April 20, 2024
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Some Interesting Words of the Seder

Karpas: This word appears in the Tanach only one time, at Esther 1:6. There it means “fine fabric, linen.” 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 (in the form karpasa) used in connection with the Seder. It is mentioned as one of the permissible options for the borei pri ha-adamah at this stage. The earliest such reference to karpasa at the Seder is a Geonic responsum published in Louis Ginzberg’s Ginzei Schechter, vol. 2, p. 252. 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 urchatz piyyut to view the word karpas as integral to the Seder. 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 in these piyyutim, but it is represented by a different word or words. Some of these other piyyutim are collected at Menachem Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 77-82.

Matzah: The etymology of this word is much debated. The simplest approach observes that the verb M-Tz-Tz means “to suck” and the related verb M-Tz-H means “to drain out.” (The word mitz=juice, found in Tanach three times, is related to these.) Because it was flat and dry, matzah=unleavened bread could have been viewed as bread in which the normal texture and moisture was sucked or drained out.

Many scholars find the above unsatisfying and propose alternatives. One suggestion relies on the fact that there was a Hebrew root aleph-vav-tzade that meant “urge” or “hasten.” There may even have been a Hebrew root nun-tzade-heh that meant “hasten.” (See Lam. 4:15). The word matzah could have been derived from either of these and meant “that which was made in haste.”

There is a dot in Tanach in the tzade of M-Tz-H. One of the functions of such a dot is to indicate that a root letter is missing. This would support the idea that the root was M-Tz-Tz or N-Tz-H.

I cannot resist mentioning the creative approach found in Rabbi Matityahu Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew. He has an entry for a Hebrew root N-Tz-H that he defines as “resist; oppose sporadically.” We are all familiar with this root. See, e.g., Ex. 21:22. Rabbi Clark includes matzah in this entry (implying that it derives from an original M-N-Tz-H) and defines it as “non-fermenting bread.” In other words, he views it as bread that resists fermentation. Of course, this is clever but it is farfetched. I doubt that we should view a struggle going on within the matzah! (Rabbi Clark’s book is largely based on the commentaries of Rav S.R. Hirsch, but Rabbi Clark sometimes makes suggestions not found in Rav Hirsch. I did not see this particular suggestion in Rav Hirsch himself.)

Please forgive me for mixing in a chametz-related word now. The contrasting word challah probably derives from the root Ch-L-L=empty space. A reasonable explanation is that challah in ancient times was probably a “pierced” or “perforated” cake with an empty area in the middle (like pita).

Maror: The word maror in the singular appears nowhere in Tanach. The word used in Tanach 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 Lamentations 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. (See, e.g., Daat Mikra to Ex. 12:8) But the phrase va-yemareru et chayeyhem is found earlier in the story, at Exodus 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.

Sippur: In biblical Hebrew, the root S-P-R means both “to count” and “to tell a story.” (It means “count” in the kal construct. It means “tell a story” in the piel construct.)

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 E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, p. 626. The simplest explanation is 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.

Ve-Higadeta Le-Vincha (Exodus 13:8): On a plain-sense level, 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, meaning “next to.” Therefore, le-ha(n)gid (a verb in the hifil) means “to cause an idea to be next to someone else.” There is even perhaps an implication of a “face-to-face” conversation. The closest English equivalent would seem to be “to present.”

Haggadah: I had always made the common assumption that the word derived from the phrase ve-higadeta le-vincha. Indeed, this view is expressed in the 11th century by the Aruch. But most likely the term was not derived from ve-higadeta le-vincha. Rather, the terms haggadah and aggadah originally had the same meaning, and the term haggadah did not originate as a Pesach-related term. Haggadah is merely a variant form of aggadah. (Perhaps the meaning of both was “narratives that expound upon biblical verses.” This meaning may or may not have derived from the Hebrew root N-G-D.) But over time, the word haggadah eventually came to be associated mainly with Pesach, based on Exodus 13:8 and statements such as the one made by the Aruch.

Finally, it is interesting that the Haggadah uses the word le-sapper in describing the mitzvah of the evening: “mitzvah aleinu le-sapper ….” The key biblical verse, Exodus 13:8, had used the word ve-higadeta! The unusual choice of the word le-saper in the Haggadah here 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 le-sapper in connection with the mitzvah.

Ch-S-L: This root, which means “finish,” is used at the end of the Seder, after the fourth cup. This root appears seven times in Tanach. Six times it appears as chasil, a word for locusts. The other time, at Deuteronomy 28:38, it appears as yechaslenu ha-arbeh (=the locusts will finish it/eat it away). Most likely, locusts are called chasil because they finish off the crops.

S-D-R: A word with this root appears only one time in Tanac, at Job 10:22 (sedarim). As we would expect, it means “order.”

Heseba: The meaning of this word is ingrained in all of us. Wake any of us up from our reclining position in the middle of the night and we will tell you that it means “recline.” But wait a minute. Everyone will agree that the root of this word is S-B-B, which has a meaning of “round.” What is going on here? How did this root S-B-B turn itself into a root meaning “recline”?

Most likely, the process was as follows. The root first evolved into a word for “eating a meal,” since meals were eaten in a circle. Then it evolved into eating a meal with couches around the table, where the practice was to recline on the couches. Now we use it to mean “recline,” even where no couches are involved!

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He used to present face-to-face lectures. Now he enjoys reclining and writing for The Jewish Link.

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

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