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The Mitzva to Eat Maror

In memory of Pinhas ben Shalom (Paul) Cymbalista z”l.
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Based on a Shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Yosef Krumbein with Yoni Weitz. Translated by David Strauss

The Torah states:

And they shall eat the meat on that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. (Shemot 12:8)

On the fourteenth day of the second month at evening they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. (Bamidbar 9:11)

          Before we begin to deal with the details of the mitzva of eating maror, we must ask: Is there a mitzva to eat maror? Put differently, is the obligation to eat maror counted as a separate mitzva in the count of the 613 biblically ordained commandments? The Rishonim disagree on this issue. The Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment no. 56) does not count this obligation as a separate mitzva, whereas R. Sa’adya Gaon and the Yere’im (no. 94), who represents the school of the Tosafot, do count it as an independent mitzva.

The question of whether or not eating maror is a separate mitzva must be raised because it touches upon the very root and essence of the mitzva of maror.  We learn in Pesachim (120a):

Rava said: [The eating of] matza nowadays is a biblical obligation, whereas [that of] maror is rabbinic. Why is maror different? Because it is written, “They shall eat it [the Pesach-offering] with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (Bamidbar 9:11) – at a time when there is a Pesach offering, there is maror, but at a time when there is no Pesach offering, there is no maror! Then in the case of matza, too, surely it is written, “They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs”? Scripture indeed repeated [the precept] in the case of matza: “At evening you shall eat unleavened bread” (Shemot 12:18).  But R. Acha bar Ya’akov said: Both the one and the other are [only] rabbinic.

We must clarify what the gemara means when it says, “at a time when there is a Pesach offering.” It may be argued that we are dealing with different historical periods – that is to say, when the Temple is standing as opposed to when it lies in ruins. Alternatively, it may be suggested that the reference is to the time when the Pesach offering is actually eaten. According to the second understanding, Rava and R. Acha disagree whether there is an independent mitzva to eat matza, or whether the eating of matza merely accompanies the mitzva of eating the Pesach-offering; when a person is not eating the Pesach offering, there is also no room for eating matza. As for eating maror, both Amora’im agree that there is no independent mitzva, and therefore it applies only when a person is actually eating the Pesach offering.

          There is a practical ramification between the two understandings of “the time when there is a Pesach offering” regarding a person who does not eat the Pesach offering during the period when the Temple is standing. A according to R. Acha bar Ya’akov, is such a person duty bound to eat matza? If matza and maror are independent obligations when the Temple is standing, such a person should be obligated to eat them. According to this line of thought, each of these obligations should be counted as separate mitzvot. This seems to be the understanding of R. Sa’adya Gaon and the Tosafot.

The Rambam, on the other hand, did not view these obligations as dependent on the existence of the Temple, but rather on the actual sacrifice of the Pesach offering. He therefore connects these mitzvot to the time that the Pesach offering is brought. According to him, a person who fails to join with others to bring the Pesach offering would not be obligated to eat maror according to all opinions, and he would not be obligated to eat matza according to R. Acha. It follows from the Rambam’s position that the obligation to eat maror should not be counted as an independent mitzva, for it merely accompanies the eating of the Pesach offering.

          Indeed, the Rambam rules (Hilkhot Chametz U-Matza 7:12):

According to the Torah, the eating of maror is not a mitzva in its own right, but rather is dependent on the consumption of the Pesach sacrifice. For there is one positive commandment to eat the meat of the Pesach sacrifice together with matza and maror. According to the words of the Sages, [it is a mitzva] to eat the maror alone on this night even if there is no Pesach sacrifice.[1]

Let us now note several practical ramifications emerging from this discussion.

THe Identity of maror

          We learn in the mishna in Pesachim (2:5):

These are the commodities with which one discharges his obligation [to eat matza] on Pesach: with wheat, with barley, with spelt, with rye, and with oats.

And in mishna 6 we learn:

And these are the herbs with which one discharges his obligation on Pesach [to eat bitter herbs]: with lettuce (chazeret), with endives (ulshin), with tamkha, with charchavina, and with maror.

          It is possible to understand that these two mishnayot are parallel, each of them listing five species with which one can fulfill the obligation of matza or maror respectively. Indeed, the Rambam (Hilkhot Chametz U-Matza 7:13) understands that we are dealing here with five species that are defined as “maror.” In contrast, Rashi writes (Shemot 12:8):

“And unleavened bread with merorim” – every bitter herb is called “maror.” He commanded them to eat something bitter as a reminder of, “And they made their lives bitter.”

In general, Rashi does not deal with the reasons for the commandments; why does he do so here? It may be suggested that Rashi wishes to exclude the Rambam’s understanding that there is a precise definition of maror. He argues that what is essential is the bitterness, and he therefore discusses the mitzva’s underlying reason.[2]

          This disagreement connects to the question raised earlier. If the obligation to eat maror is a separate mitzva, it stands to reason that we should relate to it as any other mitzva of eating found in the Torah. Accordingly, we must precisely define the object with which the mitzva must be fulfilled. But if the obligation is only auxiliary to another mitzva of eating and it constitutes a fulfillment in the mitzva of the Pesach offering, it is reasonable to assume that there is no specific definition of the mitzva; the main thing is that the Pesach offering be eaten together with something bitter. In other words, if we don’t require a specific species for maror, it may be proposed that eating maror is not an independent mitzva. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true, for it may very well be that it is not an independent mitzva, but nevertheless we require a specific, well-defined species, and this indeed is the view of the Rambam.


          In Sukka 13b, we find a statement concerning an interposition (chatzitza) to the ritual impurity imparted by foods:

R. Abba said in the name of Shmuel: Herbs concerning which the Sages said that a man fulfills with them his obligation on Pesach carry ritual impurity, do not act as interpositions to ritual impurity, and cause invalidity in a Sukka-covering in the same manner as an air space. What is the reason? Because when they wither they crumble and fall, they are regarded as though they were not there.

Rashi (ad loc.) offers a novel comment:

Herbs concerning which the Sages said that a man fulfills with them his obligation on Pesach – lettuce, endives, and the rest of them… However, while they are still fresh, they act as an interposition by Torah law because they do not contract ritual impurity, since they are not human food. For if they would contract ritual impurity, they would not interpose before ritual impurity. And when they are dry, their interposition is not an interposition, as is explained: “They crumble and fall.”

          Regarding mitzvot and prohibitions, we generally invoke the criterion of “human food.” Why is this not true regarding the mitzva of maror, according to Rashi here? As we wrote above, Rashi maintains that there is no independent mitzva to “eat” maror, and thus Rashi also says that there is no need for the maror to be defined as a “food.” Rashi’s position is novel and radical and, just as we argued above, the reverse is not necessarily true. In other words, if we do not require “food,” it is reasonable to say that this is not an independent mitzva. But even if we say that there is no independent mitzva to eat maror and that it is merely an accompaniment to the eating of the Pesach sacrifice, we do not have to say that there is no requirement of “food.”


          As is well-known, there is no “eating” of less than the measure of an olive, whether because the size of an olive defines the act of eating or because it defines the significance of the food that is eaten. We would expect to find the same law regarding maror, and indeed this is the case. The Rosh (10:25), however, writes that one must eat maror of the size of an olive, because we recite the blessing “for the eating of maror” over the maror and this is the minimal measure for a blessing. The Sha’agat Aryeh (no. 20) understands from the Rosh’s words that since the Sages enacted a blessing, they accordingly required the eating of the size of an olive. But the requirement of eating the size of an olive does not stem from the mitzva of maror itself.[3]

The very raising of the possibility that according to the strict law there would be no need to eat the size of an olive brings us back to our first question – is the eating of maror an independent mitzva or not? If there is an independent fulfillment in eating maror, then we should certainly require the size of an olive, but if maror is merely a fulfillment in the eating of the Pesach sacrifice, then there is room to discuss whether maror in the size of an olive must be eaten with the Pesach sacrifice or if it suffices to eat any amount of maror as an accompaniment of the Pesach sacrifice in order to give a taste of bitterness.

The obligation in our Time

          In the gemara cited above, we saw that the obligation to eat maror in our time is rabbinic according to all opinions. According to the Tosafot, during the time of the Temple there was an independent mitzva that depended on that period, whereas today, when there is no sacrifice, we fulfill the mitzva the same way that we fulfilled it during the time of the Temple, only that now it is rabbinic in nature. What, however, is the law according to the Rambam? How is it possible to eat the maror detached from the Pesach sacrifice, when the entire essence of the maror is to accompany the eating of that sacrifice? It is like eating butter without the toast! Two possible answers may be proposed.

  1. Indeed, we are dealing here with a revolutionary change. By Torah law, maror is merely an accompaniment to the Pesach sacrifice. The Sages, however, turned the eating of maror into an independent mitzva, similar to other novel rabbinic mitzvot, like Chanuka and Purim.
  2. The nature of the eating did not change, and we relate to the situation as if there were a “virtual” Pesach sacrifice. That is to say, we eat the matza and maror as if they were accompanying the Pesach sacrifice. This falls into the category of “zekher le-Mikdash,” reminders of the Temple. This explanation requires a fertile imagination.

Before concluding, let us note two additional points that may be connected to this issue.

1) In Pesachim 115a, Hillel and the Rabbis disagree whether a person must make a sandwich out of the Pesach sacrifice, matza and maror. At first glance, it seems possible to connect this disagreement over our question. But this is not the case. Even if we maintain that eating maror involves an independent fulfillment, it does not negate the fact that there is an additional fulfillment of eating the maror together with the Pesach sacrifice. Similarly, it may be argued that eating maror does not involve an independent fulfillment, but is merely an accompaniment to the eating of the Pesach sacrifice, yet nevertheless there is no need to make a sandwich out of them, but only to eat them both within the period of akhilat peras (the time it takes to eat three or four egg measures of bread) so that the eating should be regarded as a single act of eating.[4]

2) If we compare the te’amim (cantillation) on the verse in Parashat Bo with those on the verse in Parashat Beha’alotekha, we see an interesting difference. In the verse in Bo, “And they shall eat the meat in that night, roast with fire (tzeli esh), and unleavened bread (u-matzot); and with bitter herbs (merorim) they shall eat it,” we find under the words “tzeli esh” a cantillation mark that connects them to the word “u-matzot,” whereas the words “merorim” are separated from them. In contrast, in the verse in Beha’alotekha, “On the fourteenth day of the second month at evening they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread (matzot) and bitter herbs (u-merorim),” the accent connects the word “matzot” to the word “u-merorim,whereas the word “pesach” (i.e., the pronominal suffix “it”) is separated from them. What is the meaning of this difference? It may be proposed, according to Rava and the Rambam, that on regular Pesach (Pesach Rishon), which is discussed in Bo, the Pesach sacrifice and the matza have equal standing, each constituting an independent mitzva,[5] and the maror is exceptional in that it merely accompanies the Pesach sacrifice. On Pesach Sheni, on the other hand, which is discussed in Beha’alotekha, the matza and maror have equal standing, each of them coming as an accompaniment to the Pesach sacrifice. They are therefore joined together with the cantillation marks.

(This shiur was delivered on Thursday, 3 Nissan 5764, a day devoted to father-son learning in the Yeshiva.)



[1] The Rambam’s position is based on the Mekhilta, which he cites in positive commandment no. 56. There is disagreement about the proper reading of the Mekhilta, but the standard reading seems to actually go against the Rambam; see notes to the Mekhilta. Similarly, we learn in the Tosefta: “The Pesach sacrifice, the matza, and the lettuce [maror] are not indispensible for each other.” This also implies that maror is an independent obligation.

[2] According to many Rishonim, if a person swallows the maror without chewing it, he has not fulfilled his obligation because he did not taste the bitterness. These positions do not necessarily lead to the position of Rashi, but they do support it.

[3] It should be noted that the simple understanding of the Rosh does not accord with that of the Sha’agat Aryeh.

[4] R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik argued similarly in the name of his father, R. Moshe.

[5] Even though the mitzva to eat matza as an independent mitzva is learned from a different verse.


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