I’m going to take advantage of the extraordinary circumstances this Passover to do something I’ve wanted to do for years: use belgian endive for maror.
The sequence of the Passover Seder enjoins us to eat maror (bitter herbs) twice, once dipped in charoset (a paste of apples, nuts and cinnamon), and once sandwiched between two pieces of matzah. (The presence or absence of charoset on the ‘Hillel Sandwich’ is a most interesting topic I’ll reserve for another time.) There are various customs as to what to use for the two instances of maror, but, in my experience, those usually devolve to romaine lettuce for the first eating with charoset and grated fresh horseradish for the ensuing sandwich.
Such has been my custom for many years, although the one I saw in my grandparents’ house was peculiar and apparently unique to the Gudemann family. When it came time for Pesach shopping, my grandmother assiduously sought out a horseradish with its head intact, ‘head’ meaning the top of the root with the green sprouts that I presume push up through the ground. For the first eating of maror, a little horseradish sprout was taken together with some charoset. When I mentioned the custom to Rabbi Herschel Cohen (z”l), his first question was whether the sprouts had a bitter taste. I honestly couldn’t remember whether they had any flavor at all, although that became moot when Rabbi Cohen told me to start using romaine anyway.
The usual objection to romaine is that it can harbor microscopic insects in its bumps and curls. I, however, have made Sedarim with romaine lettuce for over 30 years, and can attest that I have never found a bug. Yes, I checked each leaf before putting it into the spinner, but there is no need to put the lettuce under a microscope. Returning to Rabbi Cohen, he always made it very clear that, if you can’t see a bug with the naked eye, it’s not legally there.
My own objection to romaine has been a different one, one which my seder guests have often mentioned over the years: romaine doesn’t taste bitter. If anything, it tastes somewhat sweet. How, then, can we use something as a bitter herb if it doesn’t satisfy what should be the most basic criterion for maror, bitterness?
The answer invariably given is that the Talmud provides a list of acceptable bitter herbs, and two of the items on the list translate out as romaine lettuce and horseradish. Thus we have Talmudic authority to use romaine, even if it really makes no gustatory sense whatsoever.
Now, while romaine doesn’t taste bitter at all, there are lettuces that do. There are those two red-leafed cousins, radicchio and treviso. There’s also at least one green bitter lettuce, the belgian endive. For years I’ve wanted to make the logical switch from romaine to endive so that my Seder could feature bitter herbs that were actually bitter, but I always let myself get intimidated by all that force of Talmudic opinion and the fact that seemingly everyone uses romaine. I don’t suppose using romaine hurts anyone, but its lack of a bitter flavor really makes it an improbable candidate for maror.
I doubt that I am the only person who found shopping for Pesach this year to be a surreal experience. I was in Ralph’s on Monday afternoon, and found a ‘yes, we have no romaine’ situation in the crisper case. I considered the prospect of seeking out romaine in another market, but then I espied a few belgian endives on a shelf above the larger-headed lettuces.
And I thought to myself…things are so crazy this year that staying out longer than necessary and going in search of romaine wearing a mask that fogs up my glasses would be excessive. And, to be honest, I found myself not caring about having everything exactly right this year. I was more interested in getting out of the market before I touched my face with hands that had touched the shopping cart than I was in halachic exactitude. The endives were calling to me, so I bought them.
True, endives aren’t in season in spring, and they don’t come cheap even in winter. The handsome ones I bought at Ralph’s were $3.99, I think each, but I’ve been pretending to myself that that was a per-pound price. Yes, that’s more than romaine would have cost, but, what with all the price-gouging at Passovertide, what’s one more overpriced item in the grand scheme of things?
Moreover, I don’t believe one need eat as much endive as one need eat romaine. I think that the minimum quantity of endives that need be eaten should be the same as that for romaine stalks (as opposed to leaves.) According to the opinion of Rabbi David Feinstein, that’s simply enough leaves to cover an area 3” x 5”, the size of a large Post-It. In other words you can probably accommodate the same number of guests with a single endive as you can with a whole head of romaine.
There’s a further beauty to using endives: the leaves are smooth, so there’s no problem with bugs and the tedium of checking for them. In addition, endives are sturdier than romaine and don’t wilt as quickly, so it ought to be possible to put the endive leaves on the table at the beginning of the Seder rather than having to remember to bring out the romaine just when it’s needed.
In short, there is every reason in the world to use endive, and very few reasons to favor romaine. Not that tradition isn’t important. I believe very strongly that it should be respected, and have a horror of ‘creative’ Sedarim that put coconuts and oranges onto the Seder plate to hijack the Haggadah’s narrative and use the Seder to further an agenda other than God’s. That doesn’t mean that tradition oughtn’t to be subject to objective evaluation from time to time. Perhaps the romaine in the Near East two thousand years ago was bitter, but the romaine found in the United States in the 21st century isn’t. Thus seeking out a bitter herb that actually tastes bitter can be classified as a means of observing the mitzvah of maror in a way that is objectively preferable. Let me make this clear: I’m not trying to change the mitzvah, I’m trying to observe it in a more optimal fashion.
The incontrovertible reality is that endives are bitterer than romaine. And, as far as maror is concerned, bitter is better.
Postscript: my suspicions were indeed correct, and the endive did indeed not wilt. It performed exactly as I thought it would, with one bonus I hadn’t anticipated: the endive leaves make optimal charoset scoops.