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For the week ending 6 April 2019 / 1 Nisan 5779

Seder Highlights: Urchatz Everyday?

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
Library Library Kaddish

Have you ever wondered why, at the annual Pesach Seder at Karpas when we dip vegetables in saltwater to symbolize our ancestor’s tears while enslaved at the hands of the cruel Egyptians, we precede it by washing our hands? Isn’t hand washing reserved exclusively for prior to ‘breaking bread’? And furthermore, why is this only performed at the Seder? Is there a specific message this action is meant to convey?

The answer to this question might depend on a difference of understanding. The Gemara in Pesachim (114b) asks why at the Pesach Seder we perform two dippings (i.e. karpas into saltwater and later the maror into charoset). The Gemara succinctly answers ‘Ki heichi d’lehavai hekeira l’tinokot — in order that there should a distinction for children’.

Rabbi Yaakov Reischer (1661-1733), in his Chok Yaakov, and Rabbi Avraham Danzig (1747-1820), in his Chayei Adam, understand from the Gemara that the point of hand washing, Urchatz, prior to the dipping of karpas, is essentially a “hekker”, meaning a device that highlights that something different than the norm is occurring, to enable children to ask what is different on Seder night.

Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe (1530-1612), in his comprehensive Levush, understands Urchatz somewhat differently. He explains that the dipping of karpas at the Pesach Seder is a “Chovat HaRegel,” a Holiday obligation. Ergo, the hand washing is specifically performedat the Seder, as due to its inherent holiness ‘we go the extra mile’ to strive for an increase in purity.

Conversely, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806), better known as the famed Chida, and Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839), the renowned Chasam Sofer, offer an alternate, albeit fascinating, view.

But in order to properly understand their explanation, we must first digress to a different Gemara in Pesachim (115a). Rabbi Elazer states in the name of Rav Oshia, “Any food item that is dipped in a liquid (referred to as a “davar hateebulo b’mashkeh”) requires hand washing before eating”. On this statement, Rashi and Tosefot (among others) differ on the correct understanding of its intent. Rashi maintains that this ruling is still applicable nowadays, as it is similar to the requirement to wash before eating bread; while Tosefot is of the opinion that this law is only relevant during the times of the Beit Hamikdash, as it is conditional to a ritual purity that in this day and age is non-applicable.

Although there are opinions that one may rely on the lenient view, it should be noted that many halachic authorities are of the opinion that even nowadays one should do his utmost to be vigilant with this and wash hands before eating a food item dipped in liquid.

The lenient opinion is taken into account, however, and that is the reason why this washing is done without the prerequisite blessing, as opposed to the washing before eating bread. This is due to the halachic dictum of “safek berachot lehakel,” meaning that in a case of doubt regarding the topic of berachot we follow the lenient approach and do not make the blessing, to avoid the possibility of making a blessing in vain.

This all ties in to our Seder. The Chida, in his Simchas HaRegel commentary on the Haggadah, explains that this is the background, as well as the reason, for the added ‘vav’ by Urchatz at the Pesach Seder. We find a parallel by the beracha that our patriarch Yitzchak bestowed on his son Yaakov (Toldot 27:28), ‘V’Yitein L’cha’ – ‘And G-d should give you’. According to Chazal and cited by Rashi (1040-1105), the extra conjunctive ‘vav’ means yitein yachzor v’yitein — that G-d should continually and constantly give.

Likewise, the Chida explains the extra ‘vav’ in Urchatz. The Baal Haggadah is transmitting a message to us. Just as during the Seder washing is performed prior to dipping a vegetable in salt water, that extra ‘vav’ is telling us “rachatz yachzor v’rachatz” — that we should continue to wash our hands anytime we want to eat a food dipped in liquid, all year round.

The Chasam Sofer and his son-in-law, the Chasan Sofer, write similarly in their Haggadah that Urchatz is meant to be a rebuke and yearly reminder to those who are lackadaisical with the observance of this halacha, in order to remind everyone that this applies year round as well.

Interestingly, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, the former Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, opines that the dispute among Rishonim as to whether only the head of the family is supposed to wash Urchatz (a notable minority minhag, performed mainly by many of Germanic/Dutch origin, as well as Sanz, Lelov, and Satmar Chassidim), or if everyone at the Seder does as well (the most common custom), might be dependent on this debate of why the hand washing at the Seder was instituted.

According to the majority opinion that Urchartz was enacted due to the halacha of davar hateebulo b’mashkeh, then everyone should be mandated to wash. However, according to the opinions that this hand washing is performed exclusively on Pesach at the Seder, it is possible that only the head of the household needs to wash Urchatz, as that should be deemed sufficient enough to arouse the interest and subsequent questions of the children.

It is quite remarkable that this modern divergence of minhagim might actually depend on how poskim understood the brief statement of the Gemara regarding childrens’ questions.

The Chida continues that, although many are aware of this halacha, they do not realize that it applies even to something as ubiquitous as dipping cake into coffee! One might contend that the connection between vegetables in saltwater to tea biscuits in coffee seems tenuous, but from a halachic perspective they are remarkably similar.

So the next time you get that dunkin’ urge, do the conscientious thing by following the Haggadah’s hidden exhortation, and head to the sink before diving into your cup-of-joe.

  • Thanks are due to my 12th-grade Rebbe in Yeshiva Gedolah Ateres Mordechai of Greater Detroit, Rav Yitzchok Kahan, for first enlightening me to this passage of the Chida.
  • This article was written l’iluy Nishmas Yisrael Eliezer ben Zev and l’zechus Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam v’chol yotzei chalatzeha for a yeshua sheleimah teikif u’miyad!

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