Monday, April 14, 2008

Question & Answer With Schneur Zalman - Using An Onion On The Seder Plate

(Illustration by A.C. Kulik)

A Simple Jew asks:

Given the fact that Chabad did not have the Baal Shem Tov's mesora to refrain from eating raw onions for karpas (see Sichos HaRan 265), is there a reason why Chabad is so adamant about using a whole onion in its place? I noticed that Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 118:2 states, "For the first dipping, which is called karpas, many people follow the custom of using parsley, but it is better to use celery, which tastes good when raw. Best of all is to use radishes."

Was using an onion for karpas originally a regional minhag of White Russia and later adopted by Chabad as its minhag?

Schneur Zalman answers:

Not being an official Chabad person I can not answer this question. But permit me to ask a few related questions that may assist in answering the question.

What do Lithuanian Jews use for karpas? My mother a Lithuanian Misnaged used onions (I know because she never objected to my father using onions it was an ongenumene zach). My father did too and he came from a Chabad background. Many Chabad minhogim mirror local minhogim such as not having atoros on Tallesim, not having a Mizva Tanz at weddings, clothing, etc. So you may be correct perhaps this is a regional minhog.

Until 1951 there was no uniform Chabad minhog. Individual towns in White Russia had their own minhogim and the Bais Horav had its minhogim. Clearly Rav Levi Yitzchok of Yekatrinislav had many of his own minhogim. In 1951, the Lubavitcher Rebbe started revealing the minhogim of Bais Horav to Anash. Rabbi Barry Gourary, the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Yitchak Schneersohn, however, told me that he does remember many of these customs in his grandfather's house. My father was "raised " and educated in Reb Ziskind's kluiz in Kurenitz and he too had no inkling of many of the new minhogim practiced by the chassidim after 1951. The explanation thus is that the Rebbe interpolated his owns father's minhogim in the new institutional version of minhogei Chabad.


At April 14, 2008 at 2:37:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hesitate to argue with Shneur Zalman Kurenitzer, a person I respect. But it seems from the little early evidence I've seen that the push to reveal Beis Harav minhagim into the Chabad Chassidim mainstream began in the 1940's, after the sixth Rebbe moved to the USA. The evidence for this is to be found in Hayom Yom, the first significant disseminator of Chabad Minhogim, which was put together by the Rebbe's son-in-law and successor, true, but under the auspices and approval of the 6th rebbe.

Even the much criticized practice of not eating bread at Seudah Shelishis had its public beginnings in Hayom Yom.

Now obviously 1951 continued the trend, possibly more strongly than before, as Chabad grew into a larger movement. But whether for criticism for praise, I think the credit for the push cannot be taken by the 7th rebbe.


At April 14, 2008 at 2:56:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It does not have necessarily to be the case that the Rebbe incorporated his father's minhogim when he encouraged people to keep minhogim (vs. when he did things privately for himself). Many minhogim of Chabad were kept only in the family of the Rebbeim and were not disseminated to Chassidim -- just like Chabad Chassidus itself, which was not actively spread to begin with (you could hear Chassidus if you came to the Rebbe's farbrengen, but there was no organized effort to spread it besides the core literature). This changed in the times of Rebbe Rashab (5th Rebbe): Chassidus started being disseminated (including the more in-depth analytical and theological topics, such as about Light before Tzimtzum etc., to the point that older chassidim complained that they cannot meditate on these subjects for prayer, in answer to which younger chassidim complained against the older chassidim) and eventually officially taught in a seider parallel with a seder of nigleh, in Tomchei Tmimim yeshivah.

In addition to Chassidus, many customs also started to be disseminated, but not at such a great rate. Then, in the next generation (Frierdriker Rebbe, or Rebbe Rayatz), more customs started to get disseminated, history of Chabad and Chassidus started to get published, and people sent on shlichus. During the Rebbe's lifetime (7th generation), even more customs were published and explained, more history and inner ideas, more Chassidus (both esoteric and "to the point"), and of course, an enormous focus on shlichus (and focus not only on bringing non-religious Jews back to yiddishkeit, but also introducing them to limud of Chabad Chassidus and even darkei of Chassidus, including customs).

So, we can see a general progression from inside to the outside, first within Anash, then even outside of them.

Having said all that, I don't know if this specifically applies to the minhog of using raw onion. In my rabbi's family, they use both onions and boiled potatoes because such are the customs of the rabbi's and his wife's families (but the rabbi's family is more "mainstream" Lubavitch).

At April 14, 2008 at 2:58:00 PM EDT, Blogger Tzemach Atlas said...

the minhag gravitates towards the most available staple, celery and parsley are exotic foods in White Russia.

onions and bulba (potatoes) is what people ate. I would imagine that since potatoes were part the main meal the opinions made a lot sense as an "adomo."

At April 14, 2008 at 3:02:00 PM EDT, Blogger Tzemach Atlas said...

note also the the holiday is after a winter, nothing green is available then but the last years onion.

what happened to the common sense?

At April 14, 2008 at 3:08:00 PM EDT, Blogger Tzemach Atlas said...

a better question is what did they do for moror. I bet there was one leaf per village, like an one esrog per village. So they ate a lot of last years chrein...

At April 14, 2008 at 4:45:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Baal Shem Tov said that raw onions should not be eaten at all. Rebbe Nachman was also very adamant about this.

From Sichos HaRan #265 (Rebbe Nachman's Wisdom), available on

"The Rebbe warned us very strongly not to eat raw onions.....The entire conversation came about when we mentioned to the Rebbe that we had heard that the Baal Shem Tov had spoken very strongly against eating raw onions. The Rebbe agreed that this was true..."

At April 14, 2008 at 6:25:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firstly Chabad had several divisions with various minhogim (Kopust, Nezhin etc.). Secondly there were no strict uniform approach to these matters, and such rigid set of minhogim is relatively a new thing in Chabad.

At April 14, 2008 at 6:27:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> celery and parsley

This isn't true. Celery and parsley are very common. They may be not common in early spring though.

At April 15, 2008 at 12:25:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, using an opinion of someone (Bary Gurary) who had an ax to grind with Chabad and specifically the Rebbe is a little suspect.

Are all things that the Rebbe introduced that were not in Chabad before (or were not accentuated to such an extent) something Reb Leivik had as a custom? It is also known that the Rebbe privately followed some customs of his father (e.g., saying some part of davening which is part of Nusach Ashkenaz, which was said in his father's predominantly Nus. Ashk. shull, but is not a part of Nusach Arizal) that he did not encourage others to do.

At April 15, 2008 at 9:58:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Av, besides Akdamus, what else did the Rebbe say that was part of Nusach Ashkenaz and/or not Nusach Lubavitch?


At April 15, 2008 at 11:10:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once heard from a breslover concerning the onion, is that it is all Klipah. Layers upon layers of husks.

My response then would be: we should be eating artichokes!!. After the Klipahs are pulled away and those thorny things then we are left with the heart!`


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