01-The Meaning of the Holiday

01. The Festival of Matzot and the Festival of Pesaḥ

The holiday of Pesaḥ has two different names in the Torah, corresponding to its two different meanings: Ḥag Ha-matzot (the Festival of Matzot), as it is written, “You shall observe the Festival of Matzot (Shemot 23:15 and elsewhere), and Ḥag Ha-Pesaḥ (the Festival of Pesaḥ), as it is written, “the sacrifice of the Festival of Pesaḥ” (Shemot 34:25). Ḥag Ha-matzot represents the revelation of God’s providence, and Ḥag Ha-Pesaḥ represents Israel’s unique spiritual capacity.

At the Exodus from Egypt, God’s sovereignty over the world was given its most apparent and concrete manifestation. Thus, our faith in God is fundamentally rooted in the Exodus. The matza symbolizes this aspect of our holiday, as we read in the Hagada: “This matza that we eat – what is the reason? Because our forefathers’ dough did not have time to rise before the holy Supreme King of kings revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.”

The unique mission and destiny of the people of Israel was also revealed at the time of the Exodus. The distinction between the Israelites and the Egyptians was conspicuous in all of the plagues, as the Egyptians were struck and the Israelites were saved, through to the Plague of the Firstborn, when the destroyer struck every Egyptian household but passed over (pasaḥ) Israelite homes. Israel’s uniqueness is expressed through and symbolized by the Paschal sacrifice.

These two fundamental principles – faith and Israel – are linked together and interdependent. Unlike the other nations, which are formed through human endeavor, the nation of Israel was forged through divine miracles and wonders at the time of the Exodus for the purpose of receiving God’s Torah. Israel’s status entirely depends on their connection with God: when Israel does God’s will and makes God’s name manifest in the world, they earn all the blessings promised in the Torah. But when they do not fulfill God’s will, all of the curses written in the Torah are visited upon them.

Correspondingly, the revelation of God’s name in the world, that is, the manifestation of divine values on earth, depends upon Israel, as Scripture states: “I created this nation for My sake; they will tell My praise” (Yeshayahu 43:21). For this reason, the Sages stated (Bereishit Rabba 1:4) that the idea of Israel preceded the creation of the world, for it is through Israel that the purpose of the world is revealed. This is what the Sages meant when they said: “God set a condition with Creation: ‘If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist, but if not, then I will return you to being formless and void’” (Shabbat 88a). Israel’s unique capabilities were further made manifest in that God chose us to be His nation and children, in spite of the fact that we were lowly slaves, stuck in the morass of impurity in Egypt.

Thus, the two biblical names of the holiday express two aspects of one matter, namely, the revelation of God’s name in the world through Israel.

02. The Festival of Freedom – the Revelation of Morality

Why did the people of Israel, before their appearance as a nation, first have to endure such terrible slavery in Egypt? The simple explanation is that Israel’s mission is to rectify the moral state of the world, and in order to do so, it must experience firsthand the suffering and the pain that human beings can cause to one another.

Thus, we find several instances where the Torah invokes our experiences in Egypt when instructing us about interpersonal relationships. For example: “You shall not oppress a stranger – for you know the soul of a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Shemot 23:9) and “If a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 19:33-34).

Similarly, the Sages said that before God began to smite the Egyptians, He instructed Moshe to command Israel concerning the mitzva of releasing slaves, so that even before they gained their freedom from Egypt they resolved that once they become free and have slaves of their own, they would never torment them. On the contrary, after six years they would send slaves free and grant them generous gifts (y. Rosh Ha-shana 3:5).

Indeed, an amazing thing happened at the Exodus. All other peoples who overthrew their enslavers became haughty, took power, and enslaved their former masters. Israel, however, did not try to enslave the Egyptians, even after completely defeating them; they only sought their own freedom. This was the first time that freedom appeared in the world as a moral value.

This is why Pesaḥ is called the Festival of Freedom, or, as the Sages termed it in the liturgy, “zeman ḥeirutenu,” “the season of our freedom.” It is no coincidence that Pesaḥ is the first of the pilgrimage festivals: it embodies the foundation of human freedom and consequently of moral responsibility for every individual and societal act. Perhaps this is also why the years of Israelite kings’ reigns were counted from the beginning the month of Nisan, so that the idea of freedom be fundamental to Israelite sovereignty.

03. Spiritual Liberation from Material Enslavement

Israel and Egypt are diametrically opposed. Egypt was an extremely materialistic society with a pagan worldview. Israel, on the other hand, is unique with its spiritual and abstract worldview. Thus, only Israel was able to accept the abstract belief in one incorporeal and non-physical God. Consequently, Israel’s relationship to the material world is also pure and refined, and Jews are thus naturally modest and circumscribed in their sexual mores. The Egyptians, on the other hand, due to their emphasis on the physical and their materialistic worldview, were strongly attracted to promiscuity and sexual transgression. The Torah thus commands: “You shall not do like the deeds of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelt” (Vayikra 18:3). The Sages interpreted this to mean that no nation committed deeds more abominable than the Egyptians did (Torat Kohanim ad loc.), especially the last generation that enslaved Israel (based on Maharal’s Gevurot Hashem ch. 4).

Egypt of that period indeed accomplished some amazing material and administrative feats by creating a stable regime, an advanced irrigation system, and a sophisticated economy (in part due to the help of Yosef, Yaakov’s son). However, these material accomplishments were disconnected from the spiritual world and even opposed to it. Their worldview was extremely idolatrous. They did not believe in the existence of an independent, spiritual soul, but thought that the soul is contingent on and subservient to the existence of the physical body. The Egyptians went to great lengths to embalm corpses because they thought that one’s existence hinges solely on his physical substance, even in death, when one was no longer able to move or speak but continued to exist in every other respect. Accordingly, they invested enormous effort in building pyramids, which are glorified cemeteries for the body.

To be sure, the material world has an important place in Judaism as well. However, a worldview based solely on physical existence will necessarily be idolatrous and amoral. This is because all of the paradigms provided by nature are amoral. There is beauty and wisdom reflected in the amazing regularity of the laws of nature, but they do not possess morality. The strong prey on the weak just as the powerful enslave the poor. The pagan worldview, instead of striving toward a higher level, sanctifies material existence with all its brutality and injustice. In contrast, a faith-based and spiritual worldview is characterized by constant striving toward improving the world, fighting evil, and empowering justice. This is how the prophet Yeshayahu described the ultimate redemption and the Mashi’aḥ’s leadership:

But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the land; he shall smite the land with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…the cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down. The lion shall eat straw like cattle…. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. (Yeshayahu 11:4-9)

Thus, the Exodus from Egypt was not merely the emancipation of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. Rather, it was the liberation of all mankind from the chains of materialism. This is why it is so important to delve into the Exodus, to the extent that we are commanded to see ourselves, every year on the Seder night, as though we ourselves left Egypt. We have also been commanded to remember the Exodus every day and every night. To a certain extent, Shabbat and all holidays were established to commemorate the Exodus, for at the Exodus the spirit of man was freed from the bonds of material existence. Since we have not finished liberating ourselves from the bonds of the material world – the chains of the evil impulse and its lusts – from a spiritual perspective, we still need to continue leaving Egypt. Hence, it is a mitzva to delve into the Exodus.

04. At the Exodus, the Material World Became a Vehicle for God’s Shekhina

The way this world is ordered, its material aspects gain prominence first and easily reach their complete, powerful expression. Spiritual elements, however, remain hidden; eons pass before their significance becomes discernible. It was thus natural that the Egyptians initially overpowered Israel, for Egyptian might had already come to full fruition, while Israel was still like an unborn embryo. Since Israel’s strength could not be yet expressed, the Egyptians exploited Israel’s weakness and enslaved them to fuel their glory and their lusts.

But this was also for the best, because spirituality cannot be expressed in the world without a material basis, and this is exactly what we gained from being enslaved in Egypt. During the entire period that the Egyptians enslaved Israel and thought that they were overpowering us completely, in reality we were drawing and absorbing their power, as it is written: “The Israelites were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Shemot 1:7). The more the Egyptians tried to enslave and subdue us, the more we increased, as it is written: “But the more they tormented them, the more they multiplied, and the more they proliferated” (Ibid. 12) until we numbered 600,000 men of military age. Maharal explains (Gevurot Hashem chs. 4 and 12) that this was the number necessary for the establishment of the nation of Israel. Once we numbered 600,000 and were mature enough to receive the divine revelation, the Egyptian empire collapsed, and we left Egypt to receive the Torah at Sinai.

In addition to the blessing of fertility, we also received, upon leaving Egypt, great wealth, compensation for many years of slavery. Thus, Israel began its course with a solid material foundation, as the Torah says:

When you go, you shall not go empty-handed; rather, every woman shall ask of her neighbor and of she who lives in her house silver and gold vessels and clothes; and you shall put them upon your sons and your daughters, and thus you shall despoil Egypt. (Shemot 3:21-22)

The Egyptians got their just deserts; had they chosen to be righteous, they would have assisted the Israelites in their quest to multiply and prosper, and they would have benefited from this doubly, as they did when Yosef contributed to Egypt’s success during the difficult years of famine. But they chose evil, cruelly enslaving Israel, and consequently they were punished with ten plagues. The name of God was thus sanctified in the world, for the wicked were brought to justice and Israel left to eternal freedom.

05. The Meaning of the Prohibition against Ḥametz – Pride in Relation to God

The prohibition against ḥametz on Pesaḥ is especially stringent, for the Torah not only forbade eating it, but commanded that it not be seen nor found in our possession. Our Sages further forbade eating any food with even the slightest amount of ḥametz mixed in. Thus the avoidance of ḥametz on Pesaḥ is absolute. This is because ḥametz symbolizes evil, as it says in the Zohar (2:40b) that ḥametz is the evil impulse. Specifically, it alludes to the impulse of pride. Fermentation causes dough to rise – it looks as though the dough is inflating itself and puffing up with pride, as an arrogant person would. In contrast, matza, which remains in its original size, as it was when God created it, symbolizes the trait of humility.

At first glance, this is difficult to understand. If ḥametz represents the evil inclination, why is there no commandment or custom to avoid it throughout the year? On the contrary, humanity is praised for knowing how to make wheat into fine ḥametz cakes (see Tanḥuma Tazri’a 5). This was the Creator’s purpose in endowing human beings with the wisdom and practical skills to engage in developing the world. God created an imperfect world intentionally, so that human beings could imitate God’s deeds and take part in improving the world by developing science and technology through diligent work. In other words, human beings are enjoined to improve and expand nature through a process that is perfectly analogous to turning wheat into baked goods. Thus, ḥametz is a good thing.

The answer is that there are two types of pride: One is that man exaggerates his own praiseworthiness and thinks he is wiser, stronger, and better than he really is. Any intelligent person understands that such pride harms one’s ability to actualize his potential, for it impairs his ability to judge, he cannot conduct his life properly, and instead of being happy with his accomplishments, his life is filled with errors and disappointment. Such pride is inappropriate all year long and has nothing to do with the prohibition of ḥametz. On the contrary, such pride distracts people from producing good things for the world.

The second type of pride, which the prohibition of ḥametz on Pesaḥ is designed to root out, is a person’s pride vis-à-vis his Creator, his God. Jewish faith is predicated on the acknowledgment that God created the world and determined its destiny, and that the roots of all things depend on Him alone. Although God gave humanity the ability to improve and to develop the world, this is limited to manipulating and developing the derivatives of the core elements of creation; human beings have no power over those core elements, which are divine creations. God created the world, gives life to all people, chose the people of Israel to be His am segula, His treasured nation, and gave Israel the Torah. Human beings have no authority to call these fundamental principles into question. Therefore, when one stands before his Creator, he must envelop himself in humility and make every effort not mix his human thoughts with the fundamental principles of creation. Such confusion, like ḥametz on Pesaḥ, is forbidden. Just as suicidal thoughts are fundamentally flawed because our lives are a gift from God and not ours for the taking, so too, one who mixes human ideas into the principles of faith inevitably emerges with flawed ideas.

Pesaḥ, and especially the Seder, is designed to instill in us the fundamentals of faith: that the world has a Creator, that He watches over His creatures, and that He chose the people of Israel to reveal His name in the world. Whenever an aspect of the divine is revealed in the world, it appears in a completely miraculous fashion, to show that it is not a human endeavor. Thus, the Exodus was accompanied by signs and wonders, to make public that the election of Israel was a divine matter. Similarly, the Torah was given with obvious miracles, to a generation that lived miraculously for forty years in the desert, in order to make it known that this was an entirely divine matter. In other words, we receive the fundamental principles of faith from God – we do not invent them. Whoever mixes some human aspect into these basic principles of faith is guilty of idolatry. This is alluded to in Zohar’s statement that ḥametz on Pesaḥ is idolatry (2:182a).

Therefore, on Pesaḥ, the holiday geared toward imparting the fundamentals of faith, we are commanded to be extremely cautious to avoid eating and possessing even a smidgen of ḥametz, which symbolizes our human aspects that must not get mixed in when we speak about the roots and foundations of faith. During the rest of the year, however, when we nurture and improve the branches that develop from these roots, ḥametz is allowed and even desirable.

06. The Meaning of Matza

Matza, symbolizing our recognition that the spiritual roots of things are beyond our grasp even though God granted us the ability to operate within and improve the world, is the opposite of ḥametz. Therefore, on Pesaḥ, when we are engrossed in the fundamentals, we do not mix even one iota of ḥametz in our food. We eat only matza, which remains simple and thin throughout its baking, without going through any additional process of swelling.

Through humility before God, expressed in the matza, we internalize the faith, first revealed at the Exodus from Egypt, that God actively watches over the world and elected Israel. To be sure, there were individuals who believed in God even before the Exodus, but their connection with the divine was of a personal nature. The wholeness of faith was first revealed only at the Exodus, with the formation of a complete nation containing all strata of society destined to manifest God’s name in the world.

Matza comes to remind us of faith. Zohar (2:183b) calls matza the “food of faith” (meikhla de-mehemnuta) because by eating matza on the Seder night with the proper intent, one achieves faith, and by eating matza all seven days of Pesaḥ, one implants that faith firmly in one’s heart (Pri Tzadik, Pesaḥ 9).

Since matza signifies faith, it is understandable that its entire manufacturing process must be performed very meticulously, as we will learn (in chapter 12). This is because faith is the roots of all things, and any small flaw in faith can cause tremendous destruction in the world.

We can thus understand why the nation of Israel came into being as slaves in Egypt. All other nations develop naturally, from the ground up, from family to clan to tribe to nation. As they grow, they develop cultures that evolve out of the circumstances of their lives, the climate of their territories, and their conflicts with their neighbors. As part of the emergence of their culture, they develop some type of deistic belief. Since human beings are involved in their invention, such beliefs are idolatrous.

In contrast, Israel became a nation as slaves, without culture. They could not develop their own culture while enslaved and lacking national self-esteem. At the same time, Egyptian culture was foreign to them and presumably despised by them, as it was associated with their tormentors. Israel was thus a tabula rasa, free of preconceived notions, and perfectly capable of absorbing the true faith based on divine revelation and accepting the Torah without introducing human considerations into its fundamental principles. The impoverished, unembellished matza alludes to the condition of the Israelites at that time.

07. One Who Demeans the Holy Days

An important principle is articulated in Mishna Avot (3:11): “Rabbi Elazar Ha-Moda’i says: ‘One who desecrates holy foods, one who demeans the holy days…and one who expounds the Torah not in accordance with halakha, even if he has Torah study and good deeds to his credit, has no share in the World to Come.’”

My teacher and rabbi, R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook, would ask how one with Torah study and good deeds to his credit could not have a share in the World to Come. Moreover, since the mishna does not specify how much Torah study and good deeds this person has to his credit, it is implied that even if the person is a great Torah scholar, highly scrupulous in his observance of mitzvot, and a doer of many good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come since he demeans the holy days and expounds the Torah not in accordance with the halakha.

  1. Tzvi Yehuda went on to describe one who greatly respects tradition and is meticulous about fulfilling the halakhic requirements of the Seder but considers it all to be the product of human intelligence alone. He explains that the importance of the Pesaḥ holiday and the Seder lies in the parents passing their traditions on to the next generations, imparting to them the moral principles of human liberty and a sense of mission to improve the world. The matza merely concretizes Israel’s historical consciousness, and the four cups of wine simply add a dimension of joy. Even though all of these lovely ideas are true, the fundamental principle is missing: that God chose us from among all nations, gave us His Torah, and commanded us to celebrate Pesaḥ and eat matza on the Seder night.
  2. Tzvi Yehuda’s hypothetical Jew similarly honors Shabbat as a day when the family spends time together and grows closer, and when hardworking people can rest and engage in spiritual pursuits. He even adds that “Shabbat kept the Jews more than the Jews kept Shabbat.” He forgets only one thing: that God commanded us to observe Shabbat, down to its finest detail.

This is what the mishna meant by “one who expounds the Torah not in accordance with halakha.” Even though he studies it diligently, to him it is not God’s Torah but merely human wisdom, so he occasionally permits himself to interpret it in opposition to the halakha. Thus, he demeans the holy days in that he thinks they are customs and traditions that human beings invented to give expression to all sorts of spiritual notions. He thereby denies that they are God-given mitzvot of the Torah. Therefore, even though he may have studied much Torah and performed many good deeds, and he is thought of as a good, honorable man in this world – he has no connection with holiness. He has no share in the eternal historical mission of the Jewish people, and thus has no share in the World to Come.

08. One Inquires about the Laws of Pesaḥ Beginning Thirty Days before Pesaḥ

We inquire about and expound upon the laws of Pesaḥ beginning thirty days before Pesaḥ. We learn this from Moshe, who on Pesaḥ itself explained the matter of Pesaḥ Sheni, the make-up date for those unable to bring the Paschal offering, which takes place thirty days later. The main reason for this is that all of Israel had to prepare animal sacrifices as Pesaḥ approached, examining them to be certain that they were free of disqualifying blemishes (Pesaḥim 6a; Avoda Zara 5b).

This enactment was not canceled even after the Temple was destroyed; it is proper to study the laws of Pesaḥ thirty days before the holiday arrives. As is well known, Pesaḥ has very many laws, pertaining to preparing the home for Pesaḥ, seeking and destroying ḥametz, baking the matza, and the Seder. Some Rishonim maintain that the enactment applies specifically to Torah scholars, enjoining them to prioritize answering practical questions about the upcoming holiday. According to this view, there is no universal obligation to set a fixed time for studying the laws of Pesaḥ (Ran and Rashba). Nevertheless, since many Rishonim maintain that it is indeed obligatory to set a fixed time for studying the laws of Pesaḥ beginning thirty days before Pesaḥ, it is proper that every individual do so, beginning on the 14th of Adar (Purim). It is also proper for schools and yeshivot to set a fixed time for studying the laws of Pesaḥ during this period.

There is a dispute amongst halakhic authorities about whether one is obliged to study the laws of the other holidays thirty days in advance. Some say that this enactment was established primarily for preparing the animal sacrifices, and such sacrifices were in fact brought on the three pilgrimage festivals – the olat re’iyah (pilgrimage burnt-offering), shalmei ḥagiga (pilgrimage peace offerings), and shalmei simḥa (festival peace offerings) – and it is therefore proper to study the laws of each festival thirty days in advance. Others say that the practice today primarily concerns Pesaḥ, since its laws are so numerous and strict (MB 429:1).[1]

These differences of opinion and distinctions concern advance preparations for the holidays. On the holidays themselves, however, there is an ancient enactment of our teacher Moshe to study the laws and spiritual meanings of that holiday (Megilla 32a, MA 429:1).


[1]. Tosafot on Avoda Zara 5b, s.v. “ve-hatnan” states that even after the destruction of the Temple this decree was not nullified. MB and BHL 429:1 reinforce the opinion that one must learn the laws of Pesaḥ thirty days before and rejects Ran’s opinion since most Rishonim disagree with him. This is also the opinion of many Aḥaronim, including SAH 429:1-3, which explains the issue thoroughly and states that this is a rabbinic decree (as opposed to the opinion of Baḥ, which states that it is a Torah law). Conversely, see Yabi’a Omer 2:222, which explains that Ran and Rashba maintain that the essence of the decree is to first answer a person who asks about the laws of Pesaḥ, since he is asking about a pertinent issue, and that this is the opinion of most Rishonim. (There is also debate about the position of SA itself: some infer that it concurs with Ran from the fact that it only mentions the term “inquire”; others reject this inference.) In practice, I used the terms “mitzva” and “proper” since not everyone agrees that this is an obligation. Moreover, even though according to Baḥ this is in fact a Torah obligation, most authorities view it only as a rabbinic decree.

It is also worth noting that some authorities maintain that the main obligation is for rabbis and Torah teachers to begin teaching the laws of Pesaḥ thirty days before the festival, but there is no obligation on each individual. This is what Ḥok Yaakov states in 429:1, 3, adding in the name of Roke’aḥ, Raavan, and Kol Bo that even the reading of Parashat Para right after Purim was established to remind the people to purify themselves for the upcoming Pesaḥ. Similarly, many Aḥaronim write that this is the reason for the establishment of the custom to teach the laws of Pesaḥ on Shabbat Ha-gadol, as recorded in SAH and MB 429:2. Nevertheless, according to most authorities there is still a mitzva for every individual to delve into the laws of Pesaḥ during the thirty days prior to the festival. BHL rules accordingly. However, there is arguably a greater obligation for rabbis and teachers.

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