Karpas and the Purim Story
by Rav R'vin Ovdeich
Near the beginning of the Megillah, we are treated to a detailed description of the lavish decorations in Achashverosh's royal palace:
Chur, karpas utcheilet, achuz b'chavlei vutz v'argaman al glilei khesef v'amudei sheish; mitot zahav vakhesef al ritzfat bahat vasheish v'dar v'socharet. (Esther 1:6)
Most of these terms are familiar to us as symbols of luxury. Tcheilet is the sky-blue color of tzitzit, argaman is royal purple, amudei sheish are marble pillars. The blatant exception is karpas, which of course is the green leafy vegetable which we eat at the Passover seder. The question: What makes karpas appropriate for the palace's decor?
Before approaching this question, let us investigate an unusual incident in the Megillah. As Esther wishes to approach the King, without permission, to plead for her people, she asks the Jews to fast for three days and three nights. This in itself is an extreme measure; usually public fasts last only one day.
But Esther goes even further. Commenting on verse 4:17, "And Mordechai passed (vayaavor)," Rashi says, "He transgressed the [Jewish] law by fasting on the first Yom Tov of Passover, as he fasted on the 14th of Nisan, the 15th and the 16th, for behold the scrolls [ordering the destruction of the Jews] were written on the 13th [see 3:12]." How can Esther proclaim fasts for the 15th and 16th of Nissan, the two seder nights?
The key to answering these questions lies in the history of the era. We learn from other books of the Bible and from the Midrash that the Megillah takes place 70 years after the beginning of the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. Chazal emphasize how Achashverosh strives to demonstrate his dominion over his empire by degrading the memory of the Temple and insisting that there will never be a second one. This is why, for example, he uses the vessels of the Temple in his palace. He wishes to eradicate any hope that the Jews might rebuild the Temple.
As we know, the Passover seder service was modified after the destruction of the Temple, to emphasize the memory of the Temple and hopes for its return. Thus, to achieve his aims, it was necessary for Achashverosh to end the observance of the seder. To this end, he banned all green leafy vegetables from the kingdom, keeping only a remnant of karpas to decorate his palace as a symbol of his triumph over the Jews.
Without karpas, the Jews were unable to celebrate the seder. This in turn, barred them from eating for the rest of the day. This explains how they were allowed to fast on the two seder days of Passover: They were required to, due to the absence of karpas. Thus, Esther's fast was actually only one day long; the following two days they fasted only because they had no seders.
From this incident, we learn two incidental halachot: 1. It is forbidden to eat on Yom Tov Pesach unless one has the seder, and 2. It is forbidden to conduct the seder in the absence of karpas. This latter rule is especially surprising, as we usually consider the karpas to be a minor part of the seder.
This raises an obvious question: If Esther's fast was actually only for one day, why did she ask the Jews to fast for her for three days? After all, the other two days of fasting were not due to her.
The answer is that the first day fasting, the one called by Esther, changed the very character of the remaining two days. We know from the Talmud that three days is the limit of a human's ability to go without water. Thus, by extending the fasting period to three days, Esther's additional day made the fast much more difficult, changing the character of the fasting even on the other two days. The whole time period was transformed, imparting to it the character of a three-day fast for Esther.
One question remains: Why does Rashi say that fasting on the first days of Passover was against Jewish law? On the contrary, we have seen that they were in fact obligated to fast for lack of the seder. To this, we must answer that Rashi didn't know what he was talking about. Honestly, he's just not all he's cracked up to be.
The lesson for today is clear, and profound: One should never underestimate the importance of green, leafy vegetables.
May we soon merit the rebuilding of our Holy Temple, with the restoration of karpas to its rightful place therein.