The Mystery of Karpas

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by R. Chaim Lindenblatt

At the Pesach seder, we dip twice—first karpas in salt water and later maror in charoses. What is the purpose of the first dipping early in the seder? The Gemara (Pesachim 114b) says that it is hekera letinokos; it is supposed to arouse the children to ask questions. Yet it raises questions for adults, as well. If this is the only reason, why do we need a vegetable? We could use a fruit or some other food for that reason. It seems from the Gemara (ibid.) that karpas must be a vegetable so that a single blessing of borei peri adama can be recited for both the karpas and the later maror. Is there a deeper connection between the maror and the karpas than just the blessing? Additionally, is it significant what type of vegetable we choose for karpas? Askenazim use a potato or radish; Sephardim use parsley or another green vegetable. Is this choice of vegetable meaningful?

After discussing the issue of whether mitzvos require intent, the Gemara (ibid.) discusses how you should handle the two blessings of borei peri adama and al achilas maror if you only have maror at the table. Rav Huna says you recite borei peri adama first and al achilas maror when you have your second piece of maror later in the seder. Rav Chisda says that you recite both blessings in the beginning and, when it is time to eat the maror, you do not need to recite any blessing. The Gemara (115a) concludes that we follow the opinion of Rav Chisda. The Gemara ends the discussion with the actions of Rav Acha the son of Rava, who sought other vegetables in order to remove himself from the dispute.

This Gemara seems to be discussing a strange case. Why are there no other vegetables available? People only have maror in their homes? There are myriads of vegetables available during this time of year! It seems odd that the Gemara tells the story that Rav Acha the son of Rava searched for other vegetables; where was the he living that vegetables were so scarce?

The second question in the Mah Nishtanah, in the Hagadah, says “shebechol haleylos anu ochlim sh’ar yerakos,on all other nights we eat other vegetables, halaylah hazeh maror, this night maror.” Some of the old Hagados had the text, “halaylah hazeh kulo maror, this night all is maror” (see Tosafos, Pesachim 116a sv. Halaylah hazeh maror). Apparently, just like we have only matzah and not chometz at the table, so too there was a time when we only brought maror to the table and not any other vegetables.

It seems that during the times of the Temple, there were two dippings. One dipping of maror was before the meal and a second dipping of maror when the peasch, matzah and maror were eaten together (or around the same time). Maror functions in two ways: by itself it is bitter; with meat and other foods like fish, it adds flavor. So, the first, bitter maror was to remember the servitude. They remembered the bitterness by eating maror, as well as the splitting of the matzah, which both symbolize the servitude, at the beginning of the seder. They were essential props to get the children to ask about the change from normal eating habits. This is the hekera letinokos. When we reach the climax of the seder, the maror is part of the enhancement, the geulah, redemption. In life, when we struggle with difficulties, it is bitter. Only afterwards do we in some way realize its importance, which can make us stronger. That is the function of “matzos al merorim yochluhu (Shemos 12:8), eating pesach, matzah and maror together. As a nation, we are stronger because of the bitterness and slavery we experienced in Egypt.

However, with the destruction of the Temple, maror is only a rabbinic obligation. We are back in exile. The maror is eaten separately again, no longer as a sandwich with pesach and matzah. We are re-experiencing the bitterness of exile. Therefore, we eat maror right before the sandwich to contrast our bitterness and what was done at the time of the temple. If we have this dipping, do we need a first? Most of the Sages wanted to change the practice to avoid the repetition. In response, they instituted what we call karpas. (See Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:3)

What does karpas mean? Rashi, in Parshas Vayeshev (37:3), states concerning Yosef’s multi-colored coat, that it was a cloak of fine wool like the draperies of Achasverosh, which was called karpas. Karpas alludes to Yosef’s cloak, which was dipped in blood and sent to Yaacov (37:31-32). This action, which was the beginning of the exile, occurred because of sinas chinam, baseless hatred. The Sages understood that the destruction of the second Temple was because of sinas chinam (Yoma 9b). We only need maror once not twice. The karpas dipping is to explain why we returned to exile. The Gemara is dealing with the fact that even with the exile it took a few hundred years for Klal Yisrael to uniformly give up only having maror as the vegetable. Rav Acha and others pushed to have another vegetable at the table.

Perhaps, this is why different communities used specific vegetables for karpas. Karpas does not stand on its own but is still linked to maror. Even though the Sages changed the practice, they wanted some aspects of the connection to remain. Therefore, karpas should look like maror. In Ashkenazic communities, where maror was white horseradish, they ate potatoes or radishes. In communities where they used green romaine lettuce for maror, they would use parsley or some other green vegetable for karpas.

According to this reasoning, we should not lean when eating karpas because it is in place of maror and the bitterness of exile. It is not merely convenient that the same blessing is said on both karpas and maror. It forces you to have in mind maror when reciting the borei peri adamah blessing on karpas. In the future, when the Temple is rebuilt, we will return to a seder of kulo maror, only maror, without karpas.

About Chaim Lindenblatt

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