Spinach Salad with Bitter Herbs

Meal: A Passover Meal

  • recipe
  • bible reference
  • history

Spinach Salad with Bitter Herbs

  • 1 package fresh spinach
  • 2 endive (leaves only)
  • 1 head Boston lettuce
  • 1 head red cabbage, shredded
  • 1 bunch arugula
  • 1 bunch radicchio
  • 1 handful watercress, chopped
  • ½ cup fresh basil
  • ¼ cup fresh oregano
  • 4 eggs, hard-boiled
  • 2 cups walnut oil/berry vinaigrette


Though no one really knows which were the “bitter herbs' mentioned in the Exodus story, this salad covers all the possibilities.

Wash all the greens and toss into a large salad bowl. Crumble the hard-boiled eggs over the salad, and serve with a walnut oil/berry vinaigrette.

Yield: 8–12 servings

The Text


“That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs.”

  1. The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt,
  2. “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.
  3. “Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household.
  4. “If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat.
  5. “The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats.
  6. “Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.
  7. “Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door-frames of the houses where they eat the lambs.
  8. “That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.
  9. “Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire—head, legs and inner parts.
  10. “Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it.
  11. “This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord's Passover.”

Exodus 12:1–11, New International Version—United Kingdom

Biblical Passage Notes

This passage, without a doubt, is probably the most famous, if not the most sacred text of the Jewish scriptures. It recounts the words that God spoke to Moses and Aaron while they were still in Egypt regarding the last night the Israelites were to spend there prior to their exodus into the wilderness and the forty-year journey that led eventually to the Promised Land. “It is the Lord's Passover,” the passage concludes, and we are led to think, if we read nowhere else, that the celebration and meals surrounding it get their name and rituals from God's action of passing over the houses of the Hebrews, sparing their lives and those of their firstborn, as God visits the last and most punitive of plagues on a stubborn Pharaoh and his people.

However, the rituals of Passover are extremely complex, interwoven as they are with three (at least) distinct, early sociocultic observances: a festival to celebrate the Exodus, the feast of the Unleavened Bread, and the Dedication of the Firstborn. 1The Passover meal, which is in a state of constant change and rein-terpretation, contains fragments of all three celebrations, and its religious and cultural significance has been greatly altered over time. Despite attempts to transfer its celebration to the Temple as a part of worship2 (a move by the priestly authorities that they could not ultimately sustain), it has remained and is chiefly a community (and therefore a family) meal.

Next year in Jerusalem!

The Preparation

Currently, Passover is an eight-day religious holiday (seven days in Israel) that has both historical and agricultural components. The longstanding tradition of recounting and reliving the Passover meal (during the first two nights of the festival) in a ceremonial dinner known as the Seder (Hebrew for “order”) is found in many versions of the Haggadah (a book/guide of “Retelling”), with each Jewish community in Israel and scattered throughout the diaspora celebrating in its own unique way. In some communities, it is forbidden to eat rice and vegetables during Passover; in others, the eating of rice and vegetables is highly celebrated. Regardless, the basic ceremony that accompanies the meal, though particularly formulaic, is nonetheless fluid and has adapted greatly to local needs and customs and, not surprisingly, to what is available at market.

As the Seder meal is notably and purposely symbolic, at the table one will surely find wine (to celebrate and toast God's deliverance and the redemption of God's people); matzoh (the bread without yeast, because in the Exodus there was no time to let the bread rise); maror (one or more bitter herbs representing the harsh experience of slavery in Egypt); haroset (a sweet paste made of fruit, wine, and nuts that recalls the mortar set between the bricks the slaves were forced to make in constructing the buildings of the Egyptians); karpas (a green vegetable symbolizing spring or the second chance of a new life); betzah (a roasted egg, suggestive of the festival sacrifice); and zeroah (a roasted shank bone [or the neck bone of an animal], symbol of the paschal sacrifice and proof that God's command was obeyed). Depending on the community remembrance, there might also be chazeret (lettuce to put with the matzoh in commemoration of Rabbi Hillel's3 celebration of Passover); mei melach (salt water, or some bitter liquid [vinegar, lime juice, lemon juice], to recall the bitter tears of the enslaved Hebrew people and/or the waters that claimed the lives of the Egyptians as the waves of the Sea of Reeds came over them); and tzafun (“that which is hidden” is finally redeemed or uncovered, so there is joy and sweetness, i.e., dessert).

It should be noted that the Seder is a twofold meal, beginning with a ritual portion, then completed by serving a full dinner.4 (Some families do a bit of interweaving, so that the children are more likely to behave and the guests don't faint from hunger.) In many places, there are two separate Seders held on successive days. However, the primary focus is on the symbolic meal and the reading of the ceremony in the Haggadah; any recipes used in subsequent dinners have one foot in the symbolic camp, while making adjustments for flavor, abundance, and quality in the culinary camp. In other words, the first meal is to feed one spiritually; the second meal, building on the nature of the first, is meant to please the palates of those present (some say “body and soul”).

What we present below are recipes that, while keeping in mind the ritual, are more concerned with the full dinner presentation. We recommend that the reader explore the many haggadot available in bookstores and libraries so as to understand the variety of ways in which the Passover feast can be celebrated. For those looking for a “standard” second portion of the meal, we offer the following international menu.


1. See J. Coert Rylaarsdam on exegesis and J. Edgar Park on exposition, “The Book of Exodus,” in The Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952), 915ff.
2. Once the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 c.e., the Passover celebration found its place again where it had begun: at home.
3. Anita Diamant with Howard Cooper, Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today's Families (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 225.
4. Anita Diamant with Howard Cooper, Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today's Families (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 226.

The History

The figure of Moses presents a particular dilemma for historians. While the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) are generally held (except by biblical literalists) to be symbolic personages of ancient Jewish mythology, there is much less agreement about who Moses might have been, or whether he even existed. Certainly, there are no extrabiblical accounts of the life of Moses nor of the enslavement of the ancient Hebrews in Egypt or their Exodus (escape from Egypt and forty-year wandering in the desert). Some scholars contend that the story was fabricated in the 7th century b.c.e. by scribes hired by King Josiah to explain his (and his subjects') monotheism. Other scholars assert that the Egyptians themselves may have destroyed any records of Moses and the Exodus, as the events portray a failure that the Egyptians would not have wanted to become part of their legacy.

If Moses were indeed a historical person, there are several hypotheses about who he might have been and when he might have lived.

First, there is the belief that Moses was indeed a Hebrew, the son of the Levite Amram and his wife, Jochebed (Yocheved), as recounted in the Bible's book of Exodus. His family would have been descendants of the sons of Jacob, who immigrated to Egypt during the great seven-year famine because one son, Joseph, had known the future through dream interpretation and had been in a position in Egypt to store up vast quantities of food to prepare for the catastrophe. Proponents of this theory date the life of Moses to the 16th century b.c.e., at the end of the Egyptian Hyksos era.

Second, there is the theory that Moses was an Egyptian prince who was a contemporary disciple of Akhenaten, an Egyptian Pharaoh of the 14th century b.c.e. Known as Amenhotep IV when he came to power, Akhenaten almost immediately set about simplifying Egyptian religious beliefs. He declared the obscure Egyptian sun-god, Aten (Aton), to be the Supreme God—then, a few years later, to be the One God, establishing state-sanctioned monotheism. Some scholars believe that Moses developed his devotion to the One God under Akhenaten's tutorship, and it is generally accepted that Moses is an Egyptian name meaning “son”—perhaps the symbolic son of Akhenaten or an adaptation of “sun” to “son.” A few scholars even assert that Moses and Akhenaten were the same person, though there are few similarities between the religion of the ancient Israelites and Atenism, and there are many similarities between the Hebrew faith and other Semitic religions.

Third is the belief that Moses was Ramose (Ra-Moses), the Crown Prince of Egypt who disappeared from Egyptian records in the early 15th century b.c.e. Fourth is that Moses was indeed a Hebrew but had access to the court of Ramses II in the 13th century b.c.e. Finally, there is speculation that Moses was a renegade Egyptian priest who led a leper colony out of oppression.

If we follow the biblical narrative, Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh (perhaps Ramses II) became fearful that his slaves would become too powerful and consequently ordered all Hebrew boy babies killed. Jochebed hid Moses upon his birth, but after a few months she placed him in a basket and set him adrift on the Nile. Pharaoh's daughter found the baby and adopted him, allowing Moses' sister, Miriam, to take the child to Jochebed to nurse. It was Pharaoh's daughter who coined the name Moses, which means “to draw out”—a double entendre, as Moses was drawn out of the Nile, but he was also to draw the Israelites out of bondage. Moses grew up in the royal household, but he seems to have been a curious young man—he went out to the construction sites to observe the working of the slaves, for example. One day, he witnessed an Egyptian overseer mistreating a Hebrew slave; Moses killed the overseer and then hid the body. When he went to the construction sites another time, he stopped a brawl between two Israelites, and they taunted him about his murderous temper. Knowing that his crime had been discovered by Pharaoh, and that the penalty was death, Moses fled across the Sinai desert to Midian. There he married Zipporah, daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro, and settled into the life of a shepherd; in due course Zipporah bore a son, Gershom.

After many years (the Bible indicates forty, which is Bible code for a very long time), Moses happened to be pasturing his flocks near Mount Horeb when he observed a bush that seemed to be on fire without being consumed. When he approached, God spoke to Moses out of the bush and charged him with going to Pharaoh to persuade Egypt to free the Israelites. Diffidently, Moses returned to Egypt, enlisted the aid of his older brother, Aaron, as spokesman, and went to Pharaoh. To help convince the ruler of Egypt, God sent ten plagues to blight the land: locusts, gnats, frogs, hail, rivers of blood, days of darkness, and so forth. Finally, God sent the angel of death to kill all male firstborn of Egypt—both children and livestock—but spared from this plague the Israelites who had placed the blood of a newly slaughtered lamb on their doorposts. Archaeologists and most biblical scholars doubt that events happened in just the way they are depicted in the Bible, but certainly the story could be based on actual happenings. For example, the ancient world was sometimes afflicted with plagues of locusts or frogs, and the Bible narrative could simply be a symbolic extrapolation from natural occurrences. Afterward, the Egyptians forced the Israelites to leave, despising them for bringing such destruction upon Egypt. But Pharaoh seems to have had a change of heart—or else succumbed to his desire for revenge—and chased after the slaves to bring them back. Another interpretation is that Pharaoh finally allowed the Israelites to depart on a short pilgrimage into the desert to worship God, and that he only pursued them when they failed to return because they had become “lost.”