Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Karpas: What is it?

A friend, Michael Wise, co authored an article several years ago researching the source of Karpas. It is the first act of the Haggadah after Kidush and is performed by eating a vegetable dipped in something. Some have the Minhag to dip it in saltwater others in vinegar or something red. Here are some highlights: (Published in Gevaryahu, Gilad J. and Michael L. Wise. 1999. "Why Does the Seder Begin with Karpas?" Jewish Bible Quarterly. 27: 104-110. )

The word Karpas appears in the Hebrew Bible only once Khur karpas utechelet (Esther 1:6) and clearly means in its context “a fine linen”, a type of a textile material. The word is a loan-word taken from the Sanskrit or Persian kirpas[i] meaning fine linen. Later references to a term Karpas are found in the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud, but here it is derived from the Greek word karpos meaning “fruit,” such as fruit of the land. In the Mishnah it is even extended to fruit of rivers. [See vehakarpas shebaneharot (Mishnah Shvi’it 9:1)]. Karpas has a similar sound to the Persian word karafs, “A plant of which a salad is made...parsley”[ii] and “celery”[iii]. Thus the meaning of the Talmudic use of the word Karpas is similar to that of Greek karpos and Persian or Sanskrit kirpas, all three Indo-European languages. Indeed the list of Indo-European roots in the American Heritage Dictionary[iv] explains kerp- (variant karp-) as a common root meaning “to gather, pluck, harvest”. Karpos[v] in Greek was used as a generic term to refer to fruit or produce of the earth. None of the etymological dictionaries which we have consulted suggests any etymological connection[vi] between the Greek karpos (fruit) and the Greek karpasos (flax/linen or cotton). The Septuagint (LXX) translated the Hebrew karpas of Esther 1:6 as karpasinos (adj. of karpasos). The LXX translated the Hebrew ketonet passim of II Samuel 13:18 as karpo¯tos[vii] “a tunic (reaching) the wrist”. As we shall show, Joseph’s garment, the ketonet passim, (Genesis 37:3) came to be represented on the Seder table by a vegetable such as parsley or celery due to the similar sound of the word denoting linen Karpas (Esther 1:6), and the words denoting vegetables such as celery or parsley karpas in the Mishnah and the Talmud, karpos in Greek, karafs in Persian. Bereshit Rabbah (84:8) explains the expression for Joseph’s garment ketonet passim as arm-length tunic (i.e., a tunic the sleeves of which extend to the wrist). This is derived from the meaning of a second Greek word karpos which is “wrist”[viii], and is consistent with the LXX translation for II Samuel 13:18 cited above. Thus ketonet passim is connected to words sounding like karpas in more than one way.

How is the Karpas ceremony conducted at the Seder?

Numerous variants of the Karpas ceremony are practiced today. A common practice is to dip a non-bitter vegetable such as parsley or celery (the Karpas) into salt-water, vinegar, wine, or kharoset. Then a blessing of bore pri ha’adama is recited, and the Karpas is eaten. There is a dispute in Halacha as to whether we eat the dipped vegetables with primary emphasis on the fact that it is a vegetable, or in order to facilitate the double dipping required during the course of the Seder. In either case, the tradition’s purpose is understood to stimulate the children to ask questions.[ix]

The Joseph connection

The Patriarch Jacob gave exclusively to his son Joseph a ketonet passim (e.g., a [colorful] striped garment[x]) which caused the envy of his other older sons. Jacob clearly favored and loved his son Joseph because he was ben zekunim (i.e., a child born when his father was old) (Genesis 37:3), and because he was born to Jacob’s truly beloved wife–Rachel. In reaction to their father’s favoritism, the brothers removed Joseph’s striped garment, threw him into a pit, and sold him to a passing Ishmaelite caravan. They then dipped the garment into blood, and brought it to their father Jacob to identify. They thought that their father would recognize the garment [which he did], and conclude that his beloved son had been devoured by a wild animal (Genesis 37:31–36).
Rashi (1040–1105, France) in his commentary on Genesis 37:3 says: ketonet “passim:” keli milat karpas, a term for clothing of fine wool similar to “karpas” in the book of Esther, and similar to the striped garment of Amnon and Tamar in II Samuel 13:18. Thus Rashi clearly identifies Joseph’s dipped striped garment with the word Karpas. The link between the bondage in Egypt and the episode symbolized by Joseph’s striped garment is explicitly stated in the Talmud (Shabbat 10b): “a person should never discriminate among his sons even to the extent of a thread [garment] weighing only two selayim milat similar to that which Jacob gave to Joseph but not to the other brothers. This gift made the brothers jealous and caused our forefathers to go down to Egypt.”
Rashi specifically used the term milat Karpas with respect to ketonet passim to highlight the connection to this Talmudic passage where the striped garment in Joseph’s story led to the Egyptian exile. Milat is the Talmudic explanation for the word Karpas found in the book of Esther (B. Megilah 12a). Milat is a fine wool whereas Karpas in the book of Esther is linen. The Targum to Esther 1:6 also explains Karpas with milat; thus Rashi follows the Talmud and Targum and explains the linen of ketonet passim with milat which is a fine wool.
The use of celery or parsley in the Seder as a symbolic reminder of Joseph’s tunic is an example of the principle that two things related to the same thing can represent each other. Ketonet passim in Genesis 37, is equated to karpas and the word karpas is related to celery or parsley, and thus celery or parsley can represent ketonet passim Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (1785–1869, Brody, today in Ukraine) in his commentary “Yeriot Shlomo” to the Haggadah[xi] quotes in the name of the Maharshal (1510–1573, Poland) “veyotzi ha’afikoman kemo shehu karuch bemapah ve’yeshalshel leakhorav ve’yelech ba’bayit dalet amot ve’yomar kach hayu avoteinu holchim...” (“he should take the afikoman as it is wrapped in a cloth, put it behind his back, walk into his house four cubits and say: our forefathers walked so ...”). He goes on to explain that the reason for this ceremony was to remember the way the Ishmaelites walked in a caravan at the time they took Joseph when he was sold by his brothers. He then suggested that that is how we came to Egypt.

The Karpas at the Seder

We do not know when the dipping and eating of the Karpas was introduced as the opening ceremony of the Seder night. It is logical for the Seder to start with reference to how the Jewish people went down to Egypt, and the sale of Joseph to the Egyptians was seen by many as the initiating step of this process. The dipping of the Karpas as the first symbolic ceremony in the Seder represents the dipping of the ketonet passim into blood prior to presenting it to Jacob in order to cover up the sale of Joseph by his brothers. The Biblical word Karpas meaning linen, referring to the striped garment, is symbolized at the Seder ceremony by kirpas from Greek and Persian words meaning vegetables (i.e., parsley or celery). . A support for the Karpas ceremony comes from Rav Amram Gaon (9th century, Babylonia) in whose writing Karpas, as a name of a specific vegetable, is being eaten at the Seder[xii]. His enumeration of karpesa (Aramaic for Karpas) among the vegetables eaten at the Seder night, represents the oldest recording of a tradition relating to Karpas at the Seder. Rav Amram Gaon was the primary source[xiii] for Sefer Hamanhig of Avraham ben Natan Ha’yarkhi, but he transformed the list of several vegetables to: “and he takes a vegetable such as karpas, or any other vegetable” thus focusing on the name

Dipping the Karpas

The common Ashkenazic practice is to dip the Karpas into salt water. However, if the origin of the Karpas is indeed in Joseph’s ketonet passim, one would expect to find it dipped into blood during the Seder. But blood is strictly prohibited as food in Judaism[xiv]; the consumption of it is a capital offense punished by karet; therefore, we should expect the Karpas to be dipped into a substitute for blood. In the Bible and subsequent literature, there are numerous references to blood representing wine and wine representing blood[xv]. The most preferred wine in ancient times was red wine[xvi] which indeed resembles blood.

In many countries, Jews used red wine during the Seder. However, after the widespread occurrences of the blood libel in Europe, whereby Jews were accused of killing Christian children and using their blood during the Seder, Jews deemed it prudent to substitute white wine during the Seder[xvii] for the formerly preferred red wine, thus preventing even the appearance of Christian blood on the table. Hence one was more likely to find white wine at the Seder table than red wine[xviii]. We are therefore more likely to find traces of the tradition of the Karpas being dipped into red liquids in non-Christian countries.[xix]
Mordechai[xx] (Mordecai ben Hillel HaCohen 1240?–1298, Germany) suggested that the Karpas should be dipped into vinegar[xxi] or into wine. Similarly, Maimonides held that the Karpas should be dipped into the Kharoset,[xxii] and required the Kharoset to be mixed with [red] vinegar[xxiii] which made the Kharoset red. Yemenite Jews dip the Karpas into Kharoset which is made of raisin-wine or wine-vineger[xxiv] The Jerusalem Talmud mentions an opinion that the use of the Kharoset (as a substance for dipping) during the Seder commemorates blood.[xxv] And today the Kharoset is customarily made with red wine[xxvi]. Even today, Persian Jews dip their Karpas into red-wine vinegar rather than into salt water or white vinegar[xxvii]. The first symbolic act during the Seder is the dipping of the Karpas into a blood-substitute, demonstrating a connection between the sale of Joseph into slavery and the enslavement of the Israelites

Rabbi Manoah of Narbonne (end of 13th- and first half of 14th-century, France) was the first, as far as we know, to point out explicitly the connection between the Karpas and Joseph’s striped garment [xxviii] “veanu nohagin bekarpas zecher leketonet hapasim sheasah Ya’acov avinu le’Yosef asher besibatah nitgalgel hadavar ve’yardu avoteinu le’mitzrayim” [and we have the custom of Karpas (on the Seder plate) as a reminder of the striped garment which Jacob our forefather made for Joseph, and which was the indirect cause for our fathers to go down to Egypt]. Some of the wording by R. Manoah is word-for-word from the Talmudic passage (Shabbat 10b) used by Rashi above. R. Khyd”a[xxix] (Khayyim Yoseph David Azulai, 1724–1806, Israel and Italy) and others quote R. Manoah as the source of this understanding of the meaning of Karpas. Joseph Hayyim ben Elijah Al-Hakam (c. 1835–1909, Baghdad), in his 1898 book Ben Ish Hai[xxx] connects the Karpas with Joseph’s garment.

Why was the origin of the Karpas ceremony kept secret or suppressed? A speculation.

What the brothers did to Joseph was a direct violation of everything we stand for in Judaism. Kidnapping is explicitly prohibited in the Torah which states: “he who stole a person from his brothers, the sons of Israel, and sold it—that thief should be killed” (Deut. 24:7). The crime committed by our forefathers was therefore problematic for our sages. Indeed there were many attempts to deal with it in Talmudic and Midrashic literature[xxxi]. From one perspective it would have been inappropriate to begin the Seder and remind us explicitly at our most joyous holiday, the holiday of freedom, that the story started with the kidnapping and the enslavement of Joseph by our forefathers. If the children were explicitly told this part of the story’s origin, they might ask four very different questions. Thus it was natural not to emphasize this part of the story. The story of the redemption from Egypt is more focused and appropriate for accomplishing one of the primary objectives of the Seder, the education of the children[xxxii]. The story of the sale of Joseph did, however, find its way into the liturgy of Yom Kippur[xxxiii], where there is a solemn atmosphere, and a more appropriate setting for self-reproach.

[i] F. Steingass, Persian-English Dictionary, Beirut, 1st edition 1892, reprint 1975, p. 1021; Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, New Edition, edited by E. Leumann and C. Cappeller (1899, Oxford:Clarendon), pp. 275–276
[ii] Persian-English Dictionary, ibid., p. 1023
[iii] New Persian-English Dictionary, S. Haim, Teheran: Baruchim (Publisher), 1968, p. 627
[iv] 1981, William Morris, editor, p. 1522
[v] Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott, Oxford, 1925–1940, with 1968 supplement, p. 872
[vi] The same observation is made by Y. Kutscher (1909–1971), Milim Ve’toldoteihem, Jerusalem, 1961, p. 99. However, we believe that the similarity has a logical basis.
[vii] If the karpo¯tos were uncritically associated with karpas(os)—instead of karpos—and, secondarily, karpas(os) was taken to be a variant of karbis(a) “variegated-color,” it would be easy to account for the ketonet passim in Genesis 37:3 becoming “variegated-color tunic” in the LXX.
[viii] Greek-English Lexicon, id.
[ix] Pesakhim 114b. Haggadah shel Pesakh, Iyunei Haggadah, Haim Benish, Bnei Brak, 1989, pp. 50–57.
[x] The term has been translated variably as “sleeved robe”, “ornamented tunic”, “a sleeved tunic to the wrist”, “a coat of many colors”, “richly ornamented robe.” Although we do not know the exact meaning, it appears that it was a [royal] coat/robe with colorful stripes.
[xi] Siddur Beis Jacov (Rabbi Ya’acov Emden), Lemberg, 1914, p. 231
[xii] Siddur Rav Amram Gaon, D. Goldschmidt edition, Mosad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, 1971, p. 112
[xiii] Itzhak Raphael, introduction to Sefer Hamanhig, Mosad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, 1994, p. 30
[xiv] Lev. 3:17; 7:26; 17:14; 19:26; Deut. 12:16
[xv](Deut. 32:14) [the blood of the grape you’ll drink] clearly refers to wine. See also Gen. 49:11 and the Targum to Job 2:11. This tradition was also adopted later by Christianity where the wine of the communion represents the blood of Jesus.
[xvi] The red wine was better and stronger ééï çîø (Ps. 75:9), ééï ëé éúàãí (Prov. 23:31), and sorek (Isa. 5:2) the choicest vine, produced dark-colored grapes. See Jewish Encyclopedia (NY, 1925) XII, p. 532.
[xvii] Taz to Orah Khayim 472:11
[xviii]Orah Hayim 472:11
[xix] See a detailed discussion on the “blood libel” and bibliography in Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem, 1971, Vol. IV, pp. 1120.
[xx] In the Commentary to Pesakhim, in a section called “Seder shel Pesakh.” The Beit Yoseph quoted him in the Tur Orah Hayim, Hilchot Pesakh 473. The end of the sentence reads: åîöàúé ùéù òåùéï àåúå áîé îìç This sentence suggests that R. Karo was surprised to find a new custom of dipping the Karpas into salt-water. Conversely, this remark can suggest the rarity of the salt-water custom. Coming from a Sephardic background, he was familiar with the dipping the Karpas into red substances, while Rabbeinu Tam from Ashkenaz is reported to have dipped the Karpas into vinegar or into salt water and ruled against dipping it into Kharoset. Tosfot, s.v. Metabel, Pesakhim 114a.
[xxi] We are assuming that initially all vinegar used for the Seder service was red-wine vinegar, for it was more popular.
[xxii] Yad - Hilchot khametz umatzah 8:2
[xxiii] " Yad - Hilchot khametz umatzah 7:12
[xxiv] Joseph Kafih Halichot Teyman, Jerusalem, 1987, p. 21
[xxv] Pesakhim 10:3 “zecher ladam”
[xxvi] " Rema, Orah Khayim 473:5; Beit Yosef, Orah Khayim, Hilchot Pesakh 173.
[xxvii] We wish to thank Ephraim Dardashti for pointing out this Persian custom to us.
[xxviii] Mishneh Torah, Maimonides, Rabbeinu Manoah to ‘Hilchot khametz umatzah’ 8:2, Frankel Edition, Jerusalem, 1975, p. 343 The Rabbeinu Manoah commentary is also called Sefer Hamenuhah.
[xxix] Simkhat haregel to the word “karpas”, Eshkol Edition, Jerusalem, 1990, p. 25
[xxx] Parashat Tzav, first year, Jerusalem, 1994, p. 148.
[xxxi] For example: the following Midrash appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:16): Joseph told his father Jacob bad things about his brothers in the following three categories: 1. eating live flesh; 2. treating their brothers born of the concubines as slaves; 3. having illicit relationships with the daughters of the land. Joseph was therefore punished in each of these areas. 1. blood of one of the animals was used for his striped garment; 2. he himself became a slave; 3. the wife of Potiphar tempted him. In effect, this Midrash suggests that it was Joseph himself who was at fault, and that the sale was a divine decree for the brothers to act upon. See other legends in In Potiphar’s House by James L. Kugel, Harper Collins, 1990, pp. 79–84
[xxxii] " [why two dippings? so that the children will notice it] Pesakhim 114b.
[xxxiii] In the ele ezkerah section of Mussaph.


  1. Can you give the citation for your friend's original article? (And how about posting it?)

  2. I will ask him.

    I have it as a word document. If you want I can email it to you.

  3. published in:
    Gevaryahu, Gilad J. and Michael L. Wise. 1999. "Why Does the Seder Begin with Karpas?" Jewish Bible Quarterly. 27: 104-110.