By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
During the Pesach Seder, we fulfill the mitzvah of repeating the events surrounding our exodus from Egypt. To involve the children, there are practices specifically geared towards them. We intentionally do odd things to cause children to inquire. Therefore, if we perform any ritual at the Seder that you are at a loss to explain, you can always fall back on “We do this so that the kids will ask . . .” Of course the child may be put off hearing that answer. The likely retort will be “OK, I asked. Now what?”
The second step of the Seder is “Urchatz,” where we wash our hands before eating the karpas. Why do we wash our hands if we are not eating bread? Is it a ritual invented to pique the curiosity of the youngsters present at the Seder?
The Gemara records that one should wash one’s hands before eating any wet food. The Shulchan Aruch understands this to be an obligation similar to washing for bread. If you were to take a wet pickle in your hands and eat it, the Shulchan Aruch would say that you must first wash your hands. The following is a paraphrase of the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 158:4): “If someone eats something that was dipped into one of the seven liquids and not dried, even if one’s hands don’t touch the wet part of the food, he needs to wash his hands, without a blessing.” The Rema adds: “This is true even if the food item was only partially submerged into one of the seven liquids.”
The seven liquids being discussed are wine, bee honey, olive oil, milk, dew, blood, and water. (Blood is not kosher, so it really shouldn’t be on this list. The Mishnah Berurah, 158:17, explains that there is one situation where this halachah would be relevant to a food item that is wet with blood.) Consequently, before eating cookies dipped in milk, according to the Shulchan Aruch you must wash your hands, without a berachah. The Mishnah Berurah says that almost all the halachos that pertain to washing the hands for bread must be followed for this hand-washing as well. The Vilna Gaon is adamant that this is a clear year-round obligation and not just a chumrah. He disagrees with the Shulchan Aruch and says that when washing hands for wet food, one should recite a blessing.
If the Shulchan Aruch holds that one must wash before eating wet food, why does he say that a berachah should not be recited? This is to give a nod to those Rishonim who hold that this mitzvah is no longer applicable. Tosefos in Pesachim 115a writes that this mitzvah was only applicable in earlier times, when people differentiated between tumah and taharah. Back then, one who did not wash before eating a wet food would become tamei in a certain regard. Nowadays—when we are all considered tamei—there is no reason to wash our hands before eating wet food. The Shulchan Aruch sides with the majority of Rishonim, who disagree with Tosefos and hold that washing hands for a wet food item is relevant and obligatory even nowadays. However, he rules to wash without a berachah, out of concern for the opinion of Tosefos, who would say that the recital of “Al netilas yadayim” in this situation would be a berachah l’vatalah.
So, the question arises: According to Tosefos, why do we wash our hands at the Seder before Karpas? This mitzvah is no longer applicable! One answer is that we indeed wash our hands just so that the children should ask. But if they do ask, what should we tell them? Rav Dovid Feinstein, shlita, explains that we wash our hands to symbolically recall the times of the Beis HaMikdash, when this washing was required. However, we wouldn’t have added this symbolism to the Seder if not for the benefit that it has of getting the children interested.
As a matter of practical halachah, the Magen Avraham says that the common custom in his time was not to wash one’s hands before eating a wet food. He added that those that follow this custom have someone to rely on. Yet the Mishnah Berurah concludes that one should indeed wash, without a berachah, before eating a wet food.
There is a possible interesting subtext to this discussion. A popular children’s tape states that one may converse freely after washing for Urchatz because, with no berachah having been recited, there is no reason one can’t talk after washing the hands and before actually eating the karpas. R’ Shlomo Zalman, zt’l, said that this was simply untrue. The reason for not talking after netilas yadayim is so that one’s mind doesn’t wander from the ritual just performed. If it did, we may have to be concerned that he touched something dirty and may need to wash again.
Whether one recites a berachah or not, that concern is still there. A person who, for some reason, was unable to recite “Al netilas yadayim” after washing for bread still wouldn’t be allowed to talk before eating. Consequently, on the Seder night one may not talk after washing for Karpas, except for meal-related matters. However, for those that are not scrupulous to wash their hands all year round before eating a wet food, the halachah may be different. Since they are only washing for the sake of symbolism, perhaps we don’t take the symbolism so far as to limit our talking.
R’ Dovid Feinstein writes that the choicest vegetables to be used for Karpas are green ones that are eaten raw. Hence, celery would be a perfect vegetable to use. Potatoes are lacking on both counts, as they are not green and certainly not eaten raw. Yet many people use potatoes for Karpas. This custom can be traced back to some communities in Europe where there was little choice of vegetables to use after the winter, so they used what was available: potatoes.
Potatoes have another thing going against their use for Karpas. Most people eat pieces of cooked potatoes with a fork. It’s quite possible that wet foods that are generally eaten with a fork do not create any hand-washing requirement. Consequently, if using potatoes, there would be no point in washing before Karpas. Some people therefore specifically dip the potato into the saltwater by hand. If your child notices that you are holding the potatoes with your hands instead of with a fork and asks why, you should tell him, “I am doing this so that you should ask!” v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.