As far as we can remember, in our home when the Seder reached its second activity, “Urchatz”- the washing of the hands in preparation for the dipping of the Karpas vegetable, a basin was brought to my father from which he would wash his hands. No other member of the family washed their hands at this point since this is a rite reserved for the “Master of Ceremonies” or traditionally the “Ba’al Haseder”.
Years have passed and as the family grew older the Seder was not spent together anymore. My parents went to a hotel to escape some of the exertion and their children made their own Seder.
Several years ago, we all got together for the Seder again since my mother had passed away and my father joined the kids again. When it came to Urchatz, everyone rose from their seat to wash their hands in the sink. My father objected. But since the modern-day Haggados called for everyone to wash, and we couldn’t think of a reason that only the leader would wash, he was overruled and we all washed.
A few months later I purchased the publication called Yerushaseinu – the periodical published by Machon Moreshes Aschkenaz – an organization that followers of German minhag are quite fond of. In that year’s edition appeared an article by a young scholar Rabbi Moshe Zvi Fleischman- citing several important sources that hold much weight in halacha – all of which describe “urchatz” as, “The leader of the Seder washes his hands”. These include the Maharil, the Tur, and the Yosef Ometz. It is also mentioned in the Kitzur Shu”A and the Sefer Minhagei Amsterdam.
This directive was also enunciated in the instructions within several old Hagaddas originating in Pressburg and Frankfurt as well as one Hagada published in Krakow.
Rabbi Fleischmans explains the reason that only the head of the Seder washes as ultimately supported by the halachic opinions that generally do not require any hand washing for dipping foods in liquids. He even finds in the Sefer Chok Yaakov (רישר, יעקב בן יוסף pub. 1764) that the odd practice of having only one person wash hands is in the spirit of the seder practice of doing things to rouse the curiosity of the children.
At the occasion of my father’s 80th birthday I chose to tell this story to illustrate how my father’s memory and his minhagim stem from a reliable and ancient source and to encourage the next generation to identify with our rich past. While I may not belong to the minhag “originalists”, and I tend to appreciate the way minhagim evolve as well as their original form, I am a staunch believer in appreciating the source of the minhag and I associate flippancy towards minhag with arrogance. This was a lesson that our Rabbanim in Washington Heights taught us well – and at the forefront stood Rav Schwab ZT’L who had a critical eye towards loose application of halacha and “new innovations”.