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Passover: Maror

Maror is the traditional "bitter herb" which the children of Israel were commanded to eat with unleavened bread and the paschal offering both in Egypt (Ex. 12:8) and "throughout their generations" (Num. 9:11).

The plural, merorim, occurs in the Bible in the verse: "He hath filled me with merorim, he hath sated me with wormwood" (Lam. 3:15), referring to a bitter vegetable, parallel to wormwood (cf. Deut. 32:32). The rabbis included under merorim plants whose common features are "bitterness, possessing sap, with a grayish appearance" (Pes. 39a), meaning wild or cultivated vegetables, with leaves of a silvery-grayish-green color, that have a milk-like sap and leaves with a bitter taste. This definition can apply to a number of plants, particularly some of those belonging to the family of Compositae. Thus the Tosefta and the Talmud (ibid.) enumerate a number of such vegetables with which the duty of eating maror on the night of the seder can be fulfilled. The Mishnah enumerates five: ḥazeret (" lettuce "); olshin ("chicory," see vegetables ); tamkah (according to Maimonides, "wild chicory" but impossible to identify with certainty); ḥarḥavina, a plant of the family of Umbelliferae, of which the most common is Eryngium creticum; and maror. Some of the Compositae are called murār or marāra in Arabic.

In the Jerusalem Talmud maror is described as a "bitter vegetable with a silvery appearance, and possessing sap" (Pes. 2:5, 29c; the same description as the Babylonian Talmud gives for all the varieties of merorim). These characteristics agree most with the plant Sonchus oleraceus, called in Arabic murār. This is a weed, widespread in gardens, fallow fields, and on the roadsides throughout Israel. Its soft leaves are at times eaten as salad by the poor, some also eating the juicy root. The plant is filled with a milk-like sap, the underside of the leaves is a bluish-silvery color, and the green plant has a bitter taste and is hardly edible. According to Pliny, "this is a healthy food, recommended as a remedy for various ailments" (Historia Naturalis 22:88–90; 26:163). The Samaritans use only the leaves of the wild lettuce Lactuca scariola for maror.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.