But no; after each sip of wine, our host would discuss the wine, pondering its characteristics, and then invite us to contribute our thoughts. Was it fruity? What fruit did it taste like? Was it nutty? Earthy? Was it viscous? Dry? Sharp? How sharp? Tangy, or more like spicy? Are there different tastes that happen on a delay? How might the Sonoma fog have had an impact on that? Or the early warm spell of the Spring? Would this wine have been better if it were four degrees warmer? Perhaps it was not properly aerated?
Each guest shared their thoughts. Then, after an intermediate palate cleanser, we moved on to the next wine, and the next, and so on for about two hours.
I cannot say I had much to contribute to the discussion. I like to cook, and I like to think that I take the time to savor good food or a good beverage now and again - to stop and recognize something extraordinary, instead of simply shovelling food down my gullet because I need sustenance. But I’m not sure I have such a sophisticated palate that I can identify complex flavors like the practiced and experienced gourmets around me. And I had never spent so much time thinking about the taste of something. Really stopping and thinking: what does that taste like?
There are all kinds of commandments, achieved all kinds of ways. Some are done by action, like candle lighting. Others are achieved through speech, like blessing. Some happen by simply not doing something, like speaking falsely about another person. Some occur by eating or drinking, like wine.
But one mitzvah- the only one of it’s kind, to my knowledge- is achieved in an odd way: by tasting.
Maimonides writes in his law code the Mishnah Torah “One that swallows matzah- they fulfill the commandment. One that swallows the maror (bitter herb) - they do NOT fulfill their obligation.” This is based on the principle stated in Talmud Pesachim: “the commandment is to taste the taste of bitterness, for the Egyptians made the lives of the Israelites bitter in their enslavement and oppression.”
Maror, the bitter herb, is usually present at the seder in the form of a big white root, or a stack of Romaine lettuce leaves, or a purple condiment jar with “Gold’s” on “Manischevitz” on the label. According to the reckoning of Maimonides, Maror is not merely a commandment to be fulfilled quickly and checked off the list. The taste of that spicy white root is meant to be savored and contemplated deeply. One that merely shovels it back for sustenance; or worse, someone that tries to swallow it while avoiding the taste of it, is missing the whole point. The Maror is supposed to be tasted as if a person were at a wine tasting for their soul.
It should incite your mind to recall the painful experience of the backbreaking physical labor of Egyptian servitude. It should spark the imagination to feel what it is to be someone else’s servant; to have no free will of your own; to do only what others say. And to know that your children in this system would not have had their own choices or own destiny- they too would be slaves to Pharoah.
The Maror is a great indicator of the broader significance of the Seder itself. Judaism could have mandated that we recount the Exodus story in synagogue, pray our prayers of thanks, and move on, as we do for so many other holidays. But this holiday centers around eating. And specifically, tasting.
Each mouthful this Pesach, take a moment to think about what you are experiencing; not just for the maror, but for everything. What is being communicated to you at the seder through the visceral experience? What does the bitterness tell you about ancient suffering? How does it awaken other parts of your brain to the reality of injustice, as opposed to just telling the story? The bitter taste is not only a reminder, but an opportunity to do that other most authentic thing at the seder. The opportunity to ask questions, and think deeply.
B’tai Avon - bon appetit - Chag Kasher V’Sameach. I hope that you and your family have a joyous meal of depth and freedom, that balances perfectly the bitterness of servitude with the sweet wine of freedom.