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Karpas: The Ultimate Passover Hors D’oeuvre

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Passover is a night of questions: Why is this night different from all others? Why do we eat matzah? Why do we eat bitter herbs? When do we eat? That last question is the one that, although not part of the original “Ma Nishtanah?” (four questions), is one asked at many seders—by guests (and hosts) of all ages!

The formal meal of the Passover seder (shulchan orech) teases and teases all during the first part of the evening’s series of questions and tellings, symbols and rituals. Although some of these symbols are edible and serve as a sort of appetizer, they are consumed in a special order (which is what seder means) and in small amounts. (A dollop of horseradish on a tiny bit of matzah does not an hors d’oeuvre make.)

So as the young ones and not-so-young ones consume the aroma of brisket, turkey, chicken soup and matzah kugel warming in the kitchen, they sit in the dining room listening to the arcane discussions of Rabbi Tarfon and obscure acronyms of the plagues as they areseder plate enumerated trying to find the “meta” and the meaning in what we’re recalling a time several thousand years past. (And I’ll have more to say about that in a forthcoming article.)

So what’s a host (or hostess) to do when the seven or ten year olds at the table begin to loose composure, and instead of raptly listening to the “the story” (magid), they’re screaming: “I want to eat”? 

The fact is that the seder is largely intended for the edification and education of our children, and if they’re screaming, distracted and hungry, the message just ain’t gonna get through! How are they going to remember the real lesson of “we were once slaves and now we’re free” or charoset when they’ve lost all concentration to the rumblings of their collective tummies? The answer my friends is karpas!

One of the first steps in any seder is the blessing over the greens. It’s a great kickoff for introducing the seder plate and it contains. Traditionally, towards the beginning of the seder, we eat a bit of green vegetable to signify the renewal of springtime (there are other profound and mystical meanings) and dip it in salty water representing the tears shed by our ancestors, oppressed slaves in ancient Egypt.

During the seders of my youth, my mother would place small sprigs of parsley on our plates to dip and tide us over till “it’s time to eat,” indeed meager pickins’ to hold us over through the four questions, the four children, four rabbis and 10 plagues (and their explanations), charoset, cups of wine (or grape juice) and Hillel sandwiches. Not to even mention everything else that comes before “let’s eat!”  Oy! 

The blessing for karpas is “borei p’ri ha’adamah,” thanking God for creating “fruits of the earth.” So any vegetable will do: celery, onion, scallion, cilantro, etc. The karpas can become a real appetizer, satisfying hunger and keeping the guests sufficiently happy to engage in the rest of the seder.karpas done right!

For our seder, I prepare vegetable trays, containing small colorful peppers, scallions (green onions), celery, carrots, pickles, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, and anything else that “comes from the earth.” After karpas we pass the veggies as we go on to the rest of the seder, and no one ever groans “how much longer till we eat?”

I’ll be stopping by regularly over the next couple of weeks to offer tips, recipes and ideas to invigorate and enjoy your Passover. In the meantime, enjoy an amusing bit of Passover Googling:



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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Orange450

    Beautiful veggie platter, Barbara 🙂

    In my experience, the Seder – like almost everything else in life – adheres to two significant maxims: one being “the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.”, and the other being: “an ounce of prevention (or preparation) is worth a pound of cure.” Both apply to the “meta” as well as the meal!

    Re the meal: One thing that I did growing up, and do with my family now (as do many of my friends), is enjoy a delicious and substantial “pre-Pesach” snack, shortly before candle-lighting time. Yes, it’s another meal to prepare on the busiest day of the year, but the effort is amply repaid by the fact that we’re not starving throughout the first part of the Seder.

    My mother, of blessed memory, was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. She was a sophisticated and trendy cook, and although Kosher L’Mehadrin, our cuisine was anything but the traditional Jewish fare. My mother made potato kugel only once a year, for our pre-Seder mini-meal. And although I seldom touch potato kugel nowadays, I still hunger for my Mom’s 🙂

    I serve a hearty potato salad, cottage cheese, gefilte fish, coffee and cake. My family (and any houseguests we may have) tucks in, and even tho’ we typically don’t get to our Shulchan Orech until 11 PM or so, no one seems to mind. (The meal isn’t the main part of the Seder for us IAC, so in keeping with the late hour, the menu is light, and fairly streamlined.)

    Re the meta: I’ve always found that the more preparation kids and grown-ups do before the Seder, the more fun and interesting the proceedings become. Nowadays, there are so many wonderful books and kits that can jump-start an interactive, enjoyable and highly participatory Seder experience, even for those who have no other exposure to the topics. (The kids in my class – 3 & 4 year olds – are absolutely primed by now to jump right in (just like frogs :))and join in with the re-enactment!) Yes – just like the pre-Seder meal – it means that extra effort is involved. But then those maxims kick in…

    p.s. I had the most fun with my class this week. I got to play the part of King Paroh, and I told the kids to take out every block in our (very big) block corner, and build me a pyramid. They really got into it. Later on, a little boy asked another teacher in the room if he could get a drink of water. When the teacher expressed surprise that the boy was asking permission to do something that is always allowed, the boy answered “Morah Orange (well, you know…) wouldn’t let us get drinks before, when she was being Paroh and we were being the Jewish people in Mitzraim who had to work so hard…” (No children were harmed in the staging of this segment.)

  • Heloise

    Hey Barb I spotted a possible pun for your headline: Pass-Hors D’oeuvre!

  • Thank you Orange, for sharing that. I’ll be doing few more of these pre-Pesach meanderings as I wander through the next couple of weeks 🙂

    Our seders have always seen a split in attendees: very knowledgeable kids (and parents) who want to chant every word–and those who need/want to learn as we go, and don’t know much going in.

    This year we’re going to friends’ for seders, and we’ve been tasked to run the Magid (the telling), for which we’re always trying to be creative.