Pesach- Why Karpas?

After we wash our hands and return to the table, the karpas is offered around. The Shulchan Aruch lists several different types of vegetables that can be used for karpas or maror, but most contemporary sources conclude that Ashkenazic Jews have the custom of using potatoes (though some sects of Ashkenazim, including those of German descent, use parsley), while Sefardic Jews use celery. Each individual sitting at the table takes his karpas, dips it into salt water, blesses Borei Pri Ha’Adama, and eats it. Less than a kazayit is eaten, and most believe that none should be leaning at this point (though some nonetheless recommend leaning).

For those of us who have participated in sedarim from a young age, karpas is just a yearly (or bi-yearly) occurrence. However, to an outsider, the sight of an entire family eating less than olive sized portion of salt water-marinated vegetables can be quite unusual. Why on earth do we do this?

Gemara Pesachim (114a) answers with perhaps the six most cliched words of the Seder night; “so that the children will ask.” In just a few minutes, the youngest (non stage-shy) child present will get up and be expected to ask questions about the Seder, to set the stage for the sipur yitziat mitzrayim which will follow. We try to make it easy for him by giving him a freebie- an easy question that anyone paying attention thus far would ask: “Why?” Why are we sitting around, dipping vegetable in salt water? “שבכל הלילות אין אנו מטבילים…” We never do this- what makes tonight so special?

While this is certainly one way to encourage the children to ask questions, we must ask ourselves if this is really worth all of the difficulty which Karpas causes us. This stage of the seder forces all involved to make a beracha now to also cover another vegetable that will be eaten hours later, it wastes precious minutes which could be spent telling divrei Torah or family gossip during Magid, and, perhaps the most inconvenient consequence, it forces everyone to get up off of their chairs and wash their hands. Surely there are easier ways to get a child to ask “why”?

I believe that there are certainly better ways to encourage a child to ask “שבכל הלילות אין אנו מטבילים…,” but this is exactly the point- the sheer inconvenience. When the Jews of Egypt’s enslavement became more difficult, they were forced to work longer and more trying hours, and were eventually moved to separate cities of slaves. Imagine how difficult it must have been to remain a servant of Hashem there. She’ibud Mitzrayim was well before our nation received the Torah, but even the most rudimentary commandments that they had already received must not have been easy to keep with the pressure of work and the despair of enslavement upon them.

Yet, our Egyptian-Jewish forebears managed to do the impossible- they stayed strong. Rashi on Shemot explains that they named their children Jewish names, and even continued to circumcise their sons, even when this became dangerous. Their mesirut nefesh to remain Jewish could very well be one of the main factors that caused them to merit their redemption.

Looking to a more recent she’ibud, when the Germans wiped out over six million of our brethren, one need not look far to find examples of righteous Jews who went the extra mile to ensure that they and their descendants remain part of the faith. There were those who accomplished this through smuggling Kosher food into the Ghetto to ensure their children didn’t have to resort to eating non-Kosher in those difficult times. Others managed to smuggle a pair of tefilin into to the concentration camps, to keep one symbol that their Judaism was still alive. My great-great-grandfather, Pinchas Shloss z”l, sneaked into a burning synagogue in Germany on kristalnacht, rescued a Torah scroll out of the fire, and sent his teenaged daughter (my great-grandmother Ellen Shloss Neuman z”l) on a boat to the United States with it (even though Pinchas and his wife and other children were killed in the Shoah, to this day, his Torah is still in use in a synagogue in Queens, New York). The stories go on and on.

I believe that as we all rearrange ourselves to wash our hands, make the misplaced blessing on karpas, and make faces at the youngest in the hope that he catches on, we are not only doing this so that he will ask. It is also the most subtle reminder of these heroes among the fallen, whose efforts resulted in our continuity and our keeping our eternally strong faith- doing their most to ensure that, decades later, we would be sitting together, still observant, to participate in the seder, in other words. In commemoration of their mesirut nefesh, we do our own symbolic mesirut nefesh, making a blessing in their merit and eating a vegetable drowning in the tears of those who didn’t survive to join us at the seder table.

A recurring theme of the Pesach seder is the idea that we, in our times, are in still an Egypt of sorts, and this is most certainly true here as well. In the past decade, being a practicing Jew in the Diaspora has become increasingly dangerous. Bomb threats against synagogues, muggings of those wearing kipot, attempted legislation against shechita (ironic, as our ritual slaughtering is second only to vegetarianism in its humane treatment of animals). In 2015, Israeli journalist Zvika Klein, someone whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions, put on a kippah (he is a non-observant Jew) and walked around various parts of Paris, France, filming how people reacted to his open Jew-ness. The results were quite horrifying- in nearly every arrondissement which he passed through, French people of differing backgrounds, races and demographics united to make him unwelcome and threatened- some spat at him, other cursed him in French and English, and one even chased after him threatening to cause him serious bodily harm. We may no longer be in Egypt, but in this more real religious sense, she’ibud Mitzrayim is certainly still upon us.

How do we escape this? In the long term, we hope that mashiach will come and we will all live in a Jewish country where we can feel safe openly showing our faith. Short term… we can do the same as such a solution already exists. However, if not all of us can move ourselves to Israel for whatever reason, we must remember the message of karpas- the pain, tears and suffering that caused our people to remain strong until now- and remain strong in our Judaism. We cannot let societal pressure or physical danger stop us from following in our faith- we must not let the pain and tears of previous generations go to waste. As we sit down to eat the karpas tonight, let us remember how we’ve gotten to where we are today, and try to envision and actualize what is necessary to ensure that in another seventy years, the next generations will be able to do the same.

May we all merit an end to our suffering, and a complete fulfillment of Leshana Haba BiYerushalayim Habenuyah. Chag Kasher V’sameach!

Reproduced from an early draft of Hagadat Tzvi B’Eretz HaChayim: Understanding Chag Hage’ulah in Our Times by Tzvi Silver, estimated date of publish: 5790.