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!
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.
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: