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The Bitter Herbs

adapted by Gedaliah Fleer

from the stories of Rebbe Nachman

A Jew and a German were travelling together. Since Passover was drawing near, the Jew began to describe the sumptuous feast customarily eaten in honour of the holiday. "Wine is served in abundance and the specially prepared delicacies are out of this world." But the German, who had never been to a Seder, could hardly share his companion's enthusiasm.

"It's something you've simply got to experience," said the Jew, "perhaps I can teach you to pretend you're Jewish. Then on Passover eve, you can accompany me to the synagogue where the good-natured members of the congregation will surely invite us to their homes for the feast."

It sounded like a good idea and the German quickly learned to pose as a Jew. He even learned the Yiddish language which was quite similar to his native tongue. Shortly before the holiday his friend briefly explained the traditional Seder customs. "There's the Kiddush, recited over a glass of wine, the washing of the hands and the eating of some cucumber. Then the Haggadah which explains about the exodus from Egypt is read and discussed. Everything happens in a particular order, but eventually there's that delicious meal with all those luscious Jewish delicacies." Quite by accident however, the Jew forgot to tell his friend about the eating of bitter herbs. On the eve of Passover, before going to the synagogue, the German fasted all day. He wanted to be prepared with an appetite worthy of the forthcoming feast. When the synagogue service was completed the two friends were invited to separate homes to partake in the Seder. The aroma of exquisite foods filled the air. The German was shown to a comfortable chair near the head of a beautifully set dining room table. His mouth watered, as his host began the Seder by reciting the Kiddush. Everyone drank an entire glass of wine. "What a really nice custom," thought the German, "a good meal should always begin with wine." Shortly thereafter water was brought and people took turns washing their hands with an oversized goblet. "Quaint, very quaint," mused the German, "they're washing up for the meal." Then each person was given a small piece of cucumber dipped into salt water. "These Jews have some pretty strange ideas about hors d'oeuvres," he thought, "but the food I smell will surely be more substantial than this." After a while the German found himself growing impatient. He had not eaten all day and his stomach was beginning to complain. The wine and cucumber were making him ill. Everyone around him however, seemed quite content. The last two hours had been spent discussing the exodus from Egypt. "How much longer will this continue," thought the German, "don't they ever get hungry?" Finally matzo was brought to the table. Another glass of wine was consumed and people began to wash their hands for a second time. The German looked at the matzo and forced himself to remain calm. Some real food would soon be had. The matzo was hard and tasteless but at least it was something of substance. He ate his fill and anxiously awaited the rest of the meal. His Jewish friend had prepared him for the events of the evening. He had been told about the wine, and matzo. He had even been forewarned about the peculiar washing of the hands. But now, for the first time all evening, the German didn't recognize the food being served. "This must be the beginning of the real meal," he thought, as a dish piled high with grated horse radish was placed before him. "Take as much as you please," said his host, kindness radiating in his manner. Needing no further encouragement, the German heaped a brimming tablespoon of horse radish into his mouth and began to choke. His eyes bulged and began to tear. Thinking that this was what the entire meal consisted of, he ran from the house, back to the synagogue where he and his friend had agreed to meet. "Cursed Jews," he thought, "after all that ceremony they serve horse radish for their meal."

Shortly afterward, his friend arrived, fully satisfied and content. "How did it go with you?" he asked. "You Jews are crazy," said the German, "absolutely out of your minds." He then angrily proceeded to relate the events of the evening and how he had eventually fled from the Seder. "How foolish of you," said the Jew. "Had you been patient for just a moment longer you could have eaten the best of foods to your heart's content. Didn't you know that the real meal is always served after the bitter herbs?"

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Copyright © 1997 by Gedaliah Fleer.
Used by permission.

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