What is the reason behind the “Karpas” at the Pesach Seder, and what is the significance of its name?
A number of Rishonim (see Rashbam), based upon the Gemara (Pesachim 114), imply that the karpas 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. Many Rishonim offer additional approaches to understanding karpas.
Rabbenu Yom Tov Elem (Tosafot, Pesachim 114a), for example, 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. However, the presence of the Karpas at the seder implies a more fundamental reason, and not just a solution for a “hilchot berachot” quandary.
Some rishonim believe that the karpas comes to symbolize freedom. For example, Rabbenu Manoach (end of Rambam’s Hilchot Hametz U-Matzah) cites an opinion which 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 our “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, such as those who point out that “karpas” backwards is “60 perech”- i.e. 600.000 Jews who toiled in Egypt.
Rabbenu Manoach also cites an opinion which suggests that karpas was associated with medicinal benefit, of nursing the aching body back to health after a long day. Interestingly, he offers another, unique and intriguing explanation: Karpas (see Rashi Bereishit 37:3) is reminiscent of the coat Yaakov gave to Yosef. Thus, 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 functions as 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 Talmud Bavli, reminds us of mortar, and according to the Talmud Yerushalmi, of blood (coat dipped in blood!)?
However, it seems that this confusion is typical of the seder night, as we vacillate between two themes of freedom and slavery. While these two themes are themselves independently important, apparently, they also cannot be separated from one other: one worthy of freedom is one who understands bondage. They aren’t separate messages, but one complex message- central to the seder experience.
Rav David Brofsky is a senior faculty member at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a member of Beit Hillel and the contributor of a weekly halakha shiur for the Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM). He is the author of Hilchot Tefilla: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer (KTAV, 2010), and the recently published Hilkhot Moadim: Understanding the Jewish Festivals (Koren, 2013).