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April 16, 2011 / 12 Nisan, 5771
Unravelling the Mishnah of Tractate Pesahim 10:3
Week 2:
We continue the discussion of the last tractate in the volume of the Talmud called Pesachi which describes how one prepares for the Passover Seder.

Pesahim, Chapter 10, Mishnah 3

They set [a table on which there are the Seder ritual symbols] before the leader who then dips it [apparently the hazeret ] before they reach the meal. They set before him matzah, lettuce, hazeret, haroset and two dishes, even though the haroset is not a mitzvah. Rabbi Eli'ezer bar Zadok says that haroset is a mitzvah. And in the days of the Temple, in addition they would also set before him the body of the paschal lamb.
This is a complicated Mishnah in terms of language and translation. I've taken some liberties with the translation to hopefully make it reader-friendly .

  1. what is the hazaert which we now know as karpas;
  2. into what is the hazaert being dipped? Is it into the haroset which is mentioned or is it the salt water which has not yet been mentioned?
  3. and when does one dip the vegetable?

Remember the poor? We previously learned that everyone is to to be provided with sufficient wine for the four cups - although later law would provide some leniency even with regard to the four cups of “wine.”

But, what if they were so impoverished they couldn't afford sufficient “lettuce” ? For first the hazaret the hors d'oeuvres which should precede the meal? And what about the portion for the maror? The Rambam (Moses Maimonides) taught if one could not afford several kinds of vegetables, one could use the same vegetable for both the karpas and maror, in which case the same vegetable would be dipped twice. This may also account for our use of an inexpensive, available vegetable for the appropriate berakhah but save the more bitter vegetable for the maror, [ Romaine, endive or horseradish, for the maror; Sephardim may prefer green onions or curly parsely.]

Next our Mishnah questions whether the haroset is required for the Seder plate. The decision was made that haroset is needed to be on the Seder plate/table, but without employing a special berakhah. But why haroset? Ostensibly it was a sauce/liquid into which the lettuce would be first dipped and then eaten. Why dipping at all? Because the current medical belief at that time was that strong-tasting vegetables needed to be “dipped” in order to avoid any dietary danger. The common explanation overlaying this medical diagnosis are the customary explanations of (1) ingredients (fruit, nuts, wine) listed in the Song of Songs which is read on Pesah, and (2) haroset reminded us of the mud from which the bricks were made.

The language of the Mishnah hints at two additional questions which I've not found raised in any Haggadah commentary.

(1) Who is serving whom? In the Roman period, it is assumed that people did not serve themselves; a Roman symposium which may have been the model of an aristocratic meal, would certainly have had servants or slaves on premises. Perhaps our ancestors - as a colleague, Rabbi Simcha Roth suggests - appointed different participants to pour wine or to move around the symbols or bring the meal instead of slaves. Remember women and children were expected to be participants in the Seder. What is the best way to arrange for a revolving role of “serving” for your Seder?

(2) While it appears that possibly two different vegetables were placed on the seder plate, I suggest that in the earlier Seder rituals only one vegetable was used, for the karpas and then again for maror.

“Take a look at your seder plate. Are there separate places for chazeret and maror? What do you put there? Chazeret means lettuce. So then the question becomes: why should lettuce be on the seder plate at all? What does it symbolize? The Palistinean Talmud provides an answer:
R. Hiyya in the name of R. Hoshayah said: The Egyptian experience's very essence is compared to lettuce: Just as lettuce initially is sweet and eventually, when left in the field, becomes bitter, so the Egyptians treated our ancestors in Egypt, initially very hospitably saying to Joseph and his brothers, "The land of Egypt is open before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land. (Genesis 46:6)" and afterward, "Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks. (Exodus 1:14)" (Y. Pesachim 2:5)

The truth is that lettuce probably tasted good with the Hillel sandwich. It was eaten during the Temple days with lamb, sweet relish, horseradish and lettuce, wrapped in a soft taco. The sages assign it a symbolic role but this is left out of most haggadot leaving us with the lettuce on the seder plate without really knowing why it was there in the first place.” How do you like that Martha?

This week's Mishnah lesson was written by
Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner.

He created and is the editor/author/administrator of www.jewishfreeware.org. See especially for 5771 Pesah new and updated FREE Family-Friendly Haggadot: Hebrew/Translation/Transliteration ; World's Largest Seder Songbook; and Passover Activities. Millions are being distributed annually FREE with encouragement for sharing and unlimited copying for individuals, families, synagogues, religious schools, day schools, nursing homes, assisted living residents, community sedarim, military chaplains, prisons to more than 78 countries. Rabbi Lerner is also President, Foundation For Family Education, Inc. 501c3, an educational project for hands-on Jewish learning that builds Jewish memories.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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