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 are 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!