When I was a kid growing up, we would spend the first night of Passover Seder with one set of grandparents, and the second night with the other. I remember my grandfather, z”l, once greeting me with ‘Chag Sameach!’ Followed by a remark that on the holiday of Passover, I should always wear green.
It always stuck with me that for my Persian community green was always associated with the holiday. Perhaps it was because the Persian New Year, Nowruz, which always falls on the spring equinox, is celebrated with symbols of spring, such as grass and flowers. But upon further study, I realized – so too is Passover.
After all, even though, we have a set Jewish calendar today, that carefully combines both a lunar and solar calendar. In biblical times, on other hand, we do not have a sense of how they calculated a month -- or if the biblical calendar is based on a solar or a lunar calendar. What we do know is that the calendar was marked by the climate and agricultural world that they lived. In other words, how did they know it was time for Passover? They looked outside and saw that the world was becoming green and therefore it was time for the holiday of the spring, chag- ha aviv, one of the many names for Passover.
Once again, we can explain things – in this case, Passover as a spring season -- in two ways: historical and symbolic. Historically speaking, long before Passover was said to be about the Exodus, it was simply a harvest season – falling when the barley harvest ripens, which is to say, in the Spring. The Bible knows it as a harvest (and pilgrimage) festival on one hand, and as the celebration of the Exodus on the other.
Symbolically, however, we can say that the reason Passover is celebrated in the spring is by design. Following the bleakness of winter, the season of spring offers a sense of hope and opportunity. Likewise, a people oppressed in slavery are freed from Egypt and eventually make it to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore, spring and Passover are both about hope and rebirth.
At the seder table, the symbol of the karpas, the green vegetable, is connected to springtime. Karpas comes from the Greek word that means “rock celery”, which is what Persians use; or parsley, commonly used among Ashkenazim. But in areas such as Eastern Europe where the weather was much colder and a green vegetable was not always in season for Passover, potatoes were used instead.
The holiday of Passover comes around once a year to remind us that no matter how hard life has been, we remain a people of hope and possibility. And in the event where there is no sign of greenery in sight, we make our own karpas in this world—and grab a potato instead.