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Saturday, May 25, 2019

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

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 bore pri ha-adamah at this stage. The earliest such reference is in a Geonic responsum published in L. Ginzberg’s Ginzei Schechter, vol. 2, pp. 252-260. 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. 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 in these piyyutim, 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.

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.) Almost certainly, the original formulation of the Ma Nishtana question described the herb in the plural, merorim. See, e.g., Siddur Rav Saadiah Gaon, p. 137, and Rambam, Hilchot Chametz UMatzah 8:2.

In rabbinic Hebrew, the singular refers to only one of the five herbs with which one can fulfill one’s obligation. See Mishnah Pesachim 2:6.

It is interesting that the Torah never tells us why merorim are to be eaten with the Pesach and Pesach Sheni sacrifices. It has been suggested that 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 a compelling interpretation to understand the inclusion of merorim in the sacrificial Pesach meals as symbolic of the bitterness of the slavery.

Chasal (chet-samech-lamed): This word, which means “finish,” is used at the end of the Seder. The root appears seven times in Tanach. Six times it appears as chet-samech-yod-lamed = 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. This explanation is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 3:6), and modern scholars agree.

Sipur: In Biblical Hebrew, the root samech-pe-resh means both “to count” and “to tell a story.” It means “count” in the kal. It means “tell a story” in the piel. 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, p. 626. The simplest explanation for all of this 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.

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

Cherut: The root chet-resh-tav only appears one time in the Tanach, at Exodus 32:16. It means “engraved,” so we have to look elsewhere for the origin of this word as “freedom.”

One approach is to relate it to chet-vav-resh = nobleman. This word appears many times in Tanach (always in the plural). That this is the origin of the word “cherut” for freedom is the approach taken by R. Joshua b. Levi at Mishnah Avot 6:2. Here the word from Exodus 32:16 is cited (charut al ha-luchot) and then the following statement is made: “ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she-osek be-talmud Torah.” Of course, the statement is only a homiletical one, so the etymology may be homiletical as well.

A different approach to “cherut =freedom” derives it from an Aramaic root “chet-resh-resh” that means “to be or become free.” (See, e.g., the word “shin-chet-resh-resh.” The shin here is not a root letter.)

The word in the Tanach for freedom is “dror” (occurring nine times). It is interesting that the text of the Kiddush uses the word “cherut” instead of the word “dror.”

Hesebah: The meaning of the word “hesebah” 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 “hesebah” 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”?

Surely 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. Eventually, it came to mean “recline,” even when no couches were involved!

The above discussion is taken from my new book, “Roots and Rituals.” (There I also discuss the words “matzah,” and “haggadah.”)

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He enjoys his freedom and his couch. There he reclines and counts the number of times difficult words appear in Tanach and recounts this material to others, all the while avoiding those all-consuming locusts. He can be reached at [email protected]