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.
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!
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