The Mishnah is the first major written work that describes Jewish traditions and it specifies five types of bitter herbs that may be eaten as maror. They include lettuce, chicory, horseradish, dandelion greens, and possibly clover. Other potential bitter options would include parsley, endive, green onion, and celery.

In the United States, the most common forms of maror on the Seder plate are likely to be horseradish, parsley, and bitter salad greens such as chicory and Romaine lettuce.

How Exactly is the Maror to be Eaten?

During the Seder, after the guests have eaten the matzoh, they take a small bit of maror and dip it into the charoset, a concoction of apples, nuts, dates, wine, and other sweet ingredients. Even though the bitter herbs are dipped into the sweet mixture, it's important not to leave it in the charoset for long and to shake it off right away so as not to lessen the bitter taste. The maror is meant to be chewed slowly enough to taste the bitterness and swallowing it whole does not fulfill the requirement.

Once the matzoh and the maror have been eaten individually, both are used one more time in a sandwich of maror and matzoh, known as korech.

Once the rituals, prayers, and eating of symbolic foods are over, the Passover Seder commences as a delicious holiday meal with a few traditional foods. Most typical Seder dinners will include gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, lamb, and a fudge-like flourless chocolate cake for dessert. The Seder itself takes place only on the first night in Israel and for two nights everywhere else in the world. But the requirement to avoid leavened breads continues for all seven days.