What's in a Word?

For the week ending 20 April 2024 / 12 Nissan 5784

Metzorah/Shabbos HaGadol: Veggies for the Dipping

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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Every Jewish schoolboy knows that after reciting Kiddush at the Passover Seder (Kadesh), the next steps involve washing hands (Urchatz), and then dipping a vegetable and eating it (Karpas). The source for that custom of dipping a vegetable and eating it before the formal meal on Passover Night is the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:3), which refers to a first dipping as something distinct from the second dipping involving the marror. In his commentary there, Rashi (to Pesachim 114a) actually explains that the first dipping is done with yerakot — the plural form of yerek. That term refers to any generic “vegetable,” yet we colloquially call the vegetable used in the first dipping karpas. In this essay, we explore the words yerek and karpas, showing how these two terms are not actually synonyms, because yerek means “vegetable,” while karpas actually means something more specific.

The word yerek and its close cognate yarak appear altogether eleven times in the Bible (Gen. 1:30, 9:3, Num. 22:4, Deut. 11:10, I Kgs. 21:2, II Kgs. 19:26, Isa. 15:6, 37:27, Ps. 37:2, and Prov. 15:17). Various inflections of yerek also appear countless times in the Mishnah. For example, when the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) refers to the first dipping in the Four Questions (Mah Nishtanah), it calls the foodstuff dipped “other yerakot” (as opposed to marror, which is a specific subset of yerakot). Another famous Mishnah (Brachot 6:1) rules that one recites the blessing Borei Pri HaAdamah before eating vegetables.

The early Hebrew lexicographers (i.e., Menachem Ibn Saruk, Yonah Ibn Janach, and Radak) trace the word yerek to the triliteral root YOD-REISH-KUF. As Ibn Saruk explains it, this particular root gives way to three related sets of words: “vegetable,” “greenish gem” (emerald?), and “green” (the color). Ibn Janach and Radak add that it also gives way to the verb for “spitting” and the noun for “spittle,” but Ibn Saruk sees those words as derived from the separate biliteral root REISH-KUF.

Rabbi Avraham Bedersi in Chotam Tochnit writes that vegetables are called yerakot because they are typically green (yarok). Technically speaking, though, in Rabbinic Hebrew, the term yarok can refer to an array of colors ranging from yellow to green to blue (see Rabbi Tanchum HaYerushalmi’s HaMadrich HaMaspik, Teshuvos Maharam M’Rothenberg Prague ed. §631, and Beiur HaGra to Tikkun HaZohar Tikkun #21).

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) actually traces yarok itself to the biliteral root REISH-KUF. He identifies the core meaning of that root as "emptying/depleting." To explain how yerek relates to that core meaning, Rabbi Pappenheim delves into botany to describe how plants are comprised of both solid and liquid components. The solid components form the structural elements of the plant such as roots, stems, branches, and leaves, while the liquid components contribute to its sap, flavor, scent, and overall quality. The remaining liquid parts inside the plant contribute to taste and scent, while those externally expelled contribute to the plant's appearance and color. Accordingly, he attributes the green appearance of live plants to the expulsion of those inner liquids, thus accounting for the connection between the green coloration and the “emptying” out of those liquids. In a borrowed sense, the term yarok can also refer to the coloration of less fresh plants that turn yellowish upon drying. Rabbi Pappenheim also ties the concept of “spitting” to this biliteral root because it entails “emptying” one’s mouth of excess spittle or mucous.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) in Aholei Yehuda likewise connects the word yerek to the word rok (“spit”), explaining that because vegetables typically grow faster than fruits, it appears as though the ground "spits out" yerakot. Alternatively, he sees yerek as related to reik (“empty”), explaining that the Halachic definition of a yerek is vegetation whose stems or main trunks are not perennial (meaning they do not have the ability to renew themselves over time, but rather must be replanted each year). Such plants grow in a way that all its nutrients are concentrated in (i.e., “emptied out into”) the vegetable itself — as opposed to a fruit (which uses some of its nutrients to a maintain a tree that lasts from year to year).

Before we clarify exactly what the term karpas means, it behooves us to first explore how it came about that the vegetable used in the first dipping in the third stage of the Passover Seder came to be called karpas. If one looks in the Mishnah or the Talmud when discussing the rabbinic commandment of eating a vegetable before the meal, one will notice that the term karpas is never used. In fact, even as late as the Tur (Orach Chaim §473), that vegetable was not yet called karpas, although in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim §473:4) that term is already in use.

The popular use of the term karpas seems to have come from a very famous piyyut (“poem”) that is customarily used to summarize the various steps of the Passover Seder. That familiar piyyut is ascribed to one Rabbi Shmuel of Falaise (a French Tosafist from the 12th century), and begins with the words “Kadesh, Urchatz, Karpas, Yachatz…” That popular poem — which most of us did not even realize is a piyyut — uses the word karpas as a short-hand stand-in for what earlier sources referred to more generically as the dipping of a “vegetable” before the meal. Once that poem became as widespread as it is, the word karpas became enshrined as the popular term to refer to all the vegetables used for this first dipping.

Interestingly, the contemporary scholar Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Stahl (a Slonimer Chossid in Jerusalem) has done much research on the various piyyutim used to summarize the steps of the Passover Seder (using manuscripts from many different times and places), and not all of them refer to the first dipping as karpas. In fact, some of those piyyutim use more generic words like yerek or even pri (ha’adamah) to denote the specimen dipped and eaten at the beginning of the Seder.

But from where did Rabbi Shmuel of Falaise get the term karpas to be used in this context? In some early Ashkenazi sources, when discussing the rules and customs for the Passover Seder, a list of vegetables is given, and one examples often included is karpasa. For example, Machzor Vitri cites in the name of Rashi's Seder HaPesach a list of vegetables that can be used for the first dipping, and one of those is karpasa. In the generation before Rashi, Rabbi Yosef Tuv-Elem (Bonfils) penned a piyyut called Elohei HaRuchot, which summarizes all the laws of Pesach in rhyme. That piyyut provides a list of vegetables that could be used for the first dipping, including karpasa and kusbarta. This piyyut was so popular that Ashkenazim traditionally recite it on Shabbos HaGadol, and the aforementioned Rabbi Shmuel of Falaise even penned a commentary to it (printed in Ohr Zarua Hilchos Pesachim §256). It seems that Rabbi Shmuel of Falaise simply Hebracized the Aramaic term karpasa found in Elohei HaRuchot, and turned it into the iconicword karpas with which we are all familiar. [For more about the word kusbarta, see my earlier essay “A Coriander Conundrum” (June 2020).]

Thus, we see that the term karpas does not actually mean “vegetable,” but is simply an example of a specific vegetable that was used for the first dipping, even though a whole slew of other alternatives were also listed alongside karpas. Now, we can start the discussion of what the word karpas actually means.

The word karpas appears in the Mishnah (Sheviit 9:1, cited in the Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 39b) in a list of wild plants that people do not typically cultivate and are therefore presumed to be ownerless. The Jerusalemic Talmud (there) explicitly identifies karpas with a vegetable called petrozilia (petroselinon in Greek), which is what Americans call “parsley” (whose scientific name is Petroselinum crispum). Its Aramaic cognate karpasa also makes an appearance when the Talmud (Ketubot 61a) claims that if a nursing woman frequently eats karpasa, her child will grow up to be zivatini ("shining brightly," splendid," “a distinguished individual"). Rabbeinu Manoach (to Laws of Chametz 8:2) somehow connects this to the karpas of the Passover Seder. From all this, it would seem that karpas literally means “parsley,” but the matter is far from settled.

In describing the elaborate banquet held by Ahasuerus in the beginning of the Story of Purim, the Bible recounts the various decorations used in the party’s fancy ambiance, listing together chur, karpas, and techeilet (Est. 1:6). In context, it is fairly clearly that the Biblical word karpas refers to some sort of fabric, as its co-items chur and techeilet respectively refer to “white” and “bluish” fabrics. [For more about chur, see “White is Light” (Dec. 2023), and for more about techeilet, see “The True Blue” (March 2019).]

But what sort of fabric is meant by karpas? Targum Rishon and Targum Sheini (to Est. 1:6) associate karpas with karti ("leek"), which seems to mean that karpas refers to a different vegetable than the one we originally thought.

Rabbi Saadia Gaon (Tafsir to Est. 1:6, also cited by Ibn Parchon) explains karpas as “silk.” However, Ibn Janach in his Sefer HaShorashim cites and rejects this, instead preferring to explain karpas as referring to “a color” (an explanation adopted by Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Rabbi Tanchum HaYerushalmi as well). Radak also follows that approach, adding that karpas refers specifically to the color “green” (see also Midrash Lekach Tov to Est. 1:6). His view is also shared by Ralbag, Ibn Yachya, and Rabbi Yosef Nechmias (to Est. 1:6). Thus, the Biblical word karpas does not actually refer to a type of vegetable, but to the basic hue of vegetables (just like yarok is etymologically related to yerek).

Rabbi Baruch Epstein (1860–1941) in Tosefet Brachah (to Est. 1:6) writes that because karpas seems to be derived from a quadriliteral root — which is rare in Hebrew — Chazal sought to parse the word as comprised of smaller components. Hence, the Talmud (Megillah 12a) reads the word karpas in the Scroll of Esther as a portmanteau of karim (“pillows/blankets”) and passim (“silk”).

Others presume that the quadriliteral karpas actually comes from a foreign language. In that spirit, Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899–1983) writes in his etymological dictionary of the Hebrew language that the Biblical karpas is loanword sourced in the Persian karpas ("fine linen"), which he sees as deriving from the Old Indian word kaprasa ("cotton") and the Greek karpasos ("fine flax"). This relates to the fabric karpas. A similar point is made by the Midrash (Esther Rabbah to Est. 1:6) which cites Aquillas' Greek translation of the Bible as connecting karpas with the Greek karpasinon.

When it comes to the vegetable karpas, Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) writes that karpas derives from the Arabic word krafsa/karfs (which means “celery” nowadays), even though Rabbi Shaul Goldman points out that the vowelization of the Hebrew/Aramaic words differs from the Arabic.

Rabbi Alan Yuter argues that the term karpas is actually a form of the Greek word καρπος (karpos), which refers to any "fruit/vegetable/produce." However, this understanding is belied by the aforementioned sources that use the term karpas as a reference to a specific species, not as a general term for “fruits/vegetable/produce.” So although in colloquial speech karpas (when used in reference to the first dipping) can refer to any vegetable, it is philologically-difficult to see that word as related to the Greek word which can refer to any vegetable.

The term karpas hasbecome so engrained and associated with the first dipping, that Rabbi Yaakov Moelin (1365–1427) in Sefer Maharil and others came up with a famous exegesis that parses the word karpas as a metathesized form of the word perech (“breaking”) and the letter SAMECH (whose gematria is sixty). They thus explain the word karpas as an allusion to the Jews’ servitude in Egypt, whereby “sixty” myriads of Jewish men were forced to engage in “backbreaking” labor. [For more on the word perech, see my earlier essay “Hard Work & Hard Hearts” (Jan. 2021).]

Other exegetical interpretations of karpas explain the word as a portmanteau of kar and pas, with kar referring to “sale” (see Rosh HaShanah 26a) or “rulership” (see Isa. 16:1), and pas referring to Joseph’s multi-stripped coat (ketonet passim, see Gen. 37:3). Joseph’s coat aroused his brothers’ jealousy and led them to sell him into slavery which caused him to become the viceroy of Egypt, so it was the sale of Joseph which heralded the descent of Jacob’s entire family to that land and created the conditions that brought about the exodus celebrated on Passover Night (see Rabbeinu Manoach mentioned above, Ibn Shuaib to Parshat Tzav, and Ben Ish Chai Year Tzav Year #1 §32).

In practice, there is no Halacha that dictates that one must use karpas for the first dipping; any vegetable can be used. Hence, not everybody uses parsley, leek, or celery for the first dipping, and instead a whole slew of different vegetables used by different communities, including: potato, onion, cucumber, and even banana or strawberry. [For some sources about the vegetables used, see responsa Chatam Sofer (Orach Chaim §132), Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim §473:10), and Piskei Teshuvos (to Orach Chaim §473).]

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