For the week ending 13 April 2024 / 5 Nissan 5784

Seder Insights: Comprehending Karpas

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
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The Gemara in Pesachim (114b) asks why at the Pesach Seder we perform two dippings, i.e. first Karpas into saltwater and later, the Maror into Charose s. The Gemara succinctly answers ‘Ki Heichi D’lehavai Hekeira L’Tinokos, in order that there should a distinction for children.’ Both Rashi and his grandson, the Rashbam, as well as the Rokeach, explain the Gemara’s intent, that this act is performed in order so that the children should ask why we are performing this unusual and uncommon action on Leil Haseder, as this action serves as a ‘hekeira tova,’ an excellent distinction. Meaning, the children will ask “Why is this night different than all other nights?” – a.k.a. ‘The Mah Nishtana’ – and we respond with “Avodim Hayinu” (Our ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt) and the retelling of our nation’ origins. This is one of the ways we ensure that the Seder Night’s Mitzvah of ‘Vehigadta Le’vincha,’ retelling the story of our ancestors’ exile, enslavement, and ultimate redemption and exodus from Egypt, is properly performed.

This is in line with the Torah’s referring to the Seder as “Ki Yishalcha Bincha” – when your children will ask, “Vehigadta Le’vincha,’ – you will tell your child, meaning, recite the Haggada.

All About the Children

Yet, we can ask, well, if this is the question that children ask, then what is the actual answer that dipping the Karpas vegetable shows? The Bach cites three diverse solutions: 1) That we are showing Derech Cheirus, that free men dip before a Seudah to whet the appetite. 2) It serves as a small taste, as the Seder’s Seudah is much later, after Haggada and Hallel, so we should not sit so long without eating anything. 3) Citing the Maharal M’Prague that the first dipping before the Seudah shows that the second dipping by Maror, is performed exclusively for the Seder Night’s special Mitzvah of eating Maror; otherwise, as many people dip during their meals, it would not appear out of the ordinary.

The Taz offers an alternate approach, that the fact that the first dipping is performed prior to the Seudah shows that it is not actually performed as part of the Seudah, so too, it proves that the second one, Maror is also not performed as part of the Seudah but rather for its unique Mitzvah. On the other hand, the Pri Chodosh raises the point that everyone knows that there is a different Mitzvah of dipping and eating Maror that is performed much later on in the Seder, well after the ‘answer’ of ‘Avadim Hayinu.’ He therefore suggests that perhaps the main purpose of Karpas is for the children to ask questions, irrelevant of the answer or whether it actually answers that exact question. Once the children realize early on in the Seder that there are actions out of the ordinary being performed on Leil HaSeder, they will notice and ask the purpose of all of them, and thus enable the Mitzvah of ‘Vehigadta Le’vincha’ to be performed in the optimal manner.

But a question remains. Which exact action is the one that is meant to evoke the children’s questions? The answer may surprise you. The Bartenura and Tur specify that it is the timing of the dipping. They assert that it is unusual to dip food items at the beginning of a seudah. Most other days we also dip, but in the middle of the meal. In other words, the only change we do to evoke children’s questions is to perform the dipping right then. Interesting, no?

How Do You Karpas?

Now that we explained the “Why” of Karpas, this leaves the “What,” as in which vegetable should be used. It is interesting that the Mishnah in Pesachim did not tell us a specific vegetable, with the Gemara explaining that if stuck, we may even use the Maror for Karpas as well.

Although Rashi, the Rambam, and Tur tell us that any vegetable may be used for Karpas, and conversely the Maharil, Arizal, and seemingly the Shulchan Aruch, understanding “Karpas” to be referring to a specific vegetable with that name, yet, many sefarim cite “Petrozil” or “Petreshka” (presumably parsley, as “Petrozilia” is called in modern Hebrew) as the vegetable of choice, with the Aruch Hashulchan commenting that “we don’t know what it is.”

Other popular options used over the generations include onions, radishes, scallions, and even cucumbers. The main point is that its proper brachah be a “Borei Pri Ha’adama” so that it should exempt repeating this brachah again when it is time for Maror.

Strictly Celery

However, it seems that the two most prevalent vegetables, at least nowadays, are celery and potatoes. Celery is considered an excellent choice, as the Chasam Sofer relates, his rebbi, Rav Nosson Adler, did much research in tracking down the Maharil’s elusive “Karpas” vegetable, and his findings were that it is none other than celery. The Chasam Sofer writes that therefore that is what he used as well for Karpas. The Machatzis Hashekel writes similarly, that he was told by a “Great Man” (presumably Rav Adler) that after much research in Medical books, “Karpas” is truly none other than celery. The word he uses to identify it – “ipiya” or “ipuch,” is also cited as such in earlier sefarim, including the Bartenura in classifying “Karpas.”

Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky, in his annual Luach Eretz Yisrael, writes that in Eretz Yisrael the “Mehadrin” use “Karpas” that is known by its Arabic name. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach fills us in that he was referring to celery. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch cites a preference for celery as well, and this is the minhag of many, including the Mareh Yechezkel, and later, Rav Yisrael Yaakov Fischer.

Pontificating a Perchance for Potatoes

The other common “Karpas”, perhaps the most common, is potatoes. Cited by the Aruch Hashulchan and Misgeres Hashulchan, it is the minhag in Belz, Skver, and Spinka, and many Gedolim, including Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and Rav Moshe Sternbuch, were known to use potatoes as Karpas.

Yet, there are those, including chassidim of Sanz, Bobov, and Kamarna who will not use potatoes for Karpas. This can be traced back to the famed Yismach Moshe, Rav Moshe Teitelbaum, rebbi of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz.

In his Tehillah L’Moshe, the Yismach Moshe writes that he used to use potatoes for Karpas, but then heard that the great Rav Naftali of Ropschitz made a Shehakol brachah on it (and hence would not be fitting for Karpas). He writes that he found that the Aruch, Rav Nosson M’Romi (literally, of Rome; d. 1106), when referring to the proper brachah of mushrooms and other food items that do not actually get their nourishment from the earth and consequentially their brachah being Shehakol, translates them as “Tartuffel.” Not familiar with the archaic word, the Yismach Moshe maintained that the Aruch must have been referring to “Kartuffel,” colloquially known as the potato.

Although there are different rationales for this, this idea is also found in several other sefarim, and there are prominent authorities who therefore made a Shehakol brachah on potatoes.[1]

On the other hand, the facts do not seem to corroborate that potatoes should be classified in the same category of mushrooms, as potatoes not only grow and root in the ground, but they also get their nourishment from the ground, as opposed to mushrooms and their ilk. Several contemporary authorities point out that it is highly unlikely, if not outright impossible, for the Aruch, who lived in Europe in the eleventh century, to have been referring to “Kartuffel”(potatoes) as the proper translation for mushrooms, as tubers were unknown on that continent until almost five hundred years later!

In fact, according to the Tiferes Yisrael, this act of Sir Francis Drake’s, of introducing potatoes to the European continent in the 1500s, merited him to be classified as one of the Chassidei Umos Ha’Olam, as over the centuries, potatoes have saved countless lives from starvation.

Moreover, in modern Italian, “tartufo” still translates as “truffle,” the prized underground fungus/mushroom variety that is “worth its weight in gold,” and not a potato. Therefore, taking all of this into account, the vast majority of authorities rule that the proper blessing on the potato is indeed “Borei Pri Ha’adama,” and hence, it is still the preference for many as “Karpas.”

One final Seder-related thought. The Rosh explains that the Afikoman matzah is eaten in place of the Korban Pesach. Accordingly, one can suggest that at the Pesach Seder we not only remember the Korban Pesach as a historical event last practiced 2,000 years ago. Rather, when we eat the Afikoman, at the Seder, we replicate the experience and feel the excitement of eating the Korban Pesach. May this year be the one we merit having the real Korban Pesach in Yerushalayim in the close proximity of the Beis Hamikdash.

[1]This topic is discussed at length in this author’s recent English halacha seferFood: A Halachic Analysis’ (Mosaica/Feldheim), in a chapter titled ‘The Halachic Adventures of the Potato.’

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