Wash? What For? Urhatz and Karpas

Haggadah #4 The first hand washing and eating a spring green


Why do we wash our hands? During this Covid pandemic, “to save my life” springs immediately to mind. For the last year we’ve been washing as though our lives depend on it, while singing “Happy birthday” twice through to guarantee a 20 second sudsing. Washing has become an hourly habit.


Our pre-germ and virus ancestors washed for two reasons: cleanliness and holiness. Now you say, all of humanity washes for cleanliness; and you’d be right. But what of the idea of “ritual purity” rather than removing dirt? We clean ritually for either of two reasons: either to wash away “ritual impurity,” as the Bible admonishes; or spiritually cleansing before a holy act.


Having declared the holiday sacred over wine, we now turn to an hors d’oeuvre, symbol of spring and rebirth. While the original Passover celebration in Egypt required hasty departure without allowing the bread to rise and therefore baking the dough in the hot desert sun, our seders surrounding a festive table are celebrated in a leisurely style. Many participants recline to the left, maintaining the ancient Roman symposium meal custom of free people.


Before eating the vegetable hors d’oeuvre, most often parsley, celery or radishes, we wash for the first of two (or, for some, three) times. Are we washing for cleanliness or holiness? If for cleanliness, we don’t require a blessing. If for holiness, we do. The answer? There’s nothing particularly holy about eating this green vegetable hor d’oeuvre, a symbol of spring. So, this first time, we wash without a blessing. The truth is: since we will wash before the meal with a blessing, many families skip this one.


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© 2016 by Rabbi Mark H. Levin.