Monday, May 02, 2011

Kedoshim (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for April 10 2006, and May 2007, 2008, 2009, and April 2010.

”You Shall be Holy, for I the Lord am Holy”

A friend of mine and loyal reader of these pages, Rabbi David Greenstein of Montclair New Jersey, was disconcerted by a remark I made a few weeks ago (Metzora, Supplement II) in which I stated that “Holiness is somehow connected in Jewish thought and in halakhic thought with separation, with making distinctions, drawing boundaries.” He argued, citing Sha’arei Yosher by R. Shimon Shkopf (a major Lithuanian Talmudist of the late 19th and early 20th century, who developed a philosophy of the underlying principles of Jewish law), that the holiness demanded of us is not “to distance ourselves from permitted enjoyments… but that the purposeful goal of our lives [is that] all our service and toil should always be dedicated to the good of the collectivity, that we not avail ourselves of any act or movement, benefit or enjoyment unless it have some aspect that is for the benefit of those other than ourselves.”

Whether intentionally or not, my friend raised the same question as is implied by a well-know midrash on the first verse of this week’s parasha, which warns against confusing Divine holiness and human holiness. In Leviticus Rabbah 24.9 we read:

The Torah states: “You shall be holy [for I the Lord your God am holy]” (Lev 19:2). Is it possible [that you be holy] like Myself? Scripture states: “For I am holy.” My holiness is above your holiness.

God is by His very nature utterly different from human beings or, as Rudolf Otto puts it, “Wholly Other”: His holiness transcends the corporeal world, and He dwells in realms far beyond our comprehension, let alone our ability to participate therein. Hence, when the Torah speaks of human beings, or specifically Jews, as being called upon to be holy, or even to emulate God’s holiness, it refers to something utterly different in nature than God’s holiness—and it is this which Rav Shkopf, and my friend, had in mind. Our midrash does not provide any positive definition of what human holiness is, but suffices with stating the radical difference between Divine holiness and human holiness. However, from the continuation of our parashah and the laws contained in the chapter that follows this general statement, one may infer that it means caring for one’s fellow man, behaving in an ethical manner, and creating an ethical society based, not only on decent behavior, but on loving and generous attitudes towards others. (Verses 5-8, which are concerned with ritual issues of consuming the flesh of a zevah offering within a certain period of time, are a kind of exception that proves this rule, and one might well ask what these verses are doing here—but that is a question for another time.)

An interesting insight into this idea is provided by Rav Yehudah Ashlag in one of the essays in his book Matan Torah (brought to my attention by another friend, Professor Emeritus Yehuda Gellman). Ashlag speaks there of the purpose of human life generally and the reason for Creation, beginning with the statement that it is the very nature of God to give. God needs nothing for Himself; He is infinite and omnipotent, and is in any event incorporeal and without the needs of flesh and blood. Hence, his nature is to give; the Creation of the universe was, so to speak, an expression of His need to give, to have someone to love.

The human being is the exact opposite: his natural, inborn inclination is to take, to grasp, to enjoy, to pursue pleasure and happiness. An infant’s first instinct upon birth is to grasp his mother’s breast, to suck, to take what he/she needs. As a human being matures, his needs and his way of attaining that which he wants and/or needs matures and becomes more sophisticated, but his essential nature and root impulses remain the same. The object of the Torah and its mitzvot is thus to gradually change this nature, to train or teach the human being to give rather than to take, to care about others, to forego certain ego-centered pleasures or at least to make them less central—and through this to become like God. “As I am merciful, so shall you be merciful; as I am compassionate, so shall you be compassionate.”

It is for that reason that we have so many mitzvot governing the corporeal dimension of existence, and particularly the basic drives of hunger and sex: to tame and curb and limit these drives through the laws of kashrut and arayot. (Interestingly, in this book of the Humash, in which the adjective kadosh, ”holy,” appears particularly frequently, these laws specifically are summed up by the remark “you shall be holy.” See, re kashrut, Lev 11:24-25; and re arayot and the cravings of sexuality, our week’s parashah at 20:25-26, in which the laws of sexual conduct, of kashrut, and the concept of holiness are all tied together.)

An aside: in our culture the understanding of love itself is greatly corrupted in popular usage, especially by the Hollywood image of love, which emphasizes sexual love, i.e., the fascination with/desire for another person. Such love may often be as much or more a matter of taking rather than giving, albeit in sexual love there can be both pleasure–seeking and pleasure–giving, ideally in equal measure. But in any event sexual love is only one of many kinds of love among human beings. (It is worth mentioning in this connection Avot 5.16, in which a contrast is drawn between “love dependent upon a thing” and “love which is not dependent upon any thing,” the examples given being Amnon’s exploitative sexual love or desire for Tamar, and the deep camaraderie and friendship between David and Jonathan. This dictum seems to deliberately conflate the different meanings of the word love to make its point.)

In general, our culture often seems to celebrate sex and money as the sources of virtually all happiness in life. One constantly hears the cynical view that people are moved to do whatever they do for financial benefit. Even the creative person—the writer, the artist, the musician, the scholar, the thinker—is seen as driven, not by curiosity, by the simple urge/need to create, or by sheer joy in their work, but by the desire for “advancement” and, ultimately, wealth. Needless to say that all these attitudes mitigate against an orientation rooted in giving.

If I may, I would like to conclude with a striking thought from the teaching of the Dalai Lama, one of the outstanding spiritual personalities of our time. Commenting on the attempts of the Chinese Communists to suppress Tibetan culture and independence, Kyhongla Rato Rinpoché, one of his disciples, said: “We could not hate the Chinese because it was their own ignorance that motivated them to harm us. A true practitioner of religion considers his enemy to be his greatest friend, because only he can help you develop patience and compassion.” The Dalai Lama, writing of his decision to pursue a path of strict nonviolent resistance, added: “Basically everyone exists in the very nature of suffering, so to abuse or mistreat each other is futile.”

It seems to me that, perhaps “bracketing” the specifically Buddhist idea here of the nature of suffering, the underlying spirit of these words and the understanding of love implied therein is not that distant from the Torah’s teaching in this week’s chapter: “Do not hate your brother in your heart… Do not bear a grudge or take revenge… Love your fellow as yourself”… etc.

Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah (Individual & Community)

Le-Ha”y Rabbenu: On the 18th Yahrzeit of Rav J. B. Soloveitchik

Someone once said that the greatness of halakhah is also its weakness: that is, that through the observance of Jewish law an ordinary person can feel that his life is filled with holiness. Every time he gets up in the morning or goes to sleep, eats or drinks, the very structure of his week and year, even when he sleeps with his wife (or she with her husband)—there are laws and rules intended to bring him closer to God. But this is also its great drawback, what A. J. Heschel called “pan-halakhism”: the view that the halakhah is the be-all and end-all can cause one to bypass the inner spiritual core of the Torah; thus, the feeling of holiness simply through obedience to the Shulhan Arukh can in fact be illusory.

I believe that this is what the Rav meant when he said (I heard this from him personally, as well as hearing it reported as something he said at his Talmud shiur at Yeshiva University): “Modern Orthodoxy didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped it would. They serve God with their minds and with their hands, but not with their hearts.”

All this may sound surprising to those who think of the Rav as “the Man of Halakhah” par excellence. Yet there was in fact an ongoing tension, if you will, between “Halakhic Man” and “the Lonely Man of Faith” (the titles of his two best-known monographic essays on the nature of Jewish religious life), which might be described as the tension between objective halakhic behavior and inner religious feeling; between the Mitnaggedism in which he was raised and Hasidism, which exerted a powerful influence on his development in early childhood and later (he often spoke longingly of his childhood Habad melamed in Khaslavecz); between halakhah and aggadah; or, as I once put it in these pages, between the feminine and masculine principles (see “The Rav and the Eternal Feminine,” HY I: Pesah [=Torah]; and cf. his “Eulogy for the Talner Rebbe” in Shiurei Harav: A Conspectus).

It seems to me that this tension is the key to understanding a central concept that the Rav introduced into halakhic thinking. As is well known, the Brisker school of Lithuanian Talmudic learning in which the Rav was raised often tried to resolve various difficulties and conundrums within the halakhic system by raising objective halakhic categories to the level of conceptual abstraction, and thereby drawing various fine distinctions among them: e.g., between heftza and gavra, between understanding a given law as relating to a given object, or as referring to the person performing the action. Now, one of the Rav’s most important and frequently invoked distinctions was that between ma’aseh ha-mitzvah, the physical act performed in a given mitzvah, and kiyyum ha-mitzvah, the fulfillment of the mitzvah. Applying these concepts to those mitzvot with a strong spiritual component / element, who would speak of ma’aseh be-yadaim as against kiyyum shebe-lev—that is, that the mitzvah itself might be performed with the hands, i.e., through some external act, but that its true fulfillment was within the heart. Thus, for example: on the external level, prayer involves reciting a given text at certain fixed times of the day, adopting a certain physical posture, various gestures, etc.; but on the internal level, the kiyyim of prayer means that a person feel himself to be standing before God. In like fashion, teshuvah involves the recitation of a verbal confession, but its inner essence is in the change of heart, the cat of repentance of which Vidduy is a mere external expression. Similar things could be said of Keri’at Shema, as a textual recitation reflecting acceptance of God’s kingship; of Simhat Yom Tov as the inner sense of joy in the festival; of aveilut, of mourning as the inner grieving for the person who was, and will be no more, expressed in certain stylized forms… and so forth.

Now, it seems clear to me that the Rav knew and deeply understood the inner message of Judaism, but he couched these insights in the language of halakhah, because that was the language of his familial tradition, and perhaps also because his social role was that of a rosh yeshivah in a strongly halakhah-centered context—but there was nevertheless an ongoing tension between the two.

It seems to me that this may be what he was alluding to when he spoke about the “loneliness” of the “man of faith.” In the opening pages of the essay of that name, he begins with the stark, rather striking words, “I am lonely”—and goes on to describe the sense of loneliness which is part of the nature of religious experience per se, in all times and places; and the special loneliness of the religious person in modern culture, with its emphasis on technology, on the “here-and-now sensible world as the only manifestation of being.” These words reminded me of a statement in the first published Hasidic book, Toldot Yakaov Yosef. The author speaks there of three levels of Galut (“Exile,” but perhaps better translated as: loneliness, estrangement, alienation): the exile of Israel among the nations; the exile of the scholar within the Jewish people; and the exile of the truly God-fearing and learned person (the one who serves God in an inward way?) even among those of his fellow scholars who are lacking in real piety (what he calls shedim yehuda’in, “Jewish demons”).

Halakhic Postscript: Two Approaches to Kitniyot

One of the more irksome aspects of Pesah is the prohibition, incumbent upon the Ashkenazic world, against eating kitniyot—“legumes”: a category that subsumes rice and a variety of foodstuffs belonging to the bean family, or things that grow within pods: greenpeas, stringbeans, red beans, white beans, lima beans, lentils, soybeans and its products, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, as well as corn.

What people find so irksome about all this is not so much the prohibition itself—after all, for people accustomed to observing kashrut all year round, one more restriction, for one week a year, oughtn’t to pose any great difficulty—but certain other factrs. First, that the rule seems rather ill-defined—it’s unclear whether or not it include oils and other kitniyot derivatives; in some communities, such as the United States, things that everyone used “a generation ago,” such as peanuts and peanut oil, now seem to be forbidden; and that there is a long list of things that are clearly not legumes as such but which contain small seeds and are customarily forbidden, such as anise, kűmmel, peanuts, mustard, safflower oil, rape and rapeseed (canola oil), etc. Second, particularly for those of us living in Israel, the fact that this rule, which greatly restricts one’s diet during Pesah, applies to Ashkenazim but not to Sephardim, is disturbing. Kitniyot puts a damper on free social interaction between the two groups during a week when people enjoy more leisure time and can go visiting—and this, at a time when the barriers between the groups are gradually being erased and when even marriages between people from the different “tribes” of Israel are increasingly common. Isn’t the idea of the “ingathering of the exiles” and “mixing of the exiles” into one nation part of what Zionism is all about? Third, as an offshoot of the above, many of the Passover products one encounters in the supermarkets in Israel are marked “permitted only to those that eat kitniyot”—a label found on such diverse products, seemingly unrelated to beans, as tuna fish or sardines (packaged in oils derived from kitniyot), mayonnaise, cakes and baked goods, etc.

Finally: the justification for this rule is not altogether clear. It is not a Rabbinic edict (takkanah) that was adopted by a council of Sages as a “fence” around the law, but a folk custom which seems to have sprung up among Ashkenazi Jewry at some point in the early Middle Ages and is first mentioned in halakhic literature as an already existing practice, whose reason is unclear and subject to speculation. Some suggest that it was a gezerah made because these substances were sometimes made into flour, which might then accidentally be confused with flour from real grains, and vice versa, causing people to inadvertently use wheat flour as rice flour—a serious violation of the Pesah laws. (But in that case, why should it continue to be observed today, when food manufacture and distribution is better organized? And if it is such a serious issue, why doesn’t it apply to Sephardim?) Then again, there are others who suggest that it may have originated from some egregious error: for example, as the late Prof. Israel Ta-Shma suggests in his book on Ashkenazi minhag, it may have been based on a careless misreading of a text warning against grinding grains on Yomtov generally, as a form of labor forbidden on festival days, that was somehow misinterpreted as prohibiting using anything that could be ground during Pesah, when people’s minds are much on grains.

Thus, one finds some people today, from what might be called the liberal end of the spectrum of Orthodoxy, who have quietly decided for themselves to scuttle the whole business. The sociological factor is important here: if Israel represents an “ingathering of the tribes of Israel,” why should people be so sharply divided and unable to eat in one another’s homes during a festival which symbolizes our birth as a nation—one nation? But each person has his/her own considerations: in one family, several members of whom suffer from celiac, a genetic condition involving an intense allergic reaction to wheat products and other grains, those members with the condition eat kitniyot, while the others do not. Another friend of mine, a Reconstructionist rabbi who is declaredly “non-halakhic” and a strict vegan, is strict about kitniyot because “all year long my diet centers around rice and legumes, so were I to eat kitniyot, there would hardly be any recognizable difference between Pesah and the rest of the year.”

I once discussed this problem with a learned friend, who pointed towards two halakhic approaches to this problem, which he saw as typifying the movements from which they came generally. The one was that of Rabbi David Golinkin, the leading posek (decisor) within Israel’s Masorati Movement (i.e., the counterpart of Conservative in the US), who some years ago issued a ruling granting blanket permission to eat kitniyot. The sociological argument was foremost (he was asked: “in light of the ingathering of the Exiles, shouldn’t it be possible to eliminate this restriction?”), but he followed this with a list of eleven different reasons for the custom, all of which he saw as spurious. He quoted a number of prominent rishonim who opposed the custom when it first emerged, among these the Tosaphists R. Yitzhak (the R”y) and R. Yehiel of Paris, and even some who described it as a minhag shetut (a “foolish” or “silly custom”).

On the other hand, Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz”l, generally considered the leading Orthodox posek during the latter half of the 20th century in America, wrote a responsum about the use of peanuts during Pesah (Iggerot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, Vol. 3: §63; pp. 370-371) in which he discusses the issues involved in kitniyot generally. He first dismisses the argument that one ought to prohibit as kitniyot all those things from which one could make flour, or those things whose sseds are sown in the ground in a manner similar to wheat. Following that logic, one would have to prohibit potatoes, which as everyone knows are a staple of the Pesah diet of Ashkenazic Jewry! Interestingly, like Golinkin, he notes that the actual reason for the prohibition is shrouded in obscurity and mentions those rishonim who objected to the whole thing.

But his conclusion is different: since the prohibition of kitniyot is a long-standing custom in Ashkenazic communities, one cannot nullify it entirely. But as it was never properly legislated by a gathering of sages, and as there was never a general rule determining what is and is not prohibited, it ought properly be restricted to those items that were originally prohibited, as stated in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 453.1). He thus goes on to permit those things, such as peanuts and peanut oil, as well as kummel and anise, which are not explicitly prohibited. It seems to me, applying the principles implicit in this teshuvah, that one might freely use kitniyot oils in frying and cooking, possibly after making a hatarat nedarim—and such is my practice in my own home. By this, one also bypasses perhaps 80% of the problems encountered in shopping in Israeli supermarkets during Pesah.

But what is more significant in the contrast between these two responsa is the attitude towards tradition. Golinkin seems to see the halakhah largely as a logical system; hence, he has no difficulty in abolishing something which seems to fly in the face of reason or common sense. Rav Feinstein, by contrast, is moved by a sense of reverence towards the halakhic tradition and those authorities who came before him; hence, he is reluctant to give a blanket “dispensation” from kitniyot as such, but at most rounds off some of the rough edges and permits those things which are demonstrably without any basis.

Shabbat Hagadol - Erev Pesah (Individual & Communiy)

Korban Pesah, Passover Today, and Community


This year our special essay for Pesah—originally intended for Shabbat Hagadol, but delayed due to various exigencies—will be devoted to a seemingly “old-fashioned” subject: Korban Pesah, the Paschal offering that our ancestors brought to the Temple and ate in its courtyards in olden times. Its slaughtering on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan (Erev Pesah) served as a kind of prelude to the seven-day festival proper. Indeed, the commonly used Hebrew name for the holiday, Pesah, refers to this offering, albeit in prayers, Kiddush, etc., the day is referred to by the term used in the Torah itself: Hag ha-Matzot, “the festival of unleavened bread.”

In what follows we shall discuss several of the essential halakhot that shaped this mitzvah; reflect on echoes of each of these aspects of Korban Pesah on today’s Passover observance; and speculate on the religious significance of each. The Seder itself is patterned after the ancient meal, at whose center stands the Korban Pesah, and at the same time is filled with expressions of yearning for the rebuilding of the Temple and its renewal. To elaborate: following the Destruction of the Temple, the Sages, and the Jewish people generally, needed to somehow assimilate the new reality and enable Jewish life to somehow go on. The reactions oscillated between two responses. On the one hand, to reshape the festival by emphasizing other aspects: i.e., the Haggadah—the transformation of the festival meal into a lengthy symposium or study session on the events of the Exodus. The mitzvah to tell one’s children about the Exodus, only alluded to in passing in a few brief sentences in the Torah, assumes major dimensions in Hazal and the Midrash. Indeed, the first part of the Haggadah, prior to the verse-by-verse midrashic exposition of one of the capsule accounts of the Exodus found in the Torah (Deut 26:5-8, the vidduy bikkurim)—i.e., Avadim Hayinu, the story of the Sages in B’nai Berak who discussed the Exodus all night long, the midrash of the four sons, etc.—are all ways of explaining why we narrate the story on this night altogether. (Perhaps some other year we will analyze this section in more detail). The other response was to perpetuate the memory of what was done when the Temple stood: by mentioning the Korban Pesah throughout the Seder; by lending the matzah a standing parallel to that of the Pesah itself, through korekh, afikoman; and by hymns of longing for the rebuilding of the Torah towards the end of the Seder, such as Adir Hu.

In this respect, it is interesting to draw a comparison between Passover is similar to Yom Kippur. Both festivals are occasions when there were unusually dramatic and central rituals performed in the Temple; the yearning for the restoration of the Temple, and the remembrance of what was done in ancient times, play a central role in both; and key celebrations of both days—the Passover Seder and Ne’ilah of Yom Kippur—end with the cry, “Next year in Jerusalem.” (To this, one might add that this year, as in every Hebrew leap year, the parashah read on the Shabbat immediately before Pesah is Aharei Mot, in which we read in Leviticus 16 the account of the Yom Kippur atonement ritual, thereby creating, so-to-speak, an inner connection between the two days.) Moreover, just as the focus of Pesah shifted from the Paschal sacrifice to the narrating of the story of the Exodus, so did the emphasis of Yom Kippur move from the atonement ritual performed by the High Priest to teshuvah, to the inner work of repentance and personal change, as opposed to kaparah, atonement through sacrifice. But here too, there are constant references in the liturgy to the Temple service, both through the choice of Torah reading and in the detailed recounting thereof in Seder Avodah recited in Musaf.

It was not for naught that Rav Soloveitchik, at a pre-Pesah shiur given in Boston in 1974, observed:

In my experience—that is, in my experiential, not intellectual, memory—two nights stand out as endowed with unique qualities, exalted in holiness and shining with singular beauty. These nights are the night of the Seder and the night of Kol Nidrei. As a child l was fascinated by these two nights because they conjured a feeling of majesty. ... I used to experience a strange peaceful stillness. ... Paradoxically, these emotions and experiences, however naive and childish, have always been the fountainhead of my religious life....

A striking passage from Rambam illustrates the centrality of the Pesah offering even in our latter-day celebration of the day. In Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah, Rambam offers a systematic presentation of the various mitzvot relating to the prohibition of hametz, its elimination from the home, and related matters; then, in Chapters 6 and 7, he presents the two positive mitzvot associated with Seder night—eating matzot, and retelling the story of the Exodus—in conceptual terms. Then, in Chapter 8, he reiterates this material in chronological sequence, under the heading “The order of performing those mitzvot on the night of the fifteenth is as follows…” After going through the first part of the Haggadah, he turns to the washing of hands before the meal, and the blessings over eating matzah and marror, and then continues:

7. Thereafter he recites the blessing, “Blessed are You … who has sanctified us with His commandments and command us to eat the sacrifice:; and one eats the flesh of the Haggigah offering of the 14th day; and then one recites the blessing, “Blessed are You… who has commanded us to eat the Paschal offering,” and one eats of the body of the Pesah….

8. And in this era, when there is no sacrifice, after blessing Ha-Motzi he goes back and blesses “[who has commanded us] concerning the eating of matzah,” and one dips the matzah in haroset and eats of it. And one blesses “concerning the eating of marror,” amd he dips the bitter herbs in haroset and eats… And this is a Rabbinic commandment. And then he combines matzah and marror, and eats them without a blessing, in memory of the Temple.

What is striking about this passage is that it is as if Maimonides has momentarily forgotten that the Temple has been in ruins for over a millennium and that there has been no Korban Pesah for that entire period, and describes in precise detail the procedure t be followed when one does in fact partake of the Pesah—and only thereafter the laws in effect “at this time.”

1. The Pesah is Eaten Within a Havurah

In a passage (Mishnah Zevahim, Ch. 5) recited by some people every day near the beginning of the Morning service, we read אין הפסח נאכל אלא למנויו—“the Passover may only be by those numbered upon it.” This refers to a halakhah unique to Korban Pesah: the participation of every Jew in the Pesah offering is done by forming with others a group known as a havuraht: a group of people who decide to purchase, slaughter and eat their Pesah together. What is important is that the connection among this particular group of people, and the setting aside of the specific offering to be made—that is, the particular sheep or goat to be used—must be done prior to its slaughtering. While in theory a single individual may offer his own Pesah and eat it himself, this is strongly discouraged by the halakhah—not only because it is virtually impossible for one person to eat an entire animal at one sitting, and there would be a large portion of it going to waste, but because it somehow goes against the nature of Pesah. The halakhah contains numerous detail stipulating what to do if a person is not numbered with such a group or, vice versa, if one who is not included within the initial group partakes in eating it.

Most offering made in the Temple are either public offerings, made on behalf of the entire Jewish people—such as the regular daily offerings (temidin) or the additional offerings for Shabbat and festive days (musafin)—or, alternatively, private offerings brought by an individual or family. These may be part of the festal celebration of the three pilgrimage festivals (haggigah, zevah shelamaim); one prescribed in connection with various life or bodily events, such as childbirth, certain kinds of ritual impurity, the end of a Nazirite’s term of oath (hatat, asham, olah); or an act of thankfulness to God for salvational events (todah, neder, nedavah).

The Pesah is a kind of hybrid: a cross between public and private. Interestingly, in the Talmudic sugya proving that Pesah overrides Shabbat when the date of its offering falls on Shabbat (b. Pesahim 66a), the very first argument offered by Hillel is by way of analogy to the Tamid: “Are there not more than two hundred Passover offerings every year”—i.e., the Temidin and Musafin offered on the 50-plus Sabbaths of each year; in other words, that it is essentially a collective or public offering. But unlike the usual type of public offerings, in which a single offering is made on behalf of the entire people, purchased through a fund specially collected and set aside for that purpose, here the Torah wants each individual to participate in a personal way; hence, it is purchased by, offered by and eaten in a havurah, a group that serves as a kind of microcosm of the entire people. Indeed, according to Exodus 12:3 it is to be slaughtered by כל קהל עדת ישראל, “the entire public of the congregation of Israel,” albeit through the medium of the expanded family/clan unit, which was a kind of forebear of the havurah. First and foremost, then, it is a collective-social event, located in that nebulous region between public and private.

What underlies this rule? Quite simply: Pesah represents the birth of the Jewish people; the Exodus was the formative event par excellence of the nation Israel. The setting aside of the Paschal lamb or goat four days earlier, the sprinkling of its blood on the door frame of each home, and its eating on the night of the Exodus, when all members of the family were ready to move (“your sandals on your feet and your staffs in your hands”) was an archetypal experience, re-experienced every year through the eating of the Pesah.

At our own Seders, this is expressed in several ways. First, most Seders are collective gatherings. In almost very family I know of, it is an occasion for extended family and/or friendship circles to celebrate together: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and guests from outside the family circle. My own experience of the Seder has typically been of between ten and twenty people; large communal seders of a hundred or more (say, on the kibbutzim) are not unknown. In the modern world, the Seder is one of those few occasions on which many otherwise assimilated or secularized Jews, who would not participate in an ordinary Shabbat or even festival meal, take trouble to participate—and every synagogue worth its salt encourages members to invite guests who have nowhere to make the Seder. כל דכפין ייתי ויכול, כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח “Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who need, come and make Pesah.” This proclamation, recited at the very beginning of the Seder, seems to express something basic about the occasion as one in which all Jews have a share. The invitation to share one’s Seder with other people, beyond the immediate family circle, reflects this formative-national element. (While the idea of opening one’s doors to others is present in every holiday, see e.g., Rambam, Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.18, here it is raised to a higher level.)

A brief comment: there is a tendency among many to interpret Pesah as a personal, individual journey, from one’s own personal “Egypt” (“the narrow place”) to psycho-spiritual redemption. While this motif, found in numerous Hasidic works and elsewhere, is of course legitimate as a secondary homiletical motif, I think it is important not to forget its root meaning, which I think is clearly social and national.

2. “Do Not Slaughter the Blood of My Sacrifice upon Hametz”

The above verse, repeated in both Exodus 23:18 and 34:25, is understood by the halakhic tradition to refer specifically to Korban Pesah: that is, that a person may not slaughter the Korban Pesah if he has hametz in his possession. As the Pesah is slaughtered prior to the beginning of the festival proper—that is, before those seven days during which the Torah explicitly states that one may not eat hametz, on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan—this rule in effect adds another half-day to that period during which hametz is prohibited. (No less interesting, Hazal interpret the phrase used in the Torah for the time of the offering, בין הערביים, literally, “between the evenings”—in the original context, quite possibly twilight—as beginning at mid-day, That is, they interpreted these words in the most expansive possible fashion, as referring to the time from which the sun begins to turn towards the west, just after its zenith at high noon, until sunset. By contrast, the Samaritans, who to this day sacrifice a Korban Pesah on their holy mountain of Gerizim, near Shechem, slaughter all dozen or so animal needed for their community at one instant, precisely at sundown.)

Or does it? The rule about not slaughtering the Pesah while owning hametz dovetails with another unusual law of Pesah, applicable today. Unlike other holiday mitzvot (e.g., dwelling in the sukkah for the seven days of the festival, or fasting on Yom Kippur “from evening until evening”), the prohibition against eating hametz on Passover, and even the requirement that one’s home be free of hametz—goes into effect half-a-day before the beginning of the festival proper, at midday of the 14th of Nissan. (The Rabbis added to this another hour re the deadline for eliminating hametz, and two regarding not eating, pushing these times forward into late morning). The Talmud, at Pesahim 4b-5a, in fact discusses this law (see HY VII: Tzav-Hagadol=Rashi) and offers, in a somewhat serpentine sugya, two basic explanations: 1) that it is inferred from the biblical verse: אך ביום הראשון, “but on the first day [you shall remove / destroy leavening from your homes]” (Exod 12:15), reading the word akh, “but,” as so to speak dividing the daylight hours in two; 2) the second answer sees a direct relation between the prohibition of owning hametz when slaughtering the Pesah and the more general rule prohibiting all Jews, even those living thousands of years after the Temple, from owning or enjoying hametz from mid-day on the 14th.

This rule of course has strong implications for our observance today, including the perennial practical problem of what to eat for lunch on that day: “no longer bread, not yet matzah.” (My own family has a tradition, going back several generations, of eating borsht with potatoes; I wonder if any other Ashkenazic families have that practice.) But more than that: the afternoon of the 14th is treated as a semi-Yom Tov, similar to Hol ha-Moed. One is not supposed to engage in any work from noon on. In medieval times, there was a widespread custom of baking the matzot to be used at the Seder that afternoon—yet another custom suggesting an equation or parallel between matzah and korban pesah, the former so-to-speak fulfilling the role of the former as the “hero” of the Seder; the afikoman of matzah eaten at the end of the Seder, in place of or in memory of the Korban Pesah, is a clear indication of that. The baking of matzot on Erev Pesah is still done today by many Hasidim and others; in the Rebbe’s community in Boston, this was an occasion of great festivity. Many people read portions of the Mishnah or other descriptions of the offering of Korban Pesah at the time of the Minhah prayer; some go to the Western Wall for this purpose.

What does all this mean? I would suggest that it reflects a strong link between the public and private realm: the Pesah as such is a quasi-communal or group offering; but the fitness of each individual to participate therein is linked to his personal status vis-a-vis hametz.

3. The Pesah is Roasted Whole

The Pesah offering was roasted whole on an open fire; it may neither be eaten raw, nor boiled in water, nor cooked in some other manner. What does this rule express? To begin with, of course, it was presumably the method used in the first Pesah, being the simplest and most straightforward way of preparing meat. Secondly, the simplicity and elemental nature of roasting whole on fire may be the reason why the Torah required this method. Matzah, too, is the simplest and quickest possible form of bread to prepare: it is made without any additives—neither oil, wine, honey, eggs, or fruit juices, nor of course yeast; it is made quickly, using only flour and water. It is “the thing itself.” According to the Maharal of Prague, these facts symbolize simplicity, and the notion that true freedom involves, not only freedom from servitude, but also freedom from the more subtle servitude to things, to the external trappings of “civilization” or the pursuit of externalities: one is satisfied with the thing itself, as is. In similar fashion, roasting an animal whole on fire may be a counterpart to this same idea—the simplest, most pristine manner of preparing meat. Indeed, according to some Kabbalistic traditions, both of these symbolize a kind of faith, a willingness to take the jump into the unknown, to trust in God without necessarily having answers to the question of “who” and “what.”

Interestingly, this rule is applied in post-Destruction practice in two diametrically opposed ways. Some Jews take care to avoiding lamb or goat at the Seder meal, or any roast meat, so as to avoid the appearance of “eating holy things outside of the proper precincts.” I’ve even heard of those who go to the extent of avoiding roast meat for all seven days! On the other hand, there are those (particularly Sephardim) who specifically eat roast lamb as the main course of the Seder as a way of remembering the Korban Pesah, making some small difference to avoid full duplication of the manner of preparation of Korban Pesah.

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There is much more to be said about these subjects, including a fourth rule—that the Pesah is eaten at night, and specifically before midnight; some people apply this rule to the eating of matzah as well, while others find ground for lenience. But the hour is late, the Seder is starting in a few hours, and all that is left is to wish my readers a very happy and meaningful Pesah.