New York – Most of us are busy around this time of year preparing for Pesach: cleaning, scouring, kashering, covering, stocking up, and getting ready for that unique annual experience, the Pesach Seder. One of the more important hallmarks of the Seder is the consumption of Maror, bitter herbs, to evoke the bitterness that our ancestors felt from their enslavement at the hands of the cruel, sadistic Egyptians. However, as the Gemara (Pesachim 120a) explains, nowadays, since we do not have the Korban Pesach, this Mitzva is only Derabbanan.
Although the Mishna (Pesachim 39a) lists five different types of herbs that are classified as “Maror”, the Gemara (Talmud Bavli Pesachim 39a, Talmud Yerushalmi Pesachim Ch. 2, Halacha 5 – 20b in the Oz VeHadar edition), and later codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 473, 5) and cited by many poskim, maintains that the one that best fulfills the criteria is “Chazeres”, a.k.a. “Chasa”. This refers to lettuce (salatin) which starts out soft (the leaves) and ends hard (the stalk), similar to the enslavement in Egypt which started out easy and as a paying job, and deteriorated into total subjugation and inhumane enslavement. Also, lettuce when it starts to grow is very sweet; the longer it is left in the ground the more bitter it becomes. The Gemara explains that the reason lettuce is called “Chasa” (to this day!) is because Hashem was “Chasa” – had mercy on Bnei Yisrael in Egypt, and redeemed them from slavery.
Although Iceberg (Crisphead) lettuce is kosher for Maror use even though it is not bitter at all, as the Yerushalmi (ibid.) states explicitly that it’s preferable to use Chazeres even though it is sweet and contains no bitterness, they could not have actually been referring to the Iceberg variety. Iceberg lettuce was only first grown locally in Salinas Valley, California (“The Great Salad Bowl of America”), and only exported nationally starting in 1926 by famed lettuce farmer Bruce Church, who devised a way to ship them packed with ice; hence the moniker Iceberg Lettuce. In fact, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l mentions as a side point in a teshuva (Shu”t Igros Moshe O.C. 4, 91, 3) that the common American lettuce was unknown in Europe.
Additionally, there are authorities, including the Ridbaz (in his commentary to Yerushalmi Brachos Ch. 6) and Chazon Ish (O.C. 124), who maintain that any lettuce used for Maror must contain at least some bitterness. Therefore Romaine Lettuce would seemingly be the preferred choice for Maror. However, it is known that due to Romaine lettuce’s high insect infestation rate, several recent Gedolim, including Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, preferred Iceberg lettuce for Maror.
Another popular alternative to Romaine lettuce due to its lack of availability in many areas over the years, as well as lettuce’s tendency to be insect infested, horseradish (further down the Mishna’s list of acceptable Maror) has become the herb of choice as Maror for many. In fact, the Chasam Sofer (Shu”t O.C. 132) and Mishna Berura (473, 42) rule that if one does not know how to properly check for bugs, it is preferential to eat horseradish for Maror.
Nowadays, the recent influx of the “Gush Katif” type of “Greenhouse Grown Bug Free” Romaine lettuce allows us to get the best of both worlds: Romaine lettuce for Maror that is much easier to check and make certain that it does not contain any uninvited guests.
But it was not always so simple. In fact, in 1978, in order to allow the masses to fulfill the Maror requirement in the best possible manner, the Badat”z Eidah Chareidis of Yerushalayim consulted with top experts in the field to ascertain if there is any available method that would rid the Romaine lettuce of its perennial pesky insects. They devised a sure-fire method: first washing the lettuce in vinegar (which makes the bugs loosen their grip on the lettuce), then rinsing it in a strong steady stream of water (to actively wash the insects off), and finally checking every leaf very well in front of a strong light (sun, lightbox, etc.) to ensure that no hidden critters are remaining. The only problem with this bug checking method is that it unwittingly set off a halachic firestorm between two of the Gedolei HaDor, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l and Rav Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss zt”l, the renowned Minchas Yitzchok, who was then the Av Beis Din of the Eidah Charedis.
The core issue at hand was that Rav Shlomo Zalman (Shu”t Minchas Shlomo vol. 2, 58, 21; Tinyana 52) maintained that soaking the lettuce for any amount of time in vinegar would be considered an act of kavush (pickling), which in some ways is halachically akin to cooking, and would thereby disqualify this lettuce from being used as Maror. Although kavush generally only takes effect after an item was immersed for a full 24 hours, however, when soaked in a salty brine it is considered pickled after only 18 minutes, and a fingernail thin segment (klipah) of the item is even affected immediately. If so, stated Rav Auerbach, since several authorities including the Shulchan Aruch himself, maintain that vinegar shares the status of a salty brine solution, as soon as the lettuce is placed inside a bowl of vinegar, a klipah of it would be considered kavush. Worse, since the whole lettuce leaf is so thin, the entire leaf would instantly become kavush, and cooked or pickled bitter herbs are disqualified from being able to fulfill the halachic Maror requirement.
The Minchas Yitzchok (Shu”t vol. 7, 31 and vol. 8, 61) however, defended this practice on several counts. First of all, although the Shulchan Aruch himself does equate vinegar to salty brine, many other halachic authorities including the Shach, Pri Chadash, Gr”a and Mishna Berura, disagree completely and feel that immersion in vinegar is not considered kavush until a full 24 hours have passed. Furthermore, several decisors feel that even according to the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch, it is possible that vinegar is not entirely equated to salty brine, thus negating the instant klipah effect, since that rule seems to be indicative and exclusive to the halachos of salting. Additionally, the Mishna’s ruling that pickled herbs may not be used as Maror, is only referring to when its essential taste is changed through the kavush process; merely soaking the leaves in vinegar for a short period of time undoubtedly would not change the lettuce’s taste. Finally, since we are trying to fulfill the mitzvah of eating Maror in the best possible manner (by using Romaine lettuce), one may certainly rely on these rationales b’makom Mitzvah.
Each of these great luminaries “stuck to their guns”, sending halachic responsa back and forth to each other, offering rationales and proofs to their positions. And it wasn’t until a relatively young Rabbi, Rav Matis Deutsch (today a Rabbi on the Eidah Chareidis and Rav of Ramat Shlomo in Yerushalayim), tackled the topic (Shu”t Nesivos Adam vol. 1, 37), that new clarity was achieved. He at first presented various reasonings to be lenient, and concluded with a very important point. Standard commercial vinegar available nowadays is not pure vinegar. Rather, it is only 5% actual vinegar (acetic acid); the vast majority of its composition is water! Furthermore, many of the authorities who equate vinegar to brine, qualify the ruling by differentiating that it is only applicable to strong vinegar, and not weak vinegar. Moreover, even the salty brine itself, when it is mixed with mainly water, the halacha is that it can no longer immediately affect an immersed item. Therefore, he concludes, that one need not be concerned with following the experts’ advice to soak our lettuce in our commercial weak vinegar for the short period of time mandated, as it certainly will not affect it!
Rav Deutsch recently told this author that when Rav Shlomo Zalman read his conclusive proof, he personally thanked him for enabling everyone to partake in the Mitzvah of eating Maror l’chatchila. Nowadays, with the proliferation of the “Gush Katif” lettuce for Maror this has thankfully become much less of an issue, but this Seder Night, as we dip our Maror into the Charoses, we can reflect and appreciate all that has gone into making sure that we can fulfill this Mitzva in the most mehudar and best possible fashion.
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Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Shaul U’ Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim.