July 13, 2024
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Key Words of the Seder: A Guide


The root H-R-T only appears one time in the Tanakh (Ex. 32:16) and means “engraved,” so we have to look elsewhere for the origin of herut as freedom.

One approach is to relate it to het, vav, resh, which means nobleman. This word appears many times in Tanakh. That this is the origin of herut/freedom seems to be the approach taken at Mishnah Avot 6:2.

A different approach derives herut = freedom from the Aramaic root for freedom: het, resh, resh. This root appears widely in rabbinic literature in the form shin, het, resh, resh. See, e.g., Mishnah

The word in the Tanakh for freedom is deror (occurring nine times). It is interesting that the authors of the kiddush favored the word herut over the word deror. Perhaps it was the more common word for freedom in the time of the Sages.


This word appears in the Tanakh only one time, at Esther 1:6. There it is as a type of material. In the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud, it has the meaning of a plant, or celery/parsley, but it is never used in connection with the seder.

It is only in the Geonic period that we first find karpas (“karpasa”) used in connection with the seder. It is mentioned as one of the permissible options for the bore pri ha-adamah at this stage. The earliest such reference to karpasa at the seder is a Geonic responsum published in Ginzei Schechter, vol. 2, pp. 252-260. (This interesting responsum describes the seder as including only two mah nishtannah questions: matzah and dipping. I have dealt with this responsum in my book, Esther Unmasked, at pp. 175–78.) For another early reference to karpasa at the seder, see The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, p. 922 (citing an 11th century piyyut).

We are all misled by the introductory kadesh u-rechatz piyyut to view the word karpas as integral to the seder. But many other such introductory piyyutim have come to light, and many of them do not include the word karpas. (This stage of the seder is there, but it is represented by a different word or words.) Some of these other piyyutim are collected at M. Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 77–82.


The verb M-Tz-Tz means “to suck” and the related verb M-Tz-H means “to press or squeeze out.” A widespread view is that one of these is the root of matzah, since unleavened bread can be considered bread in which the air is sucked or squeezed out.

Please forgive me for adding a chametzdika thought here: The contrasting word hallah probably derives from the root H-L-L (hole). A hallah in ancient times was probably a “pierced” or “perforated” cake with an empty area in the middle (like pita).


The word maror nowhere appears in Tanakh. The word used in Tanakh is the plural: merorim. It appears three times: in the commandment of pesach (Ex. 12:8), in the commandment of pesach sheni (Numb. 9:11) and at Eikhah 3:15 (hisbiani va-merorim; he has filled me with bitterness).

It is interesting that the Torah never tells us why the merorim are to be eaten with the pesach and pesach sheni sacrifices. It has been suggested that the merorim were merely added as a condiment to the sacrificial meat. But the phrase va-yemareru et hayeyhem (they embittered their lives) is found earlier in the story (at Ex. 1:14). Therefore, it is very compelling to understand the inclusion of the merorim in the sacrificial pesach meals as symbolic of the bitterness of the slavery.


In Biblical Hebrew, the root S-P-R means both “to count” and “to tell a story.” Can we find a common ground here? Interestingly, there is such a phenomenon in English as well: to count, and to recount a story. Also, an “accountant” works with numbers, but a newspaper “account” is a retelling of a tale. The relationship between counting and telling a story is found in words of other languages as well. See Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, p. 626.

I suggest that a story is the sum of details and that, in telling a story, there has been a counting and an ordering of all the details. (I am open to hearing other explanations!)

Interestingly, the English word “tell” also has the connotation of “telling a story” and of “counting.” (Think of a bank “teller.”)


Much has been written about the word ve-higadeta in the phrase ve-higadeta le-vincha (Ex. 13:8). Does it mean “explain”? “Demonstrate with an action”? “Tell a story”? “Speak in an aggadic manner”? All these and many other interpretations have been offered.

But on a plain-sense level, the answer is a simple one. Ve-higadeta comes from the verb le-hagid. This word originated as le-hangid. (Over time, the initial nun dropped.) The root is N-G-D, neged, meaning “next to.” Therefore, le-ha(n)gid means to bring an idea next to someone else. See, e.g., Rav S. R. Hirsch to Gen 3:11 and Deut. 17:10, and the concordance of S. Mandelkern, entry NGD. The closest English equivalent would seem to be “to present.”

The standard printed Talmud refers to what we recite on the seder night as the haggadah. See Pesachim 115b and 116a. Presumably, it is called this based on the commandment ve-higadeta le-vincha. But there are other readings of Pesachim 115b and 116a that have ha-aggadah here (=he, aleph, gimel, dalet, he). Similarly, there are Rishonim that refer to what we recite at the seder as the aggadah. See, e.g., Tosafot to Avodah Zarah 45a, and Haggadah Shel Pesach, Torat Hayyim, p. 12. Most likely, aggadah in these references is merely an Aramization of the word haggadah, and not the entirely different word aggadah, from the root AGD. (For a discussion of the word aggadah, see the article in Dine Israel (vol. 24) by Prof. Berachyahu Lifshitz, “Aggadah Versus Haggadah: Towards a More Precise Understanding of the Distinction.” This article can be accessed online.)

Finally, it is interesting that the haggadah uses the word le-saper in describing the mitzvah of the evening: “mitzvah aleinu le-saper bi-yitziat mitzrayim.” The key Biblical verse, Ex. 13:8, had used the word ve-higadeta! The unusual choice of the word le-saper in the haggadah here (perhaps influenced by the use of the verb le-saper in a different context at verse 10:2) has had a tremendous influence over the centuries in the way the mitzvah has been understood. The haggadah is the earliest source to use the verb sippur in connection with the mitzvah.

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015) is available at the Judaica House in Teaneck and at amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected].


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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