Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Laws of Pesach
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated to the full recovery of

Asher Ishaayahu Ben Rivka

Part 2

The Laws of Passover

What did the Jews gain from their subjugation in the land of Egypt? What is the significance of the prohibition against Chametz during Passover? Rabbi Eliezer Melamed addresses these and other questions in his classic and acclaimed style.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Adar, 5761
4. A Material Foundation for the Divine Presence
5. Chametz - Haughtiness Toward Heaven
6. The Significance of Matzah
7. One who debases the festivals...
8. Thirty Days Before the Holiday

4. A Material Foundation for the Divine Presence
Our world was created in such a way that its physical aspects stand out above all else, enjoying full, strong expression with little or no effort; the spiritual aspects, on the other hand, are hidden, and it takes a considerable amount of time to grasp their significance. It was therefore only to be expected that the Egyptians would initially subjugate the Israelites, for the prowess of the Egyptians already existed in full force while the potential of the Children of Israel was at the outset only latent, like an embryo waiting to be born. And because Israel’s strength existed in potential alone, the Egyptians took advantage them, enslaving them in order to increase their own honor and satisfy their own physical appetites.

But, inner spiritual strength cannot truly exercise its power in this world if it lacks a physical underpinning, and the Jews took their physical foundation for national existence from Egypt. Throughout the period in which the Egyptians enslaved the Jews and believed that they were decisively defeating them, the Jews were all the while drawing upon the strength of the Egyptians, as it is written, "And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them" (Exodus 1:7). The more they tried to enslave and overpower the Jews, the more they multiplied, as it is written, "But the more they inflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew," until they had swollen in number to 600,000 men above the age of twenty. Rabbi Yehudah Liva, the "Maharal of Prague," explains that this is the amount necessary for the birth of the Jewish people; when they reached this amount Divinity rested among them, the Egyptian empire collapsed, and the Israelites left Egypt for Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.
The Jews merited more than just the blessing of fertility in the land of Egypt; they left Egypt with much property which they had earned through their many years of slave labor. The Children of Israel, then, left Egypt with a suitable material foundation. It is therefore written, "And I will give this people favor in the sight of Egypt, and it shall come to pass that when you go, you will not go empty-handed; every woman shall ask of her neighbor and of her that sojourns in her house, jewels of silver and jewels of gold and garments, and you shall put them on your sons and your daughters, and you shall despoil Egypt" (Exodus 3:21,22).

Egypt nevertheless deserved all of this; had they chosen to behave in a upright manner, supporting the Israelites and helping them to grow in number and to become wealthy, they would have received a two-fold blessing, as in the days of Joseph who had been responsible for the success of Egypt in a time of great famine. Instead, they chose the path of evil, enslaving the Children of Israel with great cruelty. For this reason they were punished through the ten plagues, God’s name was sanctified in the world, judgment was meted out upon the evil, and Israel became a free nation.

5. Chametz - Haughtiness Toward Heaven
The prohibition against Chametz (leaven) on Passover is a particularly stringent one. The Torah not only prohibited the eating of Chametz but also added a prohibition against its possession. The Sages proceeded to add a prohibition against mixtures containing even the smallest amount of Chametz. In other words, our break with Chametz on Passover is of an absolute nature. The reason for this is that Chametz represents evil. According to the Zohar, Chametz stands for the evil inclination. Other sources explain that Chametz alludes to pride; Chametz causes the dough to rise, a trait which gives the impression of audacity and swelling of the physical, like the boasting of a haughty person. Matzah, on the other hand, maintains its original size, as created by the Almighty.

Yet, this explanation presents some difficulty, because throughout the year Chametz is not seen to be evil, and there is no prohibition against eating it. To the contrary, the Sages praise he who knows how to make pleasant cakes from Chametz (cf. Tanchuma Tazriah 5). This is the reason that God bestowed man with intelligence and practical talent; He wanted man to involve himself in the development of the world. God intentionally created the world in a deficient manner, so that man, by means of technological and scientific advancements, be able to attach himself to God’s acts and take part in the perfection of the world.

It is possible to resolve this seeming contradiction by distinguishing between two types of pride. The first type of pride resides in a person who makes a practice of praising himself, believing himself to be smarter, stronger, or more successful than he actually is. Any intelligent person understands that this sort of pride damages first and foremost the proud person himself because it causes his judgment to become completely warped. It follows that this sort of individual is then unable to plan his ways, and his life becomes filled with mistakes and disappointments. Obviously this sort of pride is undesirable all year long.

But the second type of pride - the type represented by the Chametz on Passover - is that pride displayed by man toward his own Creator. Every Jew must recognize the fact that God created the world and that the sources of all things are dependent upon Him alone. And though God gave man the ability to improve and develop the world, man can only improve the "branches;" the sources, or "roots" are completely untouchable to man, for they are an entirely Divine creation. The Almighty created the world, chose the Jewish people to be His prized possession, and gave them the Torah. Man has no say as far as any of these foundations are concerned. Therefore, when man stands before his Creator, he must adorn himself in great humility and make all effort not to mix trivial human calculations with the foundations of creation.

The Passover festival, especially Seder Night, was intended to implant in us the foundations of faith: that there is a Creator, and that He oversees His creation, and that He chose the Jewish people to be the ones to cause His name to be revealed in the world. God reveals the foundations of faith in creation through completely miraculous event. This is necessary in order to make it clear that such principles are of a Divine, not human, nature. It is for this reason that the Exodus involved miracles and wonders - in order to publicize the fact that Israel’s chosen status was divinely determined. Similarly, the Torah was given through revealed miracles and in a generation that led a supernatural existence for forty years in the wilderness - in order to make it known that what we are dealing with here is a completely Divine matter. In other words, the foundations of faith were received by us rather than invented, and whoever tires to attribute a human element to the foundations of faith is guilty of idolatry. Therefore, on Passover, the festival which is meant to implant in us faith in God, we have been commanded to be very careful about even the slightest amount of Chametz, for it represents the human side of us which must be set aside when dealing with the foundations and fundamentals of faith. During the rest of the year, though, because we deal only with the branches which derive their origin from these fundamentals concepts and which need to be developed and refined, Chametz is desirable.

6. The Significance of Matzah
Matzah is the opposite of Chametz. It comes to teach us to be humble before God, for although God has given us the ability to act and to improve the world, we are unable to effect the essential basic nature of things. Therefore, on Passover, when we are dealing with the most fundamental foundations, we do not mix even the smallest amount of Chametz in our food, but instead eat Matzah. Matzah remains thin, and does not undergo any leavening process.

Via the humble recognition of God, as expressed by the Matzah, we absorb faith in God Who oversees the creation and Who has chosen the Jews. The most essential foundation of the Jewish faith was revealed through the Exodus. And although there were plenty of people who believed in God before the miraculous Exodus, this could amount to no more than an individual bonding with the Divine. True faith in God had not yet revealed itself in the world in a complete and all-encompassing manner; only with the Exodus from Egypt, when a complete nation had been formed which encompassed all elements of society - intellectuals and working people, men and women, old and young - could faith reveal itself in a complete and all-embracing fashion.

Matzah comes to remind us of faith. Hence, in the Zohar Matzah is referred to as "Mikhlah D’Mehemnutah" - the Bread of Faith (Part Two, 183:2). It has further been said that by eating Matzah with the proper intention on Seder Night a Jew merits attaining a state of faith, while by eating Matzah on all seven days of Passover, one merits having such faith implanted and etched in his heart (Pri Tzaddik, Maamarei Pesach, 9). And because the Matzah alludes to faith, it is obvious that its entire baking process needs to be carried out with exceptional care (as we will later see in the laws of Matzah). The reason for this is that faith is the source of all, and all is dependent upon faith. Even the slightest flaw in faith will eventually have a devastating effect upon the world.

In light of this, it becomes possible to understand why Israel became a nation while slaves in Egypt. All the other nations in the world are born and grow to maturity in a natural, organic manner, from the bottom up, from family to tribe, from tribe to nation. In the process of developing they build a culture based upon the life conditions of the people, the climate and contour of their land, and the nature their confrontation with neighbors. From out of such a culture a kind of fabricated faith is born, which is by its very nature idolatrous.

But the Jewish people became a nation while serving as slaves, with no culture; disgraced and defamed as they were, establishing an independent culture was an impossibility. They faced an Egyptian culture which, in addition to being foreign to them, was most likely hated by them, for it abused them. Hence, the Jewish people were like a clean sheet of paper lacking any established opinion, and were therefore able to act as loyal recipients of the true Divinely revealed faith, and to receive the Torah from Heaven without mixing human creations into its foundations. The Matzah, being thin and meager like the Children of Israel at that time, alludes to this idea.

7. One who debases the festivals...
The Sages teach us a foundation of fundamental importance: "Rabbi Eliezer the Modai says, ‘One who desecrates the Holy or debases the festivals... or who presents the Torah in a manner which is not in keeping with the law, even though he possesses knowledge of Torah and good deeds, has no portion in the World to Come’" (Mishnah, Avot 3:11).

Regarding the above assertion our beloved mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook zt"l, use to say that we must ponder how it is possible for a person who possesses knowledge of Torah and good deeds not to receive a place the World to Come. What’s more, seeing as the Mishnah does not indicate just how much knowledge of Torah this individual possesses, it would appear that even a great scholar who is careful about fulfilling the commandments and performing kind deeds, because he presents the Torah in a manner which is not in keeping with the law, has no portion in the World to Come.

What we are dealing with here is a person who has great respect for tradition and is careful to perform the entire Seder according to the letter of the law, but attributes everything to human thought and creativity. He claims that the importance of the Passover festival and Seder Night is the fact that the father passes down the tradition to the following generations and instills in them ethical principles such as the liberty, and recognition of man’s mission to improve the world; the wine and the Matzoth, he claims, serve to demonstrate the historical conscience of the Jewish people. And though all of these ideas are true and good, the central foundation is missing here - that is, that God Himself commanded us to celebrate Passover and to eat Matzah on Seder Night.

The same individual will say that it is important that the Jews keep the Sabbath day, adding that, "More than the Jews have guarded the Sabbath, the Sabbath has guarded the Jews," because on the Sabbath the Jewish family crystallizes and becomes reinforced, and every Jew is allowed to rest from his labor and delve into more spiritual matters. The problem is that such a person denies that the Almighty commanded us to observe the Sabbath in all of its general rules and down to the letter of the law.

This is what the Mishnah meant by "One who presents the Torah in a manner which is not in keeping with the law..." Though he may be exceedingly studious, for him the Torah is not Divine; it is but mere human wisdom. Hence such an individual takes the liberty of interpreting Scripture however he see fit. In this manner he desecrates the Holy, for he believes the Torah to be no more than an assemblage of acts that man has invented in order to give expression to all sorts of spiritual ideas. Such a viewpoint denies the Divine origin of the Torah. Therefore, even though he may possess knowledge of Torah and good deeds, and in this world he is considered a good and respectable person, he has no bond with the Holy, he plays no part in the eternal mission of Israel, and, hence, has no place in the World to Come.

8. Thirty Days Before the Holiday
The Rabbis made an enactment that we inquire and expound upon the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday, for we find that Moses our Teacher began, on Passover, to clarify the laws of Pesach Sheni, a holiday which comes thirty days after Passover. The main reason for this was that all of Israel had to prepare their sacrifices before Passover and to assure that they did not carry any disqualifying blemishes (Pesachim 6:1; Avodah Zarah 5:2).

Yet this enactment remained in affect even after the Holy Temple was destroyed, such that even today a Jew must study the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday. The laws of Passover, as is well known, are numerous: making the house Chametz-free, searching for and nullifying the Chametz, baking the Matzah, and performing the Seder. Yet, there are early authorities who hold that in fact the enactment was of a different nature. These authorities claim that the enactment was that during the thirty days prior to the holiday, if a rabbi is presented with a variety of questions, he must begin by answering those questions which deal with the laws of Passover, for such questions are of more immediate relevancy. According to this opinion there is no obligation upon each individual Jew to set aside time in order to study the laws of Passover (Ran; Rashbah). At any rate, considering that many of the early authorities hold that there is an obligation to set aside time to study the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday, each Jew should set aside time to study these laws accordingly, i.e., beginning with the fourteenth of Adar - Purim. It is therefore advisable that in the schools and Yeshivoth time be relegated for the study of Passover laws during these thirty days.

The Rabbinic decisors disagree on this issue with regard to other holidays. Some say that because, according to the enactment, the main reason for studying was to prepare the bringing of the sacrifices, and on each of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals three different sacrifices were brought (Olat Raayah, Shlamei Chagigah, Shlamei Simchah) one should study for thirty days prior to each of the three holidays; others say that the custom today relates only to Passover because its laws are numerous and severe (Mishnah Berurah 429:1).

All of the above concerns preparing for the holidays, but when it comes to the holiday itself there exists an ancient enactment which was decided by Moses himself, that the laws of each holiday be studied on that very holiday (Megilah 32b; Magen Avraham 429:1).
Some of the Biblical passages here were taken from the JPS Holy Scriptures and from the Koren Bible.

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