Why We Eat Horseradish at Passover

Every year, Jewish people gather in family dining rooms around the world to celebrate the Passover Seder and remember God’s redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The Seder is designed to involve all five senses in the retelling of the Exodus story to the next generation. As we celebrate, we imagine that we too were once slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, because “if the Eternal God had not brought our forefathers out from Egypt, then even we, our children, and our children’s children might still have been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt” (from the traditional Passover service).

We tell our children the story of our deliverance from Egypt so that they can remember the severity of our people’s slavery and the wonder of our redemption. According to Rabbi Gamaliel, who tutored the apostle Paul when he was a student, any father who has not taught his children about the Passover lamb, the unleavened bread, or bitter herbs (typically horseradish), “has not fulfilled his duty.”

Horseradish – normally used as a garnish – completely overpowers the senses when you eat it on a small piece of matzah. According to Jewish tradition, one must eat enough bitter herbs (maror in Hebrew) to bring tears to the eyes. The tears and the bitter herbs remind each Seder participant how the great affliction the Jewish people endured brought tears to their eyes.

If we fail to remember the bitterness of our slavery in Egypt, we might be tempted to return to the source of our enslavement. Shortly after the Israelites left Egypt, they began to romanticize their affliction and complain to Moses about their perceived lack of food (Ex. 16:1-3). Even though their rations in Egypt were meager, they remembered that “we sat by the pots of meat and… ate bread to the full!” (Ex. 16:3). Their brief adversity in the desert caused them to forget their suffering in Egypt (Ex. 3:7-9; 4:31), not to mention the abundance of plunder they received as a result of their deliverance (Ex. 12:32-38). This is why it is vital to recall the anguish we endured under Pharaoh during the Passover Seder.

If our ancestors, who had personally experienced the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, were so apt to forget the goodness of their redemption, how much more do we tend to overlook the great disparity between our previous anguish and our present deliverance? In the same way, if we don’t remember the bitterness of our enslavement to sin, we will not appreciate the wonder of our redemption, which Yeshua the Messiah provided through His death and resurrection. This is why Paul instructs the Ephesian church to remember how they were previously alienated from the covenants of promise and without the hope of God in a desolate world (Eph. 2:11-12).

By “suffering” symbolically through the consumption of horseradish, we remember the bitterness of our slavery and recall the joy of our redemption.