Peter Rabbit and Hollywood–the Passover connection

(Use of lettuce as maror; January, 2007)

Miss Potter, a new film staring Renee Zellweger, is based on the life of Beatrix Potter, author of the Peter Rabbit stories. Hollywood being Hollywood, the film focuses on her mid-life romance and marriage to her editor, but takes little notice of her earlier career as a botanist and naturalist. Potter’s detailed observations of the growth of mushrooms and other forms of fungi led her to conclude that lichens are not individual plants, but symbiotic combinations of fungi and algae. She may have been the first person to realize this. Although her view is universally accepted by biologists today, her manuscript on the subject was not accepted for publication.

What does all this have to do with Passover? The answer lies in “The Tale Of The Flopsy Bunnies,” one of the stories that followed “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” This story begins with the following words:

It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is “soporific.” I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuces; but then I am not a rabbit. They certainly had a very soporific effect upon the Flopsy Bunnies!

What is the source of the belief that eating lettuce induces sleep, if no one finds that it does? This belief goes back at least as far as the ancient Greek medical writers Hippocrates (436 BCE) and Dioscorides (60 CE), who noted that both cultivated and wild lettuce species contain a bitter white sap that induces sleep.

The Mishna (Pesachim 2:6) lists lettuce as the first, and presumably the preferred species to use for maror, the bitter herb eaten at the Seder meal as a remembrance of our Egyptian enslavement. The Talmud (Pesachim 39a), in discussing this Mishna, notes that any species used as maror must have the white, milky sap characteristic of the lettuce family. Interestingly, the section of the Talmud (Pesachim Chapter 10) that describes the procedure for the seder meal asks the question whether one who fell asleep during the meal should recite the grace (birkat hamazon) on waking. It is not hard to imagine that four cups of wine and a dose of soporific lettuce would knock anyone out! Today’s cultivated lettuce varieties have been bred for low levels of the narcotic compounds. However, it is easy to imagine that the more primitive varieties of Talmudic times knocked out quite a few people. Perhaps the Torah’s emphasis on Passover in prohibiting leftovers from the animal sacrifices (Exodus 23:18 and 34:25) reflects the likelihood that celebrants would fall asleep before finishing their meal.

NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from the popular Torah Flora live program “Three Mitzvot of Pesach.” For information about live Torah Flora programs, see Events or e-mail

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