Monday, April 14, 2008

Erev Pesah and Shabbat

Sabbath and Passover Eve

As I did on Shabbat Purim, I present here a kind of Shabbat Hagadol lesson, divided in two parts: halakha and aggadah. This year we have the rather unusual juxtaposition of Shabbat and Passover Eve, the 14th of Nissan, with the Seder being celebrated on Saturday night. This presents certain halakhic difficulties and questions. In particular: how does one balance the prohibition against eating or even owning hametz from mid-morning, and the requirement that one must eat three (or at least two) meals during the course of the Shabbat, at which one must eat some form of bread, presumably hametz, in order to recite hamotzi and Birkat Hamazon. Since this problem has been written about and discussed extensively in many public forums, I will not repeat what has already been said by others.

A second problem involves the procedure for Kiddush on Seder night, in which one needs to combine the sanctification for the festival with Havdalah for the departing Shabbat. The Talmudic discussion (Pesahim 102b-103b) suggests no less than seven different permutations and combinations of the blessings constituting this Kiddush; the accepted solution, printed in every Haggadah, is known by the acronym Yaknahaz. An interesting sidelight is that many illuminated haggadot from Medieval Europe contain a picture of a rabbit hunt on this page, replete with horns, hunters mounted on horseback, etc. What does this have to do with Passover? The answer lies in a pun on the old German word for hare hunt: “Jagenhas.” But David Moss, a contemporary artist who has created a beautiful Haggadah rich in carefully worked-out original symbolism, suggests that there may be more to this than merely fortuitous word-play. The hare hunt may be seen as symbolically akin to the drama of the Jewish people in exile, persecuted and pursued by enemies, but always persisting, sustained by the vision of redemption symbolized by the Seder. (And, taking it one step further: this theme is particularly apropos to a Seder held at the departure of the Shabbat, when we reenter the week-day world, which likewise is seen as corresponding to Galut).

Hillel the Elder and the Passover Offering

All of which is perhaps an overly verbose introduction to my real subject here: the classical Talmudic problem of what one does with the Korban Pesah, the “Paschal lamb” or Passover offering, when the 14th of Nissan falls on Shabbat. Does the performance of this offering in fact override the Shabbat, so that one is in fact required to bring it on such a Passover? And, if so, what are the parameters: what labors relating to it may be done on Shabbat, and what is postponed till after the Shabbat?

The discussion concerning this subject, on Pesahim 66a, relates that, because this happens so infrequently, it happened once in late Temple days that the people forgot the law since the last occurrence. Suddenly they remembered that there was a man named Hillel, who had recently come from Babylonia, and was reputed to be very learned. Hillel gave two separate answers: one based on a gezerah shavah, a comparison between two verses using the same word, and one based on a kal vahomer, a logical inference “from minor to major.” As a result of his lucid and self-confident erudition, he was then and there named Nasi—“Prince,” i.e., chief religious and political authority of the community—and thus began his public life.

They then raised a second question: how is one to behave if one forgot to bring a knife to slaughter the lamb? It was forbidden to carry any object through the streets on the Sabbath, and the solution used today, of the eruv, was not yet widespread in those days. Hillel’s answer was unexpected: to observe the popular custom. “See what the people do. If they are not prophets, at least they are sons of prophets!” The rabbis go out and see the sheep being led through the streets of Jerusalem with the knife stuck in their fleece (a rather macabre solution, if you think about it). He then adds a brief but significant remark: “Now I remember that I learned this halakha from Shemaya and Abtalyon!”

Many years ago I taught this passage publicly in my old shul in Ramat Eshkol. I suggested then that this passage may be read as an object lesson in the methodology of halakhah. Hillel appears here as a virtuoso of halakha, utilizing all possible methods of learning Torah: application of traditional hermeneutic rules; invocation of tradition received from past generations, whose roots ultimately lie in the oral tradition revealed at Sinai; and minhag, actual folk practice. These methods roughly correspond to the classical functions of the Sanhedrin described by Maimonides in Hilkhot Mamrim 1.1: namely, tradition; logical inference; and legislation of edicts and regulations (this last rubric also includes minhag; i.e., the ordering and giving of some sort of Rabbinical stamp of approval to popular custom).

I would like to return to the substance of Hillel’s answer. He argued that, “Is there only one Passover during the year? Are there not more than 200 Passovers during the course of the year!” The reference here is of course to the public burnt-offerings offered routinely on each and every Shabbat of the year: two lambs for the regular daily offering, and two lambs for the Musaf, multiplied by 50-odd weeks in the year. Just as these override the Sabbath, so too does the Paschal sacrifice override the Sabbath—and he brings a gezerah shavah, two parallel verses using the same word, mo’ado, “in its time,” to clinch the point.

But is this not begging the question? After all, it seems clear that the main premise of the question was that the Passover is an “individual” offering, one owned by a havurah, a group of people, usually members of a clan or some other family unit, who bought it with their own money. As such, it was hardly comparable to the fixed public offerings, the Temidin and Musafin offered in the name of entire Jewish people, which served so to speak as the back-bone of the Temple service. These latter were purchased from funds collected from the half-shekel, so as to represent all Israel before their Father in Heaven in an equitable way.

Rabbi Hillel’s answer is that these, too, are “passovers.” Or rather, to invert the formulation, that the Passover is analogous to them. True, it is not a public offering, purchased with common funds. Indeed, it is not even a burnt-offering, one consumed entirely on the altar and as such given over entirely to God—both of which factors were ordinarily required in order to justify a given sacrifice overriding the Sabbath. It is more like the shelamim, the “peace-offering” eaten by its owners in a celebratory mode (see HY 5760: Vayikra, on these concepts). Nevertheless, in essence, the Passover is an offering of entire Jewish people. Clearly, Hillel agrees here with those who claim that “All Israel are fit to eat one paschal lamb.” What is the meaning of this rather bizarre statement? To translate it into conceptual terms: the reason so many pesahim are offered is not an essential one, one inherent in the nature of the offering, but a technical reason: that there is just so much meat on any one animal, so that perhaps 20 or 30 people can partake of any one lamb (or goat). Hence, the need for groups. But these groups, viewed collectively, constitute the entire Jewish people. Thus, in a certain almost metaphysical sense, the Korban Pesah is a public offering, consumed collectively by all of Knesset Yisrael, “Collective Israel.”

It seems to me that one can draw an analogy between the role of the group “counted” for each individual korban pesah, and the institution of the minyan, the traditional prayer quorum. A minyan gathered for prayer is not just the people present—the ”ten ordinary Jews,” as the Rav once put it, “who gather together… perhaps on a rainy winter afternoon”—but is theologically a microcosm or “embodiment of the entire Knesset Yisrael… past, present, and those yet unborn.“ Unlike other private offerings brought during Temple days: the todah, the thanksgiving offering brought in gratitude for personal joys; or the sin-offering, brought to atone for personal wrongdoing, the Pesah is by its very essence related to the idea of Jewish peoplehood. The event it comes to commemorate—through the eating of the Passover lamb, the singing of hymns of praise, the narration of the story— namely, the Exodus from Egypt, symbolizes the crux from which the people emerged. Hence, it is treated as a “public offering writ small”—and thus overrides the sanctity of the Shabbat.


Post a Comment

<< Home