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Key Seder Questions: Why Karpas?

Why do we eat Karpas at the Pesach Seder?  And why only a nibble?

Many answers that are given to this question are not definitive reasons as such but rather suggestions as to its symbolism.

Karpas is the pleasant-tasting vegetable – usually parsley, cress, celery or potato – which we nibble (more on that soon) immediately after Kiddush at the Seder, in contrast to the maror, the bitter-tasting vegetable which we consume (more on that later too) following the Matsa.

The karpas (dipped in salt water) is said to variously symbolise: the 60 myriads (600,000 men and their families) subjected to hard labour in Egypt (ס’ פרך  is an anagram of כרפס); the hope and renewal that comes with spring;  the sprig of spring hyssop dipped in the blood of the Paschal lamb placed on the doorposts in Egypt (Ex. 12:22); the bland staple vegetables that our ancestors were given to eat as slaves (Num. 11:5 – some use onion or leek both of which are mentioned in this verse); the principle that G-D prepares the balm before He sends the suffering (karpas preceding maror); the dipping of Joseph’s coat (פסים, a word similar to  כרפס) by his brothers into the blood of a kid-goat following his sale to Egypt (which set the Egyptian exile in motion);  the practice of free men and women to eat an appetiser prior to the meal. No doubt there are other allusions too. It should be noted that some of these symbolisms represent slavery while some suggest freedom, which is why there is a dispute whether or not to recline when eating karpas!

As for hard-core basic reasons for karpas, there are just two – one educational, one halachic.

The educational one is that we desire our children to be curious on this night to stimulate them to ask questions.  When your child will ask you saying … then you should say is the classic formula presented in the Torah (see Ex. 13:14; Deut 20:6) which inspires the passage of the Four Sons in the Hagada.  The child, seeing Kiddush followed not by HaMotsi as is normal but by a b’racha-less hand-washing (prescribed in the Talmud prior to eating a vegetable dipped in liquid) followed by a borei p’ri ha-adama and a meagre bite of parsley, will have his or her curiosity piqued and will be prompted (hopefully) to inquire in wonderment not only about the karpas but on a whole host of other unusual happenings too, including of course the four classic questions of the Ma Nishtana.

The halachic reason is strangely less well-known.  It centres around the dispute surrounding the blessing on the maror.

 After all, uniquely, when we eat maror we are ingesting a substance not out of gustatory desire, but purely because it is a mitsva – hence the undisputed mitsva-blessing ve-tsivanu al achilat maror.  As for a food-b’racha of borei p’rei ha-adama, well that is a birchat nehenin, a sensory blessing; yet the maror is bitter and we are not intended to gain pleasure from it!  On the other hand, even horseradish, bitter as it may be, provides nutritional benefit, which could also be termed nehenin. Should we say an adama blessing on it or not?

The question is unresolved.

We solve the conundrum with typical Jewish acumen! We circumvent the problem altogether by making an adama on the vegetable we call karpas while having in mind to include the maror which will be eaten later (see Mishna Berura 473:55). 

However, we are careful to eat less than a keza’it (olive-size). Were we to eat more, we might be inclined – in view of the long maggid section of the Hagada intervening before the meal – to say a borei nefashot concluding blessing which would reawaken the original question of a nehenin-blessing on the maror.  On an amount less than a keza’it, the blessing of Borei Nefashot is not recited, therefore no closure is effected.

According to the Taz (see also Mishna Berura 473:53), the fundamental dispute regarding the quantity of karpas centres upon whether the maggid section and the first part of Hallel constitute an interruption between the karpas and the maror or not.  If it does, the eating of a keza’it will require Borei Nefashot.  If it doesn’t, it won’t.  Again, the wisest solution is to eat less than a keza’it thus obviating the need for an after-blessing under all circumstances.

Incidentally, there is no limitation on children eating before and during the Seder. On the contrary, the Shulchan Aruch (472:16) deems it a mitsva to ensure they have nush to eat (a copious supply if necessary!) in order to keep them switched on!  They are also not bound by the less-than-a-keza’it rule regarding the karpas, though they may perhaps be excused for valuing sweets over swedes!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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