Commentary for Passover

10 Apr

In Judaism, holiness is marked by difference. To show something is holy we treat it differently, either by treating it with extra respect or by only using it at special designated times. On holy days we act differently than we normally would, either by performing specific actions we otherwise wouldn’t or by refraining from performing certain actions that we would perform if the day were not so holy.   The entire concept of the Passover seder is structured around answering the question posed at the beginning of the story: “why is this night different from all other nights?”

So at what point does the Passover seder become different from all other nights? The holiday Kiddush helps make the night different from a regular night, but we say Kiddush on every holiday, so saying Kiddush with the proper insertions for Passover is no surprise. Next we wash our hands without saying a blessing. While this might seem different because we usually say Kiddush then wash our hands with a blessing and then say Mozti, it is actually quite normal, as we often wash our hands before eating, but if we are not going to say Motzi, we don’t say a blessing when we do it.   Because we have several more steps to get through (and some food to eat) before we get to Motzi, it is no surprise that we would wash our hands without saying a blessing.

The next step in the seder is Karpas, where we eat a green vegetable (usually parsley or celery) dipped in saltwater. Eating a vegetable in and of itself is not unusual, but where things become different is when we dip the Karpas in saltwater before eating it. If “on all other nights we don’t dip [our food] even one time,” then the first time that we dip our food is clearly a point of differentiation between this night and all others.

Karpas is perhaps the most overlooked step in the seder. It is often glossed over with simple explanations such as the green vegetable representing the springtime and the saltwater representing our tears during our slavery in Egypt, but the true meaning of dipping our Karpas in saltwater is much deeper than that.

The word Karpas actually has nothing to do with vegetables. It actually means a fine white fabric (Ester 1:6). The association with vegetables began when the rabbis were looking for a food to dip in saltwater to symbolize this fabric and picked a green vegetable because the word “karpas” sounds like the Persian word “karafs,” which means “a plant of which salad is made” and sounds even more like the Greek word “karpos,” meaning “‘fruit’” of the land (or river)” “Fruit of the land” is the literal translation of the Hebrew word for vegetables and is found in the blessing we say over them, so the rabbis chose a green vegetable to represent the “karpas” because the similar-sounding words would help people to form a connection between the fabric being symbolized and the vegetable they were dipping in saltwater.

The connection between fine fabric and Passover comes from the story of Joseph. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery they ripped his fancy coat off. The brothers then dipped the coat in the blood of a goat to fool their father Jacob into believing that Joseph had died, while in reality Joseph was en route to becoming the first Jewish slave in Egypt.

Karpas, representing the beginning of Jewish slavery in Egypt, is a very appropriate place to begin part of the night that is unique to Passover, but there is one more important connection between Joseph and the theme of the night. Passover is not only about our times as slaves, but about God bringing us out of Egypt and back to the Land of Israel, as was promised to Abraham. On his deathbed Joseph gathers his brothers around him and asks them to swear to him that when God returns the Israelites to the Land of Israel that his bones be taken with them and buried there (Gen. 50:24-25). Although many generations have passed, when God does finally fulfill the promise made to Abraham to liberate his descendents from their bondage, Moses makes sure to fulfill the promise that Joseph’s brothers made to him (Ex. 13:19).

The difference in the relationship between Joseph and his brothers at the end of his life compared to their youth is obviously quite striking. To go from selling someone into slavery to solemnly vowing to fulfill that person’s dying wishes to bring him comfort on his deathbed is a pretty extraordinary change. Interestingly, this change is also symbolized by the contrast of the two times at which we dip during the seder. The first time we dip is Karpas, when we dip our green vegetable into saltwater. The green vegetable on its own is perfectly palatable, but we add saltwater to it in an act designed to symbolize our sadness and make the taste less pleasant. Similarly, Joseph’s life was going along swimmingly until his brothers decided to sell him into slavery. The second time we dip at the seder is when we dip the bitter herb into charoset.   The bitter herb is obviously intended to not taste very good, but we add sweet charoset to make the bitter pill easier to swallow. When Joseph is entering the difficult period as he nears the end of his life, his brothers are there to comfort him and make life a little bit easier- and similarly, when their descendants were enslaved in Egypt, they all banded to together to make life a little bit easier, as symbolized by the small amount of charoset that we put on the bitter herb to make the difficult times slightly easier to bear.

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