The Shabbat before Passover is called Shabbat Hagadol (the Great Sabbath), a phrase deriving from the last verse of the prophetic portion read on that day, which declares that God will send Elijah the Prophet on the “great day” of the Lord right before the coming of the redemption.
Let us attempt to link Elijah to our Passover seder in a way more profound than merely opening the door for him and offering him wine.
Our analysis begins with another seder anomaly, the fact that we begin our night of freedom with the distribution of an hors d’oeuvre of karpas (Greek for vegetable, often parsley, dipped in a condiment).
The usual explanation for this is that vegetation emerges in the springtime; Passover is biblically called the Spring Festival, and so we dip a vegetable in salt water, reminiscent of spring renewal emerging from the tears of Egyptian enslavement. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, in his late 19th-century haggadah, suggests another interpretation. The Hebrew word karpas appears in the opening verses of the Book of Esther, in the description of the “hangings” that were found in the gardens of King Achashverosh’s palace, where the great feast for all his kingdom was hosted: karpas white cotton joined with turquoise wool. Rashi connects the term karpas in the sense of material with the ketonet passim, the striped tunic that Jacob gave to his beloved son, Joseph.
The Jerusalem Talmud additionally suggests that we dip the karpas in charoset (a mixture of wine, nuts and dates), adding that charoset is reminiscent of the blood of the babies murdered in Egypt. In our case, the karpas would become symbolic of Joseph’s tunic, which the brothers dipped into goat’s blood and brought to their father as a sign that his son had been torn apart by wild beasts when, in fact, they had sold him into Egyptian slavery.
Why begin the seder this way? The Talmud criticizes Jacob for favoring Joseph over the other brothers and giving him the striped tunic. This gift, a piece of material with little monetary value, engendered vicious jealousy resulting in the sale of Joseph and the eventual enslavement of the Israelites for 210 years.
The point of the seder is the retelling of the seminal experience of servitude and freedom from generation to generation. Through this, all parents become teachers. They must inspire their children to continue the Jewish narrative of identification with the underdog and the outcast. They must imbue in their offspring insistence upon freedom for every individual created in God’s image and faith in the ultimate triumph of a world dedicated to peace and security for all.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.