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.
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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.
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2) Among Middle Eastern Jews, the use of root vegetables eventually disappeared, leaving only leafy vegetables. These were, in the end, narrowed down to lettuce, which appeared on the Seder plate by itself.

3) Among Jews who migrated further into Europe and ultimately formed Ashkenazi Jewry, the use of both root and leafy vegetables continued. Here, however, a bifurcation occurred: The bitter herb was represented entirely by root vegetables, while the vegetable used for dipping was always a leafy one. Moreover, both now appeared on the Seder plate.

4) Since in Central and Eastern Europe the root vegetables listed in the Mishnah could not be grown, horseradish, which does well in cold climates, took their place. As it did, the word ḥ azeret, formerly used for lettuce, now attached itself to horseradish, for which Hebrew previously had no word. Similarly, maror, formerly a word for any “bitter herb,” now came to signify horseradish alone.

5) Among Ashkenazim, lettuce itself began to be used less for dipping and made way for other leafy vegetables that were not bitter at all. The most common of these was originally either celery or parsley; the two closely resemble each other. The two plants belong to the same botanical family of Apiaceae, and whereas our word “celery” derives from Greek selinon, “parsley” comes from petroselinon, “rock celery,” since the Greeks considered parsley to be a form of wild celery.

6) The same confusion reigned in rabbinic Hebrew, where karpas sometimes meant celery and sometimes parsley. The rabbis of the Mishnah, however, reversed the Greeks by considering celery a wild form of parsley, and they occasionally called it karpas ha-neharot or “river parsley.” And so, while all Ashkenazi Jews have something called karpas on their Seder plate alongside the horseradish that they call ḥ azeret or maror, they are divided into celeryites and parsleyites to this day.

Which, I wonder, are you?

Have a happy Passover!

Questions to Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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