The Mitzva of Karpas

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur

The Mitzva of Karpas

By Rav Moshe Taragin


The Seder provides us with a colorful array of mitzvot linked together by the controlling objective of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim - discussing and identifying with the exodus from Egypt. Many of the mitzvot are de-oraita, Biblical in origin, and some are de-rabbanan, rabbinic legislation. This article will explore the mitzva of karpas - a vegetable eaten immediately after kiddush, prior to beginning the narrative of yetziat Mitzrayim.


The source of the mitzva of karpas is a Mishna in Pesachim (114a) which announces,

"They deliver vegetables to him (the conductor of the meal and the Seder) and he dips the chazeret (a vegetable which is commonly used as marror)."

The gemara analyses this aspect of the Seder and concludes that this exercise was instituted "kedei she-yishalu ha-tinokot," so that the children would notice the strange behavior (eating immediately after kiddush before formally beginning the meal with bread) and begin to ask the questions which are so crucial to the Seder experience. Taken as such, karpas represents a separate or independent element of the Seder which the Sages instituted solely to stimulate interest and questions.

If this were the entire picture of karpas, we might question why it is dipped. Why not merely eat a vegetable before the bread - itself an abnormal interlude - and thereby generate interest? The simple reading of the mishna ("metabbel," he dips) confirms that the karpas must be dipped. Interestingly, the Rambam in his commentary to the Mishna struggles to redefine the word "metabbel" so that dipping is not required. He claims that the word metabbel can be taken as a synonym for eating in general, without referring to dipping in particular. The simple reading of the mishna, however, suggests that the karpas must indeed be dipped. Why must the karpas - an external part of the Seder intended as a mere stimulus - be dipped?

The dipping itself might not be so surprising. If dunking is a way of expressing cherut (liberty and royalty), then one could suggest that any "additional foods" eaten this evening are to be dipped. Matza might be the only food which isn't dipped, so as to preserve its status as "lechem oni" (poor man's bread), unadorned and without any flavor enhancers. In addition, the dipping of the karpas might further arouse the child's interest and prompt him to inquire.

What might be more revealing is the way karpas is dipped. Though our custom is to use salt water, several Rishonim disagreed. Tosafot (114a), for example, cite the opinion of Rashi and Rav Yosef that the karpas should be specifically dipped in charoset. To be sure, if a person uses romaine lettuce (typically eaten for marror) as his karpas, dipping in charoset would appear to be necessary to mitigate the sting of the marror. This is the reason supplied by the gemara (115b) as to why the marror itself is dipped in charoset. It would stand to reason that if the same vegetable were used for karpas, it too should be dipped in charoset. However, it appears from Tosafot that karpas is dipped in charoset even if other vegetables are used. Why dip karpas, merely an external prop, SPECIFICALLY in charoset?

To explain Tosafot's opinion, we might consider the following question. Surely the MOTIVE behind the initiative to eat karpas was to stimulate interest and provoke questioning. However, what was the nature of the takkana (rabbinic enactment)? Did the Sages institute a totally new and independent action, or did they merely adapt an existing mitzva of Pesach night and schedule it at the beginning of the Seder to arouse interest? By instituting karpas, the Sages might have been duplicating the Biblical mitzva of eating marror and prescheduling it in the early stages of the Seder to arouse interest and questions. Karpas is not a new eating; the Sages merely required us to eat a marror vegetable immediately after kiddush. If this is true, we fully understand the position requiring the karpas to be dipped in charoset. This dipping highlights its status as pseudo-marror. (See the Ran in Pesachim, who offers a similar approach to explain this position).

SUMMARY: Karpas was implemented to generate curiosity and questioning. Was it a new and independent eating that was inserted into the Seder, or a broadening of the extant mitzva of marror?


An amoraic dispute (Pesachim 114b) may shed light on this. What happens if a person does not have a second vegetable for karpas, but must use his romaine lettuce both for marror proper and for karpas? Rav Huna maintains that he should eat the lettuce once at the karpas stage (reciting borei pri ha-adama) and a second time during the marror slot (reciting al akhilat marror). Essentially, nothing about the Seder is altered, and the lettuce is utilized twice - once for the purposes of karpas and a second time for the purposes of marror. The blessings as well remain intact.

Rav Chisda disagrees, claiming that although the lettuce should be eaten twice, both blessings should be recited during the karpas eating and none during the marror eating - all the blessings should be recited when he first eats this lettuce. Tosafot has an interesting description of the relationship between these two eatings of lettuce according to Rav Chisda. Indeed, the primary mitzva of marror is fulfilled by the second eating - after matza; this is why the lettuce must be eaten a second time. Yet, on the other hand, the birkat ha-mitzva (al akhilat marror) is recited during the first eating. Tosafot asserts:

"Even though the principal mitzva of marror occurs during the second eating, the blessing recited during the first eating applies [even though it didn't immediately precede the act of the mitzva], just as the blessing recited on the initial tekiyot [before Mussaf] apply to the second round of tekiyot [sounded during Mussaf]."

Tosafot's aim is to explain the phenomenon whereby a blessing recited on the first round of a "two-staged" mitzva applies equally to both segments (even though one spoke in the middle or was involved in different activities). Tosafot uses the two rounds of tekiyot as the model, and bases karpas and marror upon it. Evidently, Tosafot viewed karpas as the early phase of marror. In general, since you use a different vegetable for karpas, you delay the blessing of "al akhilat marror" until the ACTUAL marror, but if you use the same lettuce for both stages, the blessing is recited earlier, i.e. before karpas - the first stage of the mitzva of marror.

The Ritva (in his commentary to the Haggada, page 9 in the Mossad Harav Kook edition) examines why no birkat ha-mitzva is recited upon karpas. His point of inquiry assumes that this eating is not merely staged to elicit a response. As merely an external prop, no formal birkat ha-mitzva would be required. Evidently, according to the Ritva's line of questioning, karpas is a formal mitzva and might require a formal birkat ha-mitzva. Might the Ritva have been suggesting by his question that karpas, as an expansion of marror, can be viewed as a formal mitzva?

The answer of the Ritva is particularly interesting:

"Since this dipping is not a PRINCIPAL PART of the Seder, but is performed only to arouse the interest of the children, it was scheduled prior to the actual mitzvot of the Seder. To signal that it is not a mitzva, no blessing was attached."

Might the Ritva, in his conclusion, view karpas as a separate mitzva completely unaffiliated with marror, and as an external prop to the evening? Is it undeserving of a birkat ha-mitzva since it is not even THE EXPANSION OF A MITZVA? In other words, one can read his answer as overturning the assumption of his question.


SUMMARY: Based upon the question of the relationship of karpas to marror, we have investigated several issues. First, we inspected the halakha of dipping karpas, and particularly in charoset. The second issue whmight be relevant is the possibility of reciting the actual birkat ha-mitzva of marror during the eating of the karpas (in an instance in which the same romaine lettuce is used for both). Finally, we inspected the Ritva's deliberation as to whether karpas deserves its own birkat ha-mitzva.


What may be eaten as karpas? The Mishna describes taking "chazeret," which is a vegetable (and one of the five species that can be used as marror!). Why specifically was a vegetable chosen?

Tosafot (115a) cites the position of Rav Yosef Tuv-Elem that a vegetable was assigned as karpas so that its blessing of "borei pri ha-adama" should include the ultimate eating of marror. Thereby, one avoids a potential doubt about reciting an independent "borei pri ha-adama" on the marror, which is eaten after the meal has officially begun and "ha-motzi" has been recited. According to this position, the need to eat a vegetable for karpas is based solely upon the desire to recite the blessing which precedes a vegetable – "ha-adama." Fruits upon which "ha-adama" is recited would also qualify (thus the custom of many to use bananas - a fruit, but one which carries a "borei pri ha-adama"). If, on the other hand, we were to view karpas as an expansion of marror, we might insist that it be fulfilled with a VEGETABLE, and not merely with a fruit upon which "ha-adama" is recited.

What about the type of vegetable? Assuming it must be a vegetable, may any vegetable be used or only specific ones? To a certain extent, if karpas is truly an extension of marror we might have expected to use for karpas the exact same vegetables that may be used for marror. Indeed, the Ritva writes that for karpas one should eat BITTER VEGETABLES - confirming the relationship between karpas and marror.

In theory, we might reject the Ritva and claim that despite karpas's being an extension of marror, it still is essentially a distinct mitzva - related but different - and optimally the same vegetables should NOT be used. Yet many Rishonim still maintain that karpas should evoke, to some degree, the same imagery and associations as marror. The Orchot Chayim claims that the vegetables of karpas remind us of the vegetables which the Jews used to heal or cure wounds in Egypt. The Sefer Ha-Manhig interprets the term "karpas" as related to the word PEREKH - hard labor, reminding us of our bondage. If karpas were merely an autonomous vegetable inserted to arouse interest, it should not necessarily - in name or in the type of vegetable taken - refer to our suffering and bondage. Reminding us of bondage is the role of marror on this evening. Evidently, when Chazal instituted this mitzva, they linked it to marror, and it too serves as a symbol for slavery.

One final question pertains to the quantity of karpas that must be eaten. Our custom follows the position stated by the Rashba in a responsum (1:241) that less than a ke-zayit should be eaten so that no berakha acharona is necessary. If we were to eat a ke-zayit, we would face a halakhic question as to whether to recite a berakha acharona or to wait until the actual meal and recite birkat ha-mazon. To avoid this quandary, we eat less than a ke-zayit. The Rambam, however, writes that a ke-zayit of karpas must be eaten. The Hagahot Maimoniyot argues that no ke-zayit is necessary, since the karpas is only meant to generate questions. The Rambam himself must have felt that, although the incentive for karpas is to elicit questions, when Chazal instituted the mitzva they broadened the mitzva of marror. Hence, karpas, like marror, requires a ke-zayit.


1. Often, a rabbinic institution is based upon an already existing halakhic structure. If this is true, we might expect certain guidelines of the de-rabbanan to mirror the de-oraita.

2. When considering an enactment of the Sages, two different questions must be analyzed:

a) What was their motive?

b) What was the nature or essence of their enactment?

Often, one factor serves as motive, but once instituted the halakha will have an essence independent of the original motive. The purpose of karpas was to generate curiosity, but the essence of the enactment might have been a broadening of marror.


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