One of the most mysterious rituals on the Seder night is the eating of karpas (1) dipped in salt water at the very beginning of the evening. One reason for this ritual, we are told, is to encourage everyone, particularly the children, to ask many questions. After reciting the Kiddush we would no doubt expect a proper meal, as is customary on other festivals and on Friday nights. Instead, we receive a small piece of vegetable dipped in salty water and are then left hungry for a good part of the evening. This should certainly raise some eyebrows.
Without denying the importance of the above, we must understand why our Sages decided to introduce the need to ask questions through this particular ritual and not another. What is there in the ritual of karpas that would otherwise be lost on us, and why was this particular one chosen to be the first in the Haggada that would prompt our children to ask questions?
Rabbi Joshua Ibn Shuaib (2) and Rabbenu Manoach (3) give us a very unusual clue. The word karpas, they say, is etymologically difficult to place. Both of them mention that it means "fine woolen fabric", and Rabbenu Manoach adds that it means "greens" or "a vegetable". The latter definition is in line with the meaning in the Haggada, as we are told to partake of celery, parsley, potatoes, scallions, or other such vegetables.
The first definition reminds us of Rashi's comment on the story concerning the hatred of the brothers toward Yosef. (4) As we know, this animosity was caused by Yaakov's giving a ketonet passim (multicolored garment) to his son Yosef. Rashi there states that the word passim means material made of fine woolen fabric. This statement reveals to us a secret behind the ritual of dipping karpas into a liquid.
After Yosef had received this garment from his father, the brothers sold him to the Egyptians. This was the precursor of the exile and slavery in Egypt. Whatever the deeper meaning of this hatred, it was unjustified and led to much pain. Had Yaakov not given the garment to Yosef, the exile and servitude in Egypt would in all likelihood not have come about.
So this garment, made from karpas, was seemingly the primary cause of the Egyptian enslavement.
When the Rabbis fashioned the blueprint for the Haggada text, they looked for a way to draw attention to the fact that brotherly hate was what caused the Jews to end up in Egypt. Upon realizing that this infamous garment was made of karpas – fine woolen fabric – they decided to institute a ritual that would involve using a vegetable. On a deeper level, we realize that what identifies this ritual more specifically with the hatred of the brothers is the act of dipping the karpas in salt water. After all, the brothers took this "karpas garment" and dipped it into animal blood before they approached their father with the terrible news that Yosef had been killed.
Still, one may wonder why the Haggada only alludes to this in the form of a mysterious ritual. Apparently, the authors wanted to hide this information while simultaneously hoping that the readers would get the point. But, if the multicolored garment was indeed the principal cause of the entire Egyptian exile, why not actually bring a multicolored garment to the Seder table and mention it candidly, in order to ensure that no one will miss this crucial information? Is it not vital to know what caused the bondage in Egypt, before we tell the story of how and when the Israelites were freed? What is the purpose of making the Seder participants aware of this only on a subconscious level, instead of bringing it to the surface?
I believe that this touches on the very core of Judaism's interpretation of the Exodus. Its main point is to emphasize Divine providence; God's miraculous interference in the lives of millions of Jews who were stranded and enslaved in Egypt. This story had to become the locus classicus of all Jewish history, and in fact of world history. Whatever happens is ultimately in God's hands. This is the categorical lesson of the Pesach story. It is not the story of the human role in history, or to what extent man had a hand in shaping all of the events that took place. 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, which all religious thinkers have grappled with. To what extent is man responsible, and to what extent is God responsible? This question remains basically unanswered and is part of the mystery of all human history.
This also touches on another and in no way more solvable problem. How can we ever know what is the cause that brings about a specific effect? More than that, when is something actually a cause and not the effect of an earlier incident? 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 Yosef that brought about the Jews' servitude, and if the brothers had not sold Yosef to Egypt, the Israelites would not have landed in Egypt? Wasn't it promised to Avraham that his children would be enslaved in a land that was not theirs? (5) The Egyptian experience is seen in its own right as a sine qua non to prepare the Jews for receiving the Torah and shaping them into a spiritual people that will be a "light unto the nations”. So to what extent were the brothers really responsible for this exile, and how much free will did they actually exercise when they decided to sell their brother?
It is for this reason that the authors of the Haggada were not prepared to openly point their finger at the brothers. They could do nothing but allude to this fact, telling us that somewhere along the road to Egypt the "karpas garment" dipped in blood played a role. We may never know to what extent, but it is most telling that the karpas is eaten at the very beginning of the Haggada reading. It makes us immediately aware that the inside story of what really caused the exile in Egypt will remain forever a mystery. That is the all-encompassing, underlying message that this ritual wants to convey at the very beginning, 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 a moral level, however, the story should be clear. It was hatred between brothers that sent us into exile. How revealing that what brought about the redemption was the love between two brothers, Moshe and Aaron, living in total harmony.
(1) The Hebrew word for "greens" or "vegetable" comes from the Greek "karpos", which means a fresh raw vegetable.
(2) Drashot, Parashat Tzav Ve-Shabbat HaGadol by Rabbi Joshua Ibn Shuaib (c. 1280-1340) who was a pupil of the famous Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba) and the teacher of Rabbenu Menachem Ibn Zerah, author of Tzeda LaDerech.
(3) Sefer HaMenucha, Hilchot Chametz U-Matza 8:2.
(4) Bereshit 37:3.
(5) Bereshit 15:13.