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A Meditation on RenaissanceWhy Wash Hands Before Karpas?Not a Pagan ResurrectionThe Return to Nature KarpasA Menu of Meanings: Why Karpas?Yachatz "Half a Loaf Is Better Than One"The Story of the Compulsive SaverA Principled Debate: Two Matzot or Three?A Personal Thanksgiving

A Meditation on Renaissance

SPRING IS THE RENAISSANCE, the rebirth of life, after a winter of discontent:

For now the winter is past,
The rains are over and gone.
The blossoms have appeared in the land.
... Arise, my darling,
My fair one, come away!
(Song of Songs 2:11-13)

On the national level the Jewish people lay dormant in Egyptian slavery until God awakened their desire for freedom and led them out in the springtime. On the individual level liberation is often experienced as a gift of new options, a sudden expansion of possibilities. However, the fresh taste of new-found freedom symbolized by Karpas is still mingled with memories of bitterness, the salt water of tears.  top

Why Wash Hands Before Karpas?

hy Not Say a Bracha?
     JEWISH LAW REQUIRES the ritual washing of the hands before eating bread. This washing is accompanied by a blessing. But why do we wash before eating the green vegetable and why in this case is no blessing recited?
     Fruits or vegetables dipped in water can acquire ritual impurity (Lev. 11:34). Washing before eating vegetables which have come into contact with water is a hold-over from Talmudic times. In that period many Rabbis attempted to eat all their foods in a state of ritual purity – trying to experience in their daily eating the sense of sacredness associated with the Temple. To emphasize that this is only a pious custom, and not even a rabbinic requirement, no blessing is recited.
     Except for the seder night the custom has fallen into general disuse, even among the strictly observant. But on seder night we wash at the beginning of the evening to create the spirit of a sacred gathering conducted in purity and devotion  top

Not a Pagan Resurrection of the Spring Deities

MOST PAGAN PEOPLES celebrate Spring as a festival of liberty. But it is remarkable that, with these peoples, it is not human beings nor the nation, but a deity who is liberated at the festival of Spring; the resurrection of the deity symbolizes the Spring revival of life.
     Only the Jews, in their national consciousness, have dared to connect the liberation of nature with the liberation of the nation, with the Exodus from Egypt. Only the Jews have known how to transform the festival of Spring into the “Festival of our freedom.”
(Ber Borochov, Marxist Zionist, 1913)  top

The Return to Nature

THE EMPHASISs on spring and the rebirth of nature in this Haggadah is typical of Zionist Haggadot. Zionism sought to return the urbanized Diaspora Jews to their roots in the land and in its seasonal cycles. Israeli school children and their parents often go on field trips to discover the flora and fauna as well as the history and archeology of Eretz Yisrael.  top

A Menu of Meanings: Why Karpas?

THE WORD “Karpas”derives from the Greek “Karpos” meaning fruit of the soil. Though the historical origins of dipping Karpas at the seder simply reflect the accepted cuisine of the Greco-Roman symposium, the rabbis added their own symbolic interpretations in order to connect the dipping to the Pesach story.
     1. Spring Greens: April/Nisan
     Metaphorically, Karpas, the spring vegetable, represents both the historic birth of Israel born out of the womb of Egypt in the Exodus and the rebirth of nature renewed each spring. According to Philo and to Rabbi Joshua the original birthday of nature – the Creation – occurred at Pesach-time, not Rosh Hashana. Similarly, the Italian name for spring prima-vera and the French printemps preserve the sense of the return to the original “first time” of the world.
     Spring (old English) is originally applied to the place of origin from which a stream arises. Later it was applied to the season, the “spring of the year.”
     2. A Time to March
     The Latin term for March preserves the memory of spring as a time for war under the auspices of the god of war, Mars. Spring also has military associations in the Torah. God’s spring victory over Egypt is portrayed in martial terms. For example, Israel’s armies left Egypt “armed” (Ex. 13:18) in the month when kings go out to war.
     “God took Israel out of Egypt precisely in the best month for an exodus. Not in Tamuz (June-July) when there is the chamsin (hot summer winds), not in Tevet (December-January) when it is cold (and rainy), but in Nisan (March-April) when it is neither too hot nor too cold to be on the march.” (BaMidbar Rabbah 3)
     3. A Guilty Memory: Dipping in Blood
     The dipping of greens is reminiscent of the historic dipping that led Israel into exile in Egypt and the dipping that facilitated their redemption. The descent to Egyptian slavery began when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and dipped his coat of many colors into a slaughtered goat’s blood in order to mislead their father Israel about his beloved son’s true fate. The ascent from exile – moral and physical – began when every family gathered together with their neighbors to share a lamb on seder night and to dip in its blood a hyssop plant and to dab it on the doorposts and the lintel as a protection against the tenth plague.  top

"A Half A Loaf Is Better Than One"

ON SHABBAT and holidays, we celebrate the double gift of abundance with two whole loaves just as in the desert the Jews received a double portion of manna (Ex. 16:22) every Friday for the weekend. (“Manna from heaven” was suspended on Shabbat).
     However, the seder night is unique in that the Rabbis mandated that half a loaf is better than one, for matza is called the “bread of poverty” (Deut. 16:3). Therefore, the seder begins by breaking the matza in two and explaining that “this is the bread of poverty and persecution.”
     Of the three matzot, two remain whole, in order to symbolize the abundance of freedom, but one must be broken to recall the deprivation of slavery. The Rabbis noted that the poor in their era were “savers,” experts at delayed gratification, who would never consume a complete loaf at one sitting, but would always put something aside against the uncertainty of the following week. In the midst of the seder banquet, the broken matza – the symbol of poverty – is meant to jar us out of our sense of complacency. Maimonides explains that the Torah repeats so often: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” because it fears that growing up in wealth tends to breed arrogance and insensitivity.  top

The Story of the Compulsive Saver

IN THE JERUSALEM neighborhood of Talpiot lived an eccentric old man in a large villa. He visited the synagogue religiously whenever a kiddush was served with cakes and kugel. At shul everyone filled themselves with sweets but this elderly man took twice as much, filling his pockets and his mouth. His fellow Jews smiled at his anxious hoarding and wondered how a man living in a large house could be so desperate for a little cake. Once a curious Jew asked him to explain. The old man replied heavily: “In the concentration camps in Poland there was never enough bread. I have never liberated myself from my fear that tomorrow there may not be any more food.”  top

A Principled Debate: Two Matzot or Three?

THOUGH ALMOST ALL contemporary rabbis sanction the use of three matzot at the seder, the Gaon of Vilna (18th C.) insisted that only two matzot be used.
     For the two matza tradition, matza is primarily a recollection of poverty. While on all other holidays we eat from two whole loaves, here we eat from one broken matza and one whole one. The seder re-enacts our common suffering out of which we generate our solidarity and our moral commitment to the stranger and the deprived. The concern for the outsider breaks into our family banquet symbolically in the form of a broken matza marring our sense of wholeness.
     While even the three-matza tradition includes one broken matza, it chiefly emphasizes the seder as a Thanksgiving Dinner. The three matzot recall the minimal thanksgiving offering described in the Torah (Lev. 7:12). That offering was shared within a community of friends and relatives; the hosts praised God who had redeemed them from illness, imprisonment, or danger (Ps. 107:22). On Pesach, families retell how their children were threatened by Pharaoh and how they suffered degradation and injustice in Egypt. While sharing the thanksgiving offering of matza, they sing Hallel to thank God.
     The two-matza tradition makes this evening resemble a communal “Solidarity-with-the-Poor Box Lunch,” while the three-matza tradition is reminiscent of a family “Thanksgiving Night Banquet.”  top

A Personal Thanksgiving

THE PESACH family gathering is in fact a thanksgiving banquet during which we retell our national salvation. It is also appropriate to weave into the seder, memories of personal deliverance from danger.
     Invite the family and guests to recall their own family stories of redemption from illness, from danger, or from persecution. Perhaps they can discuss the personal lessons they drew from these crucial events in their lives.