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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Bitter Herb

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(מְרֹרַים, merorim', literally bitters; Sept. πικρίδες; Vulg. lactucce agrestes), occurs in two places in Scripture, both having reference to the Paschal meal. In Exodus 12:8, Moses commanded the Jews to eat the lamb of the Passover 'with unleavened bread, and with bitter herbs (merorim) they shall eat it." So at the institution of the second Passover, in the wilderness of Sinai (Numbers 9:11), "The fourteenth day of the second month at even they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs." The word merorim, which is here translated "bitter herbs," is universally acknowledged to signify bitter, and the word herbs has been supplied to complete the sense. In Arabic, murr, "bitter," plur. murclr, signifies a species of bitter tree or plant; as does m ru, a fragrant herb which has always some degree of bitterness. Murooa'is in India applied both to the bitter artemisia; or wormwood, and to the fragrant ocynum pilosum, a species of basil; in Arabia to the bitter century, according to Forskal. There has been much difference of opinion respecting the kind of herbs denoted by this word (Bochart, Hieroz. i, 1. ii, c. 50). On this subject the reader may consult Carpzov, Apparat. p. 404 sq. (See PASSOVER). It however seems very doubtful whether any particular herbs were intended by so general a term as bitters; it is far more probable that it denotes whatever bitter herbs, obtainable in the place where the Passover was eaten, might be fitly used with meat. This seems to be established by the fact that the first directions respecting the Passover were given in Egypt, where also the first Passover was celebrated; and, as the esculent vegetables of Egypt are very different from those of Palestine, it is obvious that the bitter herbs used in the first celebration could scarcely have been the same as those which were afterward employed for the same purpose in Canaan. According to the Mishna (Pesachim, ii, 6), and the commentators thereon, there were five sorts of bitter herbs, any one or all of which might be used on this occasion. These were,

(1.) חֲזֶרֶת, chaze'reth, supposed to be wild lettuce, which the Septuagint and Vulgate make stand for the whole;

(2.) עוּלְשַׁין, uleshin', endives; or, according to some, wild endives;

(3.) תִּמְכָּה, tamkah', which some make the garden endive, others horehound, others tansy, others the green tops of the horseradish, while, according to De Pomis, in Zemach David, it is no other than a species of thistle (carduus marrabium);

(4.) חִרְחָבנַין charchabinin", supposed to be a kind of nettle, but which Scheuchzer shows to be the chamomile;

(5.) מָרֹר, maror', which takes its name from its bitterness, and is alleged by the Mishnic commentators to be a species of the most bitter coriander, otherwise the dandelion. All these might, according to the Mishna, be taken either fresh or dried, but not pickled, boiled, or cooked in any way. All these translations betray their European origin. To interpret them with any thing like accuracy, it is requisite, in the first place, to have a complete flora of the countries from Egypt to Syria, with the Arabic names of the useful plants, accompanied by a notice of their properties. Science is as yet far from having any thing of the kind. We have seen that the succory or endive was early selected as being the bitter herb especially intended; and Dr. Geddes justly remarks that " the Jews of Alexandria, who translated the Pentateuch could not be ignorant what herbs were eaten with the Paschal lamb in their days." Jerome understood it in the same manner; and Pseudo-Jonathan expressly mentions horehound and lettuce. Forskal informs us that the Jews at Sana and in Egypt eat lettuce with the Paschal lamb. Lady Calcott inquires whether mint was originally one of the bitter herbs with which the Israelites ate the Paschal, as our use of it with roast lamb, particularly about Easter-time, inclined her to suppose it was.

Aben Ezra, as quoted by Rosenmuller, states that the Egyptians used bitter herbs in every meal; so in India some of the bitter cucurbitacece, as kureila, are constantly employed as food. (See GOURD). It is curious that the two sets of plants which appear to have the greatest number of points in their favor are the fragrant and also bitter labiate plants. It is important to observe that the artemisia, and some of these fragrant labiatoe, are found in many parts of Arabia and Syria-that is, in warm, dry, barren regions. The endive is also found in similar situations, but requires, upon the whole, a greater degree of moisture. Thus it is evident that the Israelites would be able to obtain suitable plants during their long wanderings in the desert, though it is difficult for us to select any one out of the several which might have been employed by them. (See BOTANY); (See HERB).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Bitter Herb'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/b/bitter-herb.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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