Karpas and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
By Rav David Brofsky, Senior lecturer at Midreshet Lindenbaum
The eating and dipping of the karpas, found at the beginning of the seder, raises many questions
(which may be the point!). The gemara (pesachim 114) implies that the carpas is meant to stimulate the
children to ask questions. It is not clear, however, whether that is the entire reason, or whether it
comes for other reasons. The rishonim seem to suggest three approaches to understanding karpas:
Rabbenu Yom Tov Elem (Tosafot Pesachim 114a) suggests a somewhat technical reason: karpas
provides a birkat hanehenin to cover the marror eaten later. Most rishonim disagree- insisting that the
“hamotzi” should cover the marror. If one can bring a proof from the “order” of the seder, as well as
from the “ka-ara”- karpas seems to play a more significant role than merely a “heker”- or a solution for
a “hilchot berachot” quandary.
Some rishonim offer different, opposite interpretations of karpas:
Some rishonim believe that the karpas comes to symbolize freedom- for example, the Rabbenu
Manoach (end of hilchot hametz u’matzah) cites an opinion who suggests that herbs and vegetable are
a sign of victory- and karpas represents a type of victory celebration! Others suggest by eating karpas
we are imitating the roman ”upper class” who began their meals with a vegetable, and with dipping.
Karpas is to be viewed as one of the parts of the seder which comes to demonstrate or “cheirut” (similar
to the heseiba of the arba kosot).
Other rishonim develop an opposite approach, they claim that karpas comes to remind us of our
hardship- like those who point out that “karpas” backwards is “60 perech”- I.e. 600.000 Jews who toiled
in Egypt. The Rabbenu Manoach also cites an opinion that suggests that karpas was associated with
medicinal benefit- of nursing the aching body back to health after a long day.
Interestingly- he also explains that karpas is reminiscent of the coat Yaakov gave to Yosef, (which,
according to Rashi, contained the color “karpas”). Karpas reminds us of how the Jewish people came to
Mitzrayim, and what the original cause (or first sin) was- sinat chinam.
This confusion, regarding whether karpas is a symbol of freedom, or bondage, has other halachic
ramifications. Is one to lean while eating karpas? Is it dipped in charoset, which according to the babli,
reminds of mortar, and according to the yerushalmi- of blood (coat dipped in blood!).
However- it seems that this confusion is typical of the seder night- as we vacillate between two themesfreedom and slavery. While these two themes are themselves and independently important,
apparently, they also cannot be separated: one worthy of freedom is one who understands bondage.
They aren’t separate messages, but one complex message- central to the seder experience.
Midreshet Lindenbaum Ta Shma