By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
We are going to approach this subject –- sacred food –- the way you approach a sacred temple: first the outskirts, where you may know the structure already, from afar; then some unexpected beauties in an anteroom; finally, an inner Mystery revealed not to your eyes but to your lips and tongue.
The inner mystery is the dish called charoset. Keep seeking till you find her!
In Jewish tradition, eating food is a sacred act – and there are a series of concentric circles in which the intensity of the attention paid to food and the sacredness felt in food increases.
To begin with, food is defined as sacred by specifying some foods that are permitted (kosher) for Jews to eat and some that are forbidden (treyf). Thus every meal is preceded by an unspoken question -- Is this food kosher? -- and the need to consult, explicitly or implicitly, a sacred text in order to answer the question.
Secondly, Jewish tradition calls for all eating to be preceded and followed by blessing the One Who creates the various forms of food. The forms of the blessing differ depending on what sacredly defined category the food belongs to (bread? sweetcake? wine? fruit of a tree? fruit of the earth? something else from the vast storehouse of God’s Creation?)
Not only does this act of blessing itself infuse the eating with sacredness; it requires understanding of the sacred categories into which food is divided.
For one week a year – the week of Passover, beginning with the full moon of the lunar month nearest the spring equinox – the whole process is elevated to an even more intense level. For during that week, no "leavening" or "souring" agents (yeast, vinegar, etc.) or foods they have infused (bread, distilled and fermented alcoholic drinks, most pickled foods, etc.) are permitted in the household.
Not only can they not be eaten; they cannot be owned – not even a speck of them. So every household that abides by this tradition is obligated to do a minutely thorough spring cleaning, getting rid of practically all the regular food of the previous year (except for fresh fruit and vegetables). This process underscores the sacred potential in food.
And then, on the first night (or in most households, the first two nights) of Passover, the sacredness of food reaches its apogee in these concentric circles. There is a still more intensely heightened requirement: There are certain foods that must be eaten that evening, and for some of them, the traditional sacred text for the eating of this Passover meal explains why they must be eaten.
One is matzah –- unleavened bread, made only of flour and water with no flavorings and baked swiftly according to certain stringent rules. It was the bread of the desperately poor, and on the night of the original Exodus had to be baked in great haste, before the dough could rise. Hence eating it is a sign of both poverty and transformation.
Another is a bitter herb, often raw horse radish, to recall the bitterness of slavery.
Among the others is a dish called charoset, and this one is not explained –- in fact, it is mentioned only indirectly – in the written Passover Haggadah, or "Telling." Though unmentioned, undescribed, and unexplained, its necessity is passed on by word of mouth, so strongly that it appears in every Seder throughout the Jewish world. Its precise recipe varies from one Jewish culture to another, but the basics are clear: It is a paste made up of chopped fruit, chopped nuts, spices, and wine.
Charoset is mentioned in the Haggadah only by utter indirection. Four Questions, traditionally asked by the youngest person present, help initiate the Telling of the Passover story of the Exodus of ancient Israel from ancient Egypt. After asking, "How is this night different from all other nights?" the Four Questions point out: "On all other nights, we do not 'dip' even once; on this night, twice."
The first of these two "dippings" is dipping green vegetable in salt water. This is heralded in the sacred text by a blessing for the Source of this fruit of the earth. The second dipping is dipping a piece of matzah in charoset. Participants in the Seder know this, but the text ignores it. There is not even a special blessing for the eating of charoset.
So let us ask the unasked question: --- "Why is there charoset on the Seder plate?"
The conventional answer, written in no haggadah but transmitted by word of mouth, is that the paste of charoset reminds us of the mortar that Israelite slaves were forced to use to hold together the stones and bricks of Pharaoh's storehouses as they slaved to build them.
But charoset is sweet. If it mimics the mortar of slavery, it must also remind us that slavery may taste sweet, and this is itself a deeper kind of slavery.
There is a still deeper truth, transmitted not by word of mouth but taste of mouth, kiss of mouth. Charoset is an embodiment of the sacred text that is perhaps the most "subversive," certainly the most fully embodied, book of the Hebrew Scriptures -- the Song of Songs. Charoset is literally a full-bodied taste of the Song.
The text of the Song subtly, almost secretly, bears the recipe for charoset, and we might well see the absence of any specific written explanation of charoset as itself a subtle, secret pointer toward the "other" liberation of Pesach –- the erotic loving freedom celebrated in the Song of Songs, which we are taught to read on Passover.
The Song of Songs is sacred not only to Jews, but also to Christians and to Muslims, and especially to the mystics in all three traditions. Its earth-and-human-loving erotic energy has swept away poets and rabbis, lovers and priests, dervishes and gardeners.
Yet this sacred power -- "Love is strong as death," sings the Song -- has frightened many generations into limiting its power. Redefining its flow as a highly structured allegory, or hiding it from the young, or forbidding it from being sung in public places.
Even so, long tradition holds that on the Shabbat in the middle of Passover, Jews chant the Song of Songs.
Why is this time of year set aside for this extraordinary love poem? At one level, because it celebrates the springtime rebirth of life, when the flowers rise up against winter -- just as Passover is a celebration of rebirthing freedom, rising up against Pharaoh.
And the parallel goes far deeper. For the Song celebrates a new way of living in the world.
The way of love between the earth and her human earthlings, beyond the future of conflict between them that accompanies the end of Eden.
The way of love between women and men, with women celebrated as leaders and initiators, beyond the future of subjugation that accompanies the end of Eden.
The way of bodies and sexuality celebrated, beyond the future of shame and guilt that accompanies the end of Eden.
The way of God so fully present in the whole of life that God needs no specific naming (for in the Song, God's name is never mentioned).
The way of adulthood, where there is no Parent and there are no children. No one is giving orders, and no one obeys them. Rather there are grownups, lovers -- unlike the domination and submission that accompany the end of Eden.
In short, Eden for grown-ups. For a grown-up human race.
Whereas the original Garden was childhood, bliss that was unconscious, unaware, the Garden of the Song is maturity. Death is known, conflict is recognized (as when the heroine's brothers beat her up), yet joy sustains all.
Now what does it mean to say that the Song of Songs is the recipe for charoset?
Verses from the Song:
"Feed me with apples and with raisin-cakes;
"Your kisses are sweeter than wine;
"The scent of your breath is like apricots;
"Your cheeks are a bed of spices;
"The fig tree has ripened;
"Then I went down to the walnut grove."
So the "recipe" points us toward apples, quinces, raisins, apricots, figs, nuts, wine. Within the framework of the free fruitfulness of the earth, the "recipe" is free-form: no measures, no teaspoons, no amounts. Not even a requirement for apples rather than apricots, cinnamon rather than cloves, figs rather than dates. So there is an enormous breadth for the tastes that appeal to Jews from Spain, Poland, Iraq, India, America.
Nevertheless, I will offer a recipe.
Take a pound of raw shelled almonds, two pounds of organic raisins, and a bottle of red wine. On the side have organic apricots, chopped apples, figs, and dates (no pits), and small bottles of powdered cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
Assemble either an electric blender, or your great-grandmom's cast-iron hand-wound gefulte-fish chopper brought from the Old Country. If it's the blender, put it on "chop" rather than "paste" frequency.
Start feeding the almonds and raisins into the blender or mixer, in judicious mixture. (How do you know "judicious"? Whatever doesn’t get the whole thing stuck so it won't keep grinding.) Whenever you feel like it, pour in some wine to lubricate the action. Stop the action every once in a while to poke around and stir up the ingredients.
Freely choose when to add apricots, apples, figs, and/or dates. Taste every ten minutes or so. If you start feeling giddy, good! -- that's the wine.
Add in the spices. Clove is powerful, sweet and subtly sharp at the same time; a lot will get you just on the edge of dope.
Keep stirring, keep chopping, keep dribbling wine -- not till the charoset turns to paste but till there are still nubs of nuts, grains of raisin, suddenly a dollop of apricot spurting on your tongue.
You say this doesn't seem like a recipe, too free? Ahh -- as the Song itself says again and again, "Do not stir up love until it pleases. Do not rouse the lovers till they're willing."
Serve at the Pesach Seder, and also in secret on your wedding night. And on every wedding anniversary. And every once in a while, but not too often, on a night when you want to celebrate and embody your love
For Passover and its focus on food, and for other recipes connected with it, see Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy (Beacon).
In our generation, those whose mother-tongue is English can read the Song of Songs in two translations far closer to the erotic earthy sensuality of the Hebrew than has been possible before. One is by Marcia Falk, the other by Ariel and Chana Bloch.
Rabbi Shefa Gold has created a CD, "Shir delight," that brings her chanting melodies into the Song. You can order the CD by clicking to --
And Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I have woven from our own embroidery on the Talmud's telling a visionary tale of healing, a tale of how the Song became a part of our sacred treasury. To read it and download it, click to --
For a fuller outpouring of this way of hearing the song, click to --
and read GODWRESTLING - ROUND 2 (now available at half-price -- $12.95) from The Shalom Center. Write us at 6711 Lincoln Drive Philadelphia PA 19119 , enclosing a check for $12.95 per copy plus $3.50 per package, to cover postage.