In Mishnayot Pesachim (קיד.), while explaining the order of what should be brought before the leader of the Seder, the Mishna says, “Matza, Maror, Charoset and two cooked items, even though Charoset is not a Mitzva (and is only used to make eating the Maror more bearable and healthy). Rabbi Eliezer Ben Tzaddok holds that it is a Mitzva. The obvious question is, is Charoset a Mitzva or not?
Rabbi Eliezer ben Tzaddok in the Gemara (פסחים קטז.) proves his opinion that Charoset is a Mitzva by telling us that the shopkeepers of Jerusalem used to call out, “Come get spices for the Mitzva (of Charoset).” This shows us that the Charoset is a Mitzva. Tosafot ask, “How can we learn that it is a mitzvah based on what the shopkeepers used to call out? How can we make a Halacha based on them?” They answer that we are learning it this way because the story shows that the fact that Charoset was a Mitzva was such common knowledge that even the shopkeepers knew about it [ע"ע ברכות מ"ג. ועירובין י"ד:].
In the Gemara (ibid.) there is an argument over the reason for Charoset. Rabbi Levi says that it is in commemoration of the apples. The Rashbam, in explaining Rabbi Levi, explains from the Gemara in Sota that records that the Jewish women in Mitzrayim (due to Paroh’s decree) were not allowed to have baby boys, they would go into the apple orchards and, through a miracle, were able to have an easy (and noiseless) childbirth there. Rabbi Yochanan offers another reason for Charoset. He suggests that Charoset is in commemoration of the mortar that the Jewish people were forced to build with when they were slaves in Mitzrayim. The Gemara then cites is a ברייתא that seems to prove that Rabbi Yochanan is correct. It says, “the spices are as a remembrance for the straw and the Charoset is a remembrance of the mortar.” According to this ברייתא, we also have a new ingredient to add to our Charoset, the spices. We are supposed to use spices like cinnamon that are long and stringy to remind us of the straw that we collected as slaves.
Tosafot (ibid.) says that the Talmud Yerushalmi mentions another purpose for Charoset. It is in commemoration of blood. There is a Midrash that says that Paroh had leprosy, killed 300 Jewish babies, and bathed in bathed in their blood to cure himself. The practice to add red wine to our Charoset comes from, the need to remember the blood (the wine has a red color like blood). Tosafot citing the Teshuvot Hageonim notes that in Shir Hashirim, Shlomo Hamelech compares Am Yisrael to many fruit, one of which is ,שקדיםalmonds. This word has the same root as שקד “faster.” He mentions שקדיםbecause Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim faster than He was supposed to. Rather than following the original plan of 400 years, Hashem took us out of bondage in 210 years. As a commemoration to this great deed almonds get added into the Charoset.
How about adding clay into our Charoset? That is what a 13th century Italian Rav did. Why? He felt it would help to commemorate the mortar even more by having the actual substance within the Charoset. However, the Maharam de Delonzano, a late 16th century Rabbi (who wrote שתי ידות and (יד עני insisted that this was foolish. He asks, “Do these people wound themselves on Purim to remind themselves of Haman’s decree to wipe out the Jewish people?”
Hopefully now that we have a greater understanding of the various ingredients in the Charoset, this aspect of the Seder will have more meaning to each of us as we partake in this year’s Seder.