Thoughts to Ponder Number 78
12 Nisan, 5761; April 5, 2001

The Mystery of the Karpas

Before one tries to get out of trouble one should first contemplate how one got in. We need to remind ourselves of this truth when we read the story of the Exodus from Egypt on Pesach night.

While the Hagada tells us about the miraculous way the Israelites after 210 years got out of slavery, there is total silence concerning the question how our forefathers found their way into this bondage. It is true that this story is told in great detail in the Torah itself and the festival of Pesach is one which celebrates our newly found freedom and not our historic troubles, still, it is uncharacteristic of the Jewish tradition to discount this all together when discussing the Exodus in the Hagada.

One of the most mysterious rituals on the Seder night is the eating of the karpas, a kind of vegetable, dipped in salt water, at the very beginning of the evening. This ritual, so we are told, is to entice our children (and ourselves) to ask many questions. After the reciting of the Kiddush we would no doubt expect a proper meal like on Friday night or other festivals. Instead we receive a small piece of vegetable dipped into salty water and are left hungry for a good part of the evening. No doubt this should make all of us ask some hard questions!

Without denying the importance of the above we still need to understand why our sages decided to make us ask questions through the dipping and the eating of the karpas and not through any other ritual. What is there in the ritual of karpas that would otherwise be lost on us? And why should it be this ritual which gets our children and ourselves to ask?

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (1785-1869) in his Yerioth Shlomo on the Hagada, (Siddur Rabbi Yacov Emden) gives us a clue. (1) The word, karpas, is etymologically difficult to place. It has two meanings. One is related to a vegetable. In that case its translation is celery or parsley and this seems to be the meaning of the Hagada since we are told to partake of such a vegetable. The other interpretation, however, is that it is a piece of cotton or fine linen.

The last reminds us of a comment made by Rashi on the story concerning the hatred of the brothers towards Joseph (Bereshith 37:3). As we know, this hatred was caused by Yaacov's giving a "ketoneth pasim," a multi colored garment, to his son, Joseph.

Rashi (ad loc) states that the word "pasim" (many colored) is an expression of "karpas and techeleth," which means green and light blue wool or linen. This statement reveals to us a secret behind the ritual of karpas and its dipping in a liquid.

After Joseph had received this garment from his father the brothers sold him to the Egyptians. This caused the beginning of the exile and slavery in Egypt. Whatever the deeper meaning of this hatred, it was unjustified and led to a lot of pain. Would Yaacov not have given the garment to Joseph, in all likelihood, the exile and servitude in Egypt would not have come about.

So this garment made from "karpas and techeleth" was seemingly the primary item that led to the Egyptian enslavement.

When the sages drew up the blueprint for the Hagada text they looked for a way in which they were able to draw attention to the fact that it was brotherly hate which caused the Jews to end up in Egypt. When realizing the fact that this infamous garment was made of "karpas," they decided to institute a ritual that would involve the word, karpas, and concluded that this was best served by using a vegetable of the same name. On a deeper level we realize that it was the dipping of this "karpas garment" in the blood of an animal which identifies this ritual even more with the hatred of the brothers. After all it was the brothers who took this garment and dipped it into animal blood before they approached their father with the terrible news that Joseph had been killed.

Still, one may wonder why the above is not explicitly mentioned in the Hagada. Why does it only allude to this in the form of a mysterious ritual? Why not actually take a multicolored garment and bring it to the Seder table? And what is the purpose of making the readers of the Hagada aware of this on a subconscious level instead of bringing it to the surface? This indicates that the author of the Hagada wanted to hide this information while simultaneously hoping that the reader would get the point. If the multi-colored garment was indeed the cause par excellence of the entire Egyptian exile why not mention it candidly and make sure that nobody would miss this crucial information?

We believe that this touches on the very core of the Jewish interpretation of the Exodus. Its main point is to emphasize Divine providence, i.e. God's miraculous interference in the lives of the millions of Jews who were stranded and enslaved in Egypt. This story had to become the modus classicus of all Jewish history and in fact of world history. Whatever happens is ultimately in God's hands. This is the categorical goal of the Pesach story. This time it is not the story of the human role in history or to what extent man had a hand in the shaping of all that happened. Of course, Jewish tradition constantly emphasizes that man has to take responsibility for the consequences of his deeds, but the Pesach story operates on a different level. It is the triumph of God as the Lord of History that is celebrated.

In fact, the interplay between Divine intervention and human action is one of the great philosophical problems with which all religious thinkers have grappled. To what extent is man responsible and to what extent is God? This question stays basically unanswered and belongs to the mystery of all human history.

This also touches on another and in no way less soluble problem. How will we ever know which cause brought about which specific effect? And when is something a cause and not the outcome of a still earlier antecedent? Speaking in terms of the Egyptian enslavement, are we indeed able to say for sure that it was just the hatred of the brothers for Joseph that brought this servitude on the Jews? Is it possible to claim that if the brothers would not have sold Joseph to Egypt that the Israelites would not have landed in Egypt? Was it not promised to Avraham that his children would be enslaved in a land that was not theirs? (Bereshith 15:13) Was the Egyptian experience not a sine qua non so as to make the Jews ready to receive the Torah? Was it is not a necessary component in making the Jews into a spiritual people and a "light unto the nations?" So, to what extent were the brothers really responsible for this exile and to what extent did they exercise freedom of will when they decided to sell their brother?

It is for this reason that the authors of the Hagada were not prepared to openly point their finger at the brothers. They could do nothing else but allude to this fact, telling us that somewhere on the road to Egypt the "karpas garment" dipped in blood played a role. To what extent we may never know. That the karpas is eaten at the very beginning of the Hagada is most telling. It makes us aware straightaway that the inner story of what really caused the exile in Egypt will forever stay mysterious. This is the all-encompassing underlying message that this ritual wants to convey immediately, before we continue to read the story. It will indeed provoke many questions, but, however brilliant the answers, we will be left with the knowledge that on a higher plain, and beyond human understanding, it is the hand of God that holds the answers.

On the moral level, however, the story should be clear. It was hatred between brothers that sent us into exile. How revealing that it was the love between two brothers, Moshe and Aaron, living in total harmony, which brought about the redemption.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

(1) Rabbi Shlomo Kluger was the author of 375 books (the numerical equivalent of his name Shlomo) and one of the most distinguished halachists of his days. His reputation on halacha endures till this day. ******


An important observation concerning the seder night: Since it is incorrect to teach children to steal even for fun, we suggest that the father or leader of the seder, as opposed to the children, hide the afikoman and let the children discover it to earn a reward. To make the impression on our children that the Jewish Tradition condones stealing as part of a religious ceremony is completely unacceptable. The reason for the prevailing custom seems to be based on a mistranslation and was never part of the Sephardi experience.

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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