1.The Prohibition against Work (Melakha) on Erev Pesaĥ
When the Temple stood, one who offered a sacrifice was prohibited from performing melakha (doing productive work) that day, as it was like a holiday for him, and it is inappropriate to perform melakha while one’s sacrifice is being offered up on the altar. The same applies to Erev Pesaĥ, a day on which Israel is obligated to offer the korban Pesaĥ (Paschal sacrifice), and which is consequently like a holiday for everyone. But since the time for offering the korban Pesaĥ does not begin until midday, the prohibition against melakha also does not begin until midday. In some places, people adopted the stringent practice of refraining from melakha from the morning of the fourteenth of Nisan, and in such places this custom was binding. Even now, after the destruction of the Temple, this prohibition remains in effect, and it is forbidden do perform significant melakha after midday on the fourteenth of Nisan. This custom also prevents one from becoming preoccupied with work and forgetting to destroy his ĥametz and prepare matza, wine, and other necessities for the Seder night.
Indeed, the Sages instituted a ban on significant melakha every Erev Shabbat so that people would be free to prepare for Shabbat. However, the prohibition on Erev Pesaĥ is more severe, for while the Sages taught that whoever performs melakha on Erev Shabbat will see no sign of blessing from it, those who performed melakha on Erev Pesaĥ were actually excommunicated.
In practice, the halakha is that melakha is forbidden on Erev Shabbat from the time of minĥa ketana (two and a half seasonal hours before sunset), while the prohibition on Erev Pesaĥ begins at midday. 1
2. Which Melakhot Are Forbidden?
The ban on melakha after midday on Erev Pesaĥ applies to full-fledged work that people typically do for a living, such as sewing, building furniture, and gardening. However, one may cook, clean the house, or travel before the holiday. As a rule, the ban on melakha on Erev Pesaĥ is similar to the ban on melakha during Ĥol Ha-mo’ed, and in certain cases is even slightly more lenient. Therefore, everything the Sages permit on Ĥol Ha-mo’ed is also permitted on Erev Pesaĥ.
There are three types of melakha: melakha gemura (full-fledged work), professional repair work, and the simple work of a non-professional. Melakha gemura like sewing garments, building furniture, and cutting hair, is always forbidden, even if it is done for free. However, mending clothes, even if it demands professional expertise, is not considered melakha gemura. Therefore, if the mender receives payment, it is forbidden, but if he works for free and the mending is needed for the festival, it is permitted. Simple work like sewing a button, if needed for the festival, is permitted even for pay on a temporary basis. It is likewise permissible for one to summarize his ideas in writing as he studies, but if he earns a living from typing or copying, it is a melakha gemura and thus forbidden (SA 468:1, 2). 2
Though it is forbidden to have one’s hair cut after midday on Erev Pesaĥ, it is permitted to shave with one’s own shaver, because this is non-professional work. It is likewise permitted to iron clothes, shine shoes, and cut fingernails after midday in preparation for the festival. However, some are stringent to shave and cut fingernails before midday. 3
As noted, all melakhot permitted by the Sages on Ĥol Ha-mo’ed are also permitted after midday on Erev Pesaĥ. This, in short, includes five types of melakhot: 1) melakha to prepare food for the festival; 2) non-professional work for pay and impromptu skilled labor for free; 3) melakha to prevent substantial loss; 4) melakha done for public benefit or for the sake of a mitzva; 5) melakha performed by a poor person who lacks the money to buy festival necessities.
3.Ta’anit Bekhorot – the Fast of the Firstborns
Firstborn males have a custom to fast on Erev Pesaĥ to commemorate the miracle performed for them: all Egyptian firstborn males died while firstborn Israelites were saved.
In order to give some sense of the significance of Makat Bekhorot (the Plague of the Firstborn), we must first note that besides being the eldest male child, the firstborn embodies something primal, for with his birth the new life of the next generation begins to unfold. The firstborn thus bears great responsibility. If he chooses the path of virtue, he will express that primal root – faith in the Creator of the universe – and the rest of the children in the family will follow in his path. But if he chooses the path of evil, denying God and viewing himself as great and significant, he will always be striving to enhance his own glory and satisfy his appetites. This was the sin of the Egyptians, who considered themselves the lords of the earth and denied God’s existence. When they were commanded to send Israel away to worship God, they stubbornly refused to let them go. Pharaoh, himself a firstborn, led them in their pride and heresy.
The first day of Pesaĥ is itself a kind of "firstborn": it is the first day on which God began to reveal Himself in the world. Until this time, individual miracles were performed for special people, but not on a national level, via an entire people, the people of Israel. When the great day arrived, the day designated for the revelation of the root of faith in the world, a severe accusation against the firstborns of Egypt, who denied God’s existence, was aroused. Upon God’s revelation at midnight, they were all broken and slain. In contrast, the bekhorim of Israel, who expressed their faith in God by obeying His commandment, on the eve of the Exodus, to slaughter a lamb, which was an Egyptian god, risking their lives by smearing its blood on the doorposts, were saved and sanctified.
Each year, we relive the special time of Seder night, when the source of our faith was revealed. However, as this holy night approaches, the accusation against the bekhorim is reawakened: are they as committed to the Torah and the mitzvot as they should be? Are they expressing God’s name in the world as they should? Firstborns therefore have a custom to fast and repent on Erev Pesaĥ.
This fast is less strict than other fasts. All of the other fasts were instituted by the Sages, but Ta’anit Bekhorot, a custom adopted by many bekhorim, was never instituted as a binding obligation by the Sages. It is therefore customary to be lenient. For example, if one suffers from a headache, or from a pain in his eye, he is exempt from Ta’anit Bekhorot, even though he is not considered sick and would not be exempt from other fasts. Likewise, if one thinks that by fasting he will not be able to fulfill the mitzva of eating matza and recount the story of the Exodus, it is better that he not fast. Furthermore, the custom is that whoever participates in a se’udat mitzva is exempt from Ta’anit Bekhorot (Birkei Yosef §470; MB 470:2, 10). 4
4.Who Is Included in the Custom to Fast?
There are two types of bekhorim, and both are included in this custom, because both types of bekhorim died in Egypt. The first type is a bekhor to one’s father, the bekhor who inherits a double portion of his father’s estate. Even if his mother bore children from a previous husband, or had an earlier miscarriage (and he is therefore not considered his mother’s firstborn and need not be redeemed by pidyon ha-ben), the custom of fasting applies to him, because he is a bekhor to his father with regard to the law of inheritance.
The second type is a bekhor to one’s mother, the bekhor to whom pidyon ha-ben applies. Customarily, he too observes Ta’anit Bekhorot, even if his father already had children with another woman and he will not inherit the double portion. He has the status of "petter reĥem" (the first to emerge from his mother’s womb). The firstborn to a mother who was born via Caesarean section lacks the status of bekhor both with regard to inheritance and with regard to pidyon ha-ben, and therefore need not fast on Erev Pesaĥ (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 470:3; however, some are scrupulous about participating in a siyum).
Firstborn Kohanim and Levi’im also observe the custom of fasting. Although the Torah exempts them from pidyon ha-ben, they are nonetheless bekhorim (MB 470:2).
A firstborn female need not fast. While it is true that some authorities maintain that female bekhorot also died in Egypt, the prevailing custom is that they do not fast (Rema, Ĥida, Baĥ, and Kaf Ha-ĥayim 470:17).
Customarily the father of a bekhor, even if he himself is not a bekhor, fasts instead of his son until the boy grows up (Rema 470:2). If the father is also a bekhor, his own fast counts for his son, and if he participates in a se’udat mitzva, he is exempt from fasting for his son as well. This is the custom according to many poskim, but Rema takes a more stringent position.
When Pesaĥ falls on Shabbat, the custom is to move Ta’anit Bekhorot up two days, to Thursday.
5.The Custom to Rely on a Siyum Masekhet
Bekhorim customarily participate in a siyum masekhet (a festive ceremonial meal occasioned by the completion of a tractate of the Talmud) on Erev Pesaĥ after Shaĥarit. Afterward, refreshments are served to everyone in attendance, and the bekhorim present are permitted to partake, sharing in the joy of a se’udat mitzva and celebrating the mitzva of Torah study and the completion of the tractate. Having already broken their fast with the se’udat mitzva, bekhorim are no longer obligated to fast.
However, poskim of past generations were divided over this custom. Some took a stringent position, ruling that only a bekhor who himself completed a tractate may partake of the se’udat mitzva, while other firstborns, who are not so connected to the joy of the siyum, may not break the fast by partaking in someone else’s se’uda. This is especially true when those completing the tractate do not hold a se’udat mitzva on such occasions during the course of the year, and the bekhorim as well do not generally attend their friends’ siyumim. By arranging a siyum for firstborns once a year on Erev Pesaĥ, it appears as though they are coming not to celebrate the mitzva, but to exempt themselves from the fast. Moreover, often the person making the siyum completed the tractate a week or two earlier and postponed the siyum until Erev Pesaĥ in order to exempt himself from fasting. According to the stringent opinion, it is improper to act in this manner, because the real joy is felt when one completes his study, not when he recites the last few lines so that he can make a siyum on Erev Pesaĥ (Teshuva Me-ahava vol. 2 p. 261; Noda Bi-Yehuda).
Nevertheless, the custom nowadays is to rely on the lenient poskim who rule that anyone who participates in the se’udat mitzva is exempt from fasting, even if he does not usually make or attend siyumim during the course of the year, and even if the siyum was delayed until Erev Pesaĥ. The simple reason for this is that when a masekhet is completed, it is fitting to celebrate, and this is therefore a se’udat mitzva. Moreover, Ta’anit Bekhorot is predicated entirely on custom, not on a binding enactment, and is not mentioned at all in the Bavli or by Rambam. Furthermore, some leading Rishonim were of the opinion that bekhorim are not obligated to fast on Erev Pesaĥ. This being the case, whenever there is a halakhic disagreement, the lenient poskim have the upper hand. What is more, in recent generations we no longer fast often, and if the bekhorim fast, their preparations for Pesaĥ will most likely suffer from the weakness it induces; they will even want to rush through the Hagada in order to get to the meal. Therefore, many leading rabbis would exempt themselves from the fast via a siyum. Only one who knows that the fast will not impair his preparations for Pesaĥ or his fulfillment of the mitzvot of Seder night may act stringently and fast on Erev Pesaĥ. Indeed, Rav Kook and his son R. Zvi Yehuda, both of whom were firstborns, customarily fasted on Erev Pesaĥ.
The type of siyum that exempts its participants from fasting is one that marks the completion of a tractate of the Bavli or Yerushalmi, or an entire seder of Mishna. The study must involve understanding and not mere rote reading. 5
^ 1.. The "korban" reason is explained in y. Pesaĥim 4:1 and is the opinion of Tosafot, Rambam, and most poskim. Tosafot implies that this prohibition is biblical in nature, but according to Rambam and many other poskim, the prohibition is rabbinic. All agree that after the destruction of the Temple the prohibition is only rabbinic. The first reason is the primary one; therefore, if the first night of Pesaĥ coincides with Motza’ei Shabbat, one may work until minĥa ketana on Friday just like on a regular week, even though he burns the ĥametz and takes care of other Pesaĥ preparations on Friday (BHL 468:1; see also Ĥazon Ovadia vol. 2 p. 82 and Hilkhot Ĥag Be-ĥag 14:8). The prohibition against work on Friday afternoon is explained in Pesaĥim 50b, and the Rishonim are divided as to whether the prohibition refers to minĥa gedola (5.5 seasonal hours before sunset) or minĥa ketana (2.5 seasonal hours before sunset). Because this constitutes a doubt about a rabbinic law, halakha follows the lenient opinion (see SA 251:1 and MB ad loc.; Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 2:8).
See MB 468:12 and Kaf Ha-ĥayim 32 ad loc. regarding the modern day custom regarding Erev Pesaĥ before midday. The fact that they wonder about the custom in Jerusalem makes it clear that there is no fixed custom to prohibit work, since where work is prohibited, it is also prohibited for guests, and certainly for the residents of the community. There are no communities nowadays that prohibit work on Erev Pesaĥ before midday.
However, according to SA 468:5 in the name of Rambam, even where there is no custom to prohibit work, only three types of craftsmen are permitted to begin working before midday: tailors, barbers, and launderers, since their work is done expressly for the holiday. For everyone else, if one began a task before the morning of the fourteenth and the work is necessary for Pesaĥ, he may work until midday, but if he did not begin before the morning of the fourteenth, he may not start. According to Rema, based on the opinion of most Rishonim, including Rashi, Raavad, Rosh, Ran, and others, the aforementioned distinction only applies where the custom is to refrain from work (like in Rema’s community), but where the custom is to permit work until midday (like in our communities), everything is permissible. This is the custom of the Ashkenazic communities. Even some Sephardic communities follow Rema; see Kaf Ha-ĥayim ad loc. 32. In any event, we follow the lenient view when there is uncertainty regarding a rabbinic law.
^ 2.. SHT 468:10 and Kaf Ha-ĥayim ad loc. 24 explain that a non-professional may accept temporary work and even receive payment for it. In this regard, Erev Pesaĥ is less strict than Ĥol Ha-mo’ed, since according to SHT 541:21 this type of work is prohibited on Ĥol Ha-mo’ed but permitted on Erev Pesaĥ as it is on Friday after minĥa ketana. However, SAH rules stringently on this matter vis-à-vis Erev Pesaĥ as well.
I did not mention laundering even though it is listed as a melakha gemura in SA, since nowadays laundry is done by machine and might be considered non-professional work done for the sake of the holiday, as stated in SSK ch. 42 n. 139. Laundering is permitted on Friday after minĥa.
^ 3.. MB 468:5 states that preferably one should cut his nails before midday, although many permit one to cut his nails even on Ĥol Ha-mo’ed (SA §532 and Ĥazon Ovadia vol. 2 pp. 89-91). She’arim Metzuyanim Be-halakha 113:6 also permits polishing shoes. According to R. Mordechai Eliyahu (Kitzur SA 113:5), one may shave even after midday, although it is better to shave before midday.
If one forgot to get a haircut before midday and his appearance is not appropriate for the holiday, he may get his hair cut by a gentile, since the ban on work applies only to Jews. Even though the Jew getting his hair cut helps the gentile do his job, it is permissible so that he will have his hair cut for the festival.
^ 4.. Y. Pesaĥim 10:1 has two versions of this. According to one version, the custom of the firstborns is to fast on Erev Pesaĥ; this also appears in Sofrim 21:3 (compiled at the end of the savoraic period in Eretz Yisrael). This is also the version quoted by Ramban and Ran. According to the second version of the Yerushalmi, they did not have the custom to fast; this is the version quoted by Raavya and is also the opinion of the Vilna Gaon. Me’iri states that the custom in Germany and France was to fast, although the fast was not mandatory, and Birkei Yosef quotes Rishonim who echo this idea. Therefore, one may be lenient about this fast and rely on a siyum in order to eat. Mordechai states in the name of Rabbeinu Yeĥiel that the custom of the firstborns is only to refrain from eating bread and other baked goods, but meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and the like are permissible. Practically, SA 470:1 states that the custom is to fast. However, MB 2, SHT 6 ad loc. state that when necessary, such as if the firstborn has great difficulty fasting, one may rely on Rabbeinu Yeĥiel. The book Ta’anit Bekhorot discusses all of the opinions and laws in this matter; see Yabi’a Omer 1:25 for a shorter summary.
^ 5.. As mentioned in the previous note, this custom is universally accepted. Even according to the opinions that this is a binding custom, it is still of rabbinic origin, so one may be lenient. This is especially true since there are authorities, Gra among them, who maintain that this custom is not binding at all. There is certainly room to be lenient when observing this custom conflicts with fulfilling the mitzvot of the Seder, as is the case nowadays when most people are not accustomed to fasting (Responsa Olat Shmuel §28). Therefore, our custom is to rely on a siyum, which in turn reminds firstborns that they are inherently holy and have great responsibilities. Arugot Ha-bosem has a similar opinion in §139.
A siyum on a book of Nevi’im is a se’udat mitzva (Igrot Moshe OĤ 1:157). It seems that anyone who finishes one of the four sections of Shulĥan Arukh or an important book can also make a se’udat mitzva, since making a siyum was never essentially limited just to a tractate of the Bavli; see Ĥavot Ya’ir §70. Someone who completes one tractate of Mishna with commentaries can make a siyum for himself, but it would not exempt others (Yabi’a Omer OĤ 26; see also Piskei Teshuvot 470:9).
In sum, a siyum on a significant work exempts all participants from fasting. When the siyum is on a work that is significant to the one who studied it but not so significant in the eyes of the public, the one who makes the siyum can make a se’udat mitzva and exempt himself from fasting. Thus, one who is just beginning to study Torah and has difficulty learning a tractate of Mishna in depth may make a siyum on completing a superficial study of a tractate of Mishna or a book from Tanakh, but others are not exempted from fasting by his siyum and se’uda.