Most current Passover Haggadahs include an instruction along the lines of “take a green vegetable (karpas) and dip it into salt-water or vinegar.” You are likely familiar with the reasons that are usually given for this “karpas” ritual and its ingredients: the green vegetable reminds us of the spring, while the salt water recalls the tears of slavery; the act of dipping stimulates the curiosity of the children and emulates the hôrs d’oeuvres that are offered at the banquets frequented by free people.
The problem is that little if any of this seems to be attested in any early Haggadahs or codes of Jewish law. The Mishnah mentions dipping something in ḥaroset, but it is not quite clear what it is that gets dipped, or whether it even makes a difference. In fact, there are variant readings in the Mishnah that differ over the crucial question of whether one should be dipping something in ḥaroset, or dipping ḥazeret (lettuce) in something. To add to the puzzle, several commentators have pointed out that the Mishnah itself does not speak of the ḥaroset being brought to the table until a somewhat later stage in the meal. The matter was further confused by the insistence of Rashi and other authorities that the Mishnah was not referring to a special dipping ritual, but simply to one of the courses eaten as part of the meal.
By the time that the medieval commentators all had their say, there was a bewildering assortment of opinions in circulation. Some,like the Tosafot, favoured dipping lettuce in ḥaroset in order to counteract poisonous substances or worms. Others, including Rabbi Isaac Or Zarua of Vienna, insisted that ḥaroset, since it evokes recollections of the mortar of slavery, should only be taken at the time of the ritual eating of the bitter herbs, and not before.
It was Rabbi Jacob Tam who observed that for ordinary vegetables that are not subject to toxins or worms, dipping them in vinegar or salt-water would suffice, and that was the practice that he personally adopted. As far as I can tell, none of the classic commentators suggested that there was any special symbolism attached to the salt-water. Presumably, the salt-water was merely mentioned as a substance that is commonly used for dipping, and as a contrast to the ḥaroset. And in fact, when later authors paraphrased Rabbi Jacob Tam’s ruling, they omitted the reference to salt-water, or substituted different ingredients like wine or ordinary water.
I have not yet figured out when it was precisely that salt-water resurfaced as the definitive dip for karpas or when it first became identified with the tears of slavery.
Moving forward through the Seder menu, to the eating of the matzah, we come to another obscure and contentious question involving salt. A tradition that can be traced back to Rabbi Isaac ben Judah of Mainz in the eleventh century (who himself refers to it as a venerable custom of the Rhineland communities) forbids the use of any salt in the preparation of Passover matzah. Already by that time, it appears that they were at a loss to explain the origins of the custom, and a variety of different theories were being proposed.
A frequently cited reason was based on a talmudic discussion in which “matzah” is described as “unsalted.” The problem is that the passage in question is not about unleavened bread at all, but about types of parchment, and the “matzah” there is actually a Greek loan-word (“maxa”) referring to untanned hides.
Other authorities tried to find halakhic objections to salted matzah. They appealed to a rabbinic discussion involving cases where some meat falls into a forbidden substance. The Talmud states that if the meat was salted it is treated as if it were “boiling” and therefore should be treated more stringently, as if the substance were cooked into it. Perhaps (thus they argue) we are to infer from this that salted dough should also be treated as if it were steeped in boiling water and therefore more likely to accelerate the leavening process, a prospect that must of course be avoided in Passover matzot! In a similar spirit, other writers alluded to the fact that the Talmud sometimes classified salt as a substance that can give rise to corrosive vapours.
This theory was also problematic, to say the least, not only because the circumstances in the cases are inherently so different, but also because the quoted Talmud passages stated explicitly that salting was only considered like boiling if it was laid on so thickly as to make the meat inedible—which hardly applies to the pinch of NaCl that might be sprinkled to enhance the flavour of a batch of matzah.
Yet another alleged objection to salted dough was that it would bring the matzah into the category of “enriched matzah” (similar to matzah that is kneaded in fruit juice or eggs), and therefore disqualify it from representing the “bread of affliction” at the seder. Others countered that “bread with salt” is in fact the stereotypic rabbinic description of the austere diet of the pious poor.
By the early thirteenth century, the Jewish communities in Europe were divided on the question of salted matzah. In the territory then known as as Lotharingia, spanning northern France and Germany, salt was severely prohibited and treated as outright ḥametz. There were nevertheless localities in France where the standards of cuisine demanded that salt be added to the water in which the dough was kneaded, not only to enhance the taste, but specifically to evoke the Torah’s admonition “with all your offerings you shall offer salt”—a symbolism that is widely observed whenever Jews break bread at a meal. The predominant Ashkenazic practice also deprecated this practice at the seder on the grounds that the salt would distract from the flavour of the matzah.
Those who based the prohibition on the “bread of affliction” criterion were prepared to take a more moderate position of forbidding salt only for use at the seder, but not for the remaining days of the Passover festival; however this approach did not attract much of a following.
When the dust had settled on this controversy, the compendia of Jewish law and practice came to regard the prohibition of salted matzah as a matter of regional custom distinctive to the German communities, though they admittedly knew of no convincing rationale for the prohibition other than the virtue of upholding one’s received tradition. Eminent Spanish and Provençal authorities observed that they personally had no qualms about permitting salted matzah, that the attempts to adduce halakhic arguments against it were “weak,” and that if such a prohibition existed it should certainly have been mentioned in the Talmud. Nonetheless, the avoidance of salted matzah gradually achieved popularity among Sephardic Jews as well.
One of the more intriguing attempts at accounting for this phenomenon relates it to attitudes that were common in medieval European and Jewish folklore that ascribed protective powers to salt. Jewish tradition characterized Passover night as a leil shimmurim—interpreted as a night of protection in which Jews throughout the generations are immune to the perils of malevolent forces. To make use of salt on that night could therefore be construed as a lack of faith in the divine providence that shelters us, and for that reason it was excised from the menu.
Both the aversion to salted matzah and the practice of dipping greens in salt water continued to to be preserved long after their original reasons were forgotten. So far those reasons remain unknown, and until more explicit evidence surfaces, we would do well to take the various attempts at explanation with a liberal grain of...well, you know.
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