Why Eat Karpas?

The custom known today as Karpas1 is briefly mentioned in Mishna Pesachim 10:3:


הֵבִיאוּ לְפָנָיו מְטַבֵּל בַּחֲזֶרֶת עַד שֶׁהוּא מַגִּיעַ לְפַרְפֶּרֶת הַפַּת.

The passage's language is cryptic, but it appears to speak of eating or dipping2 food before the main meal.  The Mishna mentions חֲזֶרֶת (lettuce) explicitly, but the truncated phrase "and they brought before him" allows for the possibility that other foods or vegetables were brought as well.3  No reason is given for the custom, and at first glance it would seem to have nothing to do with Pesach and the story of the Exodus.  Why, then, is the custom incorporated into the Seder?

Tannaitic Period:  Whetting the Appetite

In the Mishnaic period it was a common practice in Israel that festive meals began with a  series of appetizers. This is attested to in Rabbinic sources4 which describes the assorted appetizers which were part of "סדר הסעודה". The most detailed account is found in Tosefta Berakhot 4:8 which mentions a series of three "פרפריות" that would be served to guests in an outer hall before moving to the central dining area to eat the main course:

כיצד סדר הסעודה אורחין נכנסין ויושבין על גבי ספסלים וע״ג קתדראות עד שיכנסו כולן נכנסו כולן ונתנו להם לידים כל אחד ואחד נוטל ידו אחת מזגו להם את הכוס אחד ואחד מברך לעצמו הביאו להם פרפריות כל אחד ואחד מברך לעצמו עלו והסיבו נתנו להם לידים אע״פ שנוטל ידו אחת נותן לשתי ידיו מזגו להם את הכוס אע״פ שבירך על הראשונה מברך על השניה הביאו לפניהם פרפריות אע״פ שבירך על הראשונה מברך על השניה ואחד מברך לכולן.

The Seder was, perhaps, the most well known of such festive meals.5 Thus, in Tannaitic times, the "vegetable dipping" of Karpas was simply the natural opening of the meal, meant to whet the appetite for later courses, and it had no special ritualistic significance.  Lettuce is mentioned explicitly, probably because it was the most common appetizer of the time,6 but other foods were eaten as well.  The Mishna's language "עַד שֶׁהוּא מַגִּיעַ לְפַרְפֶּרֶת הַפַּת" suggests that the participants continued to eat until the eating of the Matzah,7 not limiting themselves to a single vegetable (or less than a kezayit). This practice is attested to in the earliest extant Haggadah from Eretz Yisrael8 which includes four different blessings made at this point in the Seder: ‎‎"‎בורא פרי האדמה", "‎בורא פרי העץ‎"‎, "בורא מיני מעדנים", and "בורא מיני נפשות"‎,9 implying that at least four distinct foods were eaten.‎

Amoraic Period I: Stimulating the Children's Curiosity

In Babylonian Amoraic literature, a different explanation of the custom appears. Bavli Pesachim 114b and 116a imply that the first dipping/eating was performed so that the children will ask ("כִּי הֵיכִי דְּלֶיהֱוֵי הֶיכֵּירָא לַתִּינוֹקוֹת").‎10  This new understanding stems from the differing dining customs in Babylonia and Israel. The dipping/eating of an appetizer was not customary outside of Israel, so the Bavli did not see being "מְטַבֵּל בַּחֲזֶרֶת" as a normal part of the festive meal. Thus, the Bavli infuses new meaning into the custom, suggesting that its intent, like that of several other exceptional activities at Leil HaSeder, was to provoke questioning by the children.11

Amoraic Period II: From "חזרת" to "שאר ירקות"

A second development in the Amoraic period is the practice of using "other vegetables" rather than חֲזֶרֶת (lettuce) for the first dipping.  Since חֲזֶרֶת was also eaten later on in the meal to fulfill the obligation of Maror, its consumption as an appetizer raised two halakhic questions: Did the lettuce appetizer already fulfill the obligation of Maror, or did one need to eat lettuce a second time for Maror?12  Second, when should the blessing of "על אכילת מרור" be recited – when one first ate of the chazeret, or only later?13  To avoid such uncertainty, several rabbis suggested eating vegetables other than lettuce for the first dipping.14

Early Medieval Era: From "שאר ירקות" to "כרפס"

In the wake of the halakhic issues raised in the Bavli, post Talmudic authorities ruled that it is indeed preferable to use a "non-bitter" vegetable for the appetizer which would not satisfy the requirements for Maror.15 Among those suggested by Machzor VitriMachzor Vitri Hilkhot Pesach 69 is "karpas", which has been identified as either parsley or celery.16 This apparently became the preferred option in Rashi's circles, as his "סימני הסדר" mentions "כרפס" as the third sign.17 With time, כרפס gradually became the universal name for the custom, even when parsley or celery (i.e. the original "karpas") was not being used as the dipped vegetable.

Later Medieval Era: Derashot on Karpas

In the aftermath of the widespread usage of the term כרפס, new understandings of the custom emerged, each an attempt to connect the choice of this vegetable with the events of the sojourn in Egypt:

Related Disputes

  • Does Karpas require הסיבה (leaning)?  The dispute regarding whether or not it is required to recline (as a demonstration of freedom) while eating Karpas may relate to the different understandings of the custom discussed above.  As appetizers which introduce a festive meal, it would make sense that it, like other parts of the meal which represent freedom, would be eaten while leaning. However, as a custom meant merely to arouse the curiosity of the children, there would be less need to recline.  Finally, according to the later iterations which view Karpas as a symbol of the bondage, it might be preferable not to recline.20
  • How much should be eaten? The original custom in Israel did not limit the amount of appetizers that one could eat, and many Rishonim maintain that at least an olive's worth is eaten.21 In the thirteenth century, however, several authorities suggest that one can fulfill the obligation with even a small amount, since it is just a "sign for the children".22 This later became a common practice because of halakhic concerns regarding whether an after-blessing should be said after Karpas.23
  • Dipping: charoset, vinegar or salt water? The Mishna does not state in what the vegetable was to be dipped. Since chazeret was normally dipped in charoset, "מִשּׁוּם קָפָא" (a worm or poisonous substance in the lettuce for which charoset served as an antidote), this was originally the dip of choice. Many Rishonim24 continued the practice, even when other vegetables were used for Karpas. Others25 differentiated depending on the vegetable being used, dipping lettuce in charoset, but other vegetables in salt water or vinegar. Eventually, salt water or vinegar became the more prevalent options.26 
  • The dipping question in the "מה נשתנה" – Both the YerushalmiPesachim 10:3About the Yerushalmi and BavliPesachim 116aAbout the Bavli imply that the original formulation of the question was: "שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ מְטַבְּלִים פַּעַם אַחַת, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים",‎27 reflecting the Eretz Yisrael practice of dipping at other meals as well.28 The Bavli then proceeds to describe two stages of emendations of this question, with the resulting nusach reflecting the Babylonian custom of not dipping year round, and dipping at the Seder only to arouse the children's curiosity and not as a full fledged obligation.