Vexing Question of Celery vs. Parsley on the Seder Plate

Why Some Jews Still Argue the Meaning of Karpas

How Green Was My Seder Plate: Our word “celery” derives from Greek selinon, while “parsley” comes from petroselinon.
Thinkstock
How Green Was My Seder Plate: Our word “celery” derives from Greek selinon, while “parsley” comes from petroselinon.

By Philologos

Published March 24, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The table is set; your Seder plate is ready, and on it is everything you need: the matzos, the “shank bone,” the hardboiled egg, the “bitter herb” of a horseradish root, the ḥaroset or sweet condiment, and the karpas or celery. Or is it parsley? Of course, Jews wouldn’t be Jews if they agreed about everything, but why can’t they agree about this? Why do some of us use parsley and some of us celery when we all call it by the same Hebrew name?

The fact is that karpas, whatever it is, doesn’t have to be on your Seder plate at all, and in some families and traditions it isn’t. In instructing the Israelites how to consume their last dinner before departing from Egypt, the book of Exodus has God tell Moses: “And they shall eat the flesh [of the paschal sacrifice] that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.”

There’s nothing about leafy greens. These originated much later in the custom, referred to in the third of the Four Questions, of twice during the Seder dipping a vegetable in salt water and eating it — and at first, this vegetable was identical with the bitter herb, which doubled in both capacities.

The Mishnaic tractate of Pesachim, which deals with the laws of Passover, lists the edible Palestinian plants that were considered bitter enough to qualify for the job. These were ḥ azeret, which in the Hebrew of that age meant lettuce (although not all varieties of lettuce today have a bitter aftertaste, in antiquity they probably all did); ulshin, which has been identified as either chicory or endives; tamkha, a Mediterranean root vegetable that was probably what is known in English as black salsify; ḥ arḥ avina, also a root, apparently eryngo, and maror, which in the Hebrew of the Mishnah denoted the sow thistle, an annual with bitter stalks and leaves.

This list makes one ask a few questions. If ḥ azeret once meant lettuce, why in contemporary Hebrew does it mean horseradish? Why is maror, the “bitter herb” of the Bible and the sow thistle of the Mishnah, represented on our Seder plate by horseradish? Why isn’t karpas on the Mishnah’s list at all? And why isn’t horseradish on it either?

Actually, horseradish isn’t even on all Seder plates. Throughout the Middle East, from Persia to Morocco, the bitter herb took the form — and still takes it among the descendants of Jews from these lands — of lettuce leaves, horseradish being unknown. And here lies the key to the whole problem, for once we take this into account, we can hypothesize the following historical process:

1) In Mishnaic times, when the Jewish people was still concentrated entirely around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, a single plant was used both for the bitter herb and for dipping in salt water, so that it alone was on the Seder plate. Some Jews used root vegetables like black salsify, others used leafy vegetables like lettuce.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.