1-The Meaning of the Holiday

1. The Festival of Matzot and the Festival of Pesaĥ

The holiday of Pesaĥ has two different names in the Torah: Ĥag Ha-matzot (the Festival of Matzot)[1] and Ĥag Ha-Pesaĥ (the Paschal festival, or Passover).[2] These two names express two different meanings of the holiday: Ĥag Ha-matzot represents the revelation of God’s providence, and Ĥag Ha-Pesaĥ 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 Egyptians and the Israelites was conspicuous in all of the plagues, as the Egyptians were struck and the Israelites were saved. This culminated with the Plague of the Firstborn, when the Destroyer struck every Egyptian household but passed over (pasaĥ) 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.

The revelation of God’s name in the world, i.e., 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.

[1]. Shemot 23:15 et al. 
[2]. Shemot 34:25.

2. 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. Thus, 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. RH 3:5).

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

This is why Pesaĥ is called the Festival of Freedom, or, as the Sages termed it in the liturgy, “zman ĥerutenu,” “the season of our freedom.” It is no coincidence that Pesaĥ 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.

3. Spiritual liberation from Material Enslavement

Israel and Egypt are diametrically opposed. Egypt was an extremely materialistic society with a pagan worldview. The nation of 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. Thus, the Torah 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).

The Egyptians 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. This is why the Egyptians went to such great lengths to embalm corpses; they thought that one’s existence hinges solely on his physical reality. Death, in their view, merely means that one is no longer able to move or speak, but is no different from life in every other respect. Accordingly, they also invested enormous effort in building the 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 may be 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’aĥ’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.

4. 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; it takes a long time 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. 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 adult men. 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, an aspect of the divine was revealed within us, the Egyptian empire collapsed, and we left Egypt to receive the Torah at Sinai.

Not only were we blessed with fertility in Egypt, we also left Egypt with great wealth, compensation for many years of slavery. Thus, Israel began its course with a solid material foundation. This is the meaning of:

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 desserts; had they chosen to be righteous, they would have taken care of the Israelites and helped them multiply and prosper. 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.

5. The Meaning of the Prohibition against Ĥametz – Pride in Relation to God

The prohibition against ĥametz on Pesaĥ 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 ĥametz mixed in. Thus the avoidance of ĥametz on Pesaĥ is absolute. This is because ĥametz symbolizes evil, as it says in the Zohar (2:40b) that ĥametz 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 ĥametz represents the evil inclination, then why is there no commandment or custom to avoid it throughout the year? On the contrary, man is praised for knowing how to make wheat into tasty ĥametz cakes (see Tanĥuma Tazri’a 5). This was the Creator’s purpose in endowing man with the wisdom and practical skills to engage in developing the world. God created an imperfect world intentionally, so that man could imitate His deeds and participate in improving the world through scientific and technological development.

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 the betterment of the world. His ability to judge is completely impaired, and he cannot conduct his life properly. Clearly, such pride is inappropriate all year long and has nothing to do with the prohibition of ĥametz. On the contrary, such pride detracts from one’s good works and thus harms the good, year-round ĥametz.

The second type of pride, which corresponds to ĥametz on Pesaĥ, is man’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 man the ability to improve and to develop the world, this is limited to manipulating and developing the outgrowths of the root elements of creation; man has no power over the root elements, which are divine creations. God created the world, chose the people of Israel to be His am segula, His treasured nation, and gave them the Torah. Man has 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 petty human thoughts with the fundamental principles of creation. Such confusion, like ĥametz on Pesaĥ, is forbidden.

Pesaĥ, 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 there is revelation of an aspect of the divine 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 ĥametz on Pesaĥ is idolatry (2:182a).

Therefore, on Pesaĥ, 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 ĥametz, 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 are involved with developing and improving the branches, ĥametz is allowed and even desirable.

6. 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 ĥametz. Therefore, on Pesaĥ, when we are engaged with the most fundamental elements of faith, we do not mix even one iota of ĥametz in our food. We eat only matza, which remains simple and thin throughout its baking, without going through any additional process of swelling.

Through our 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 elite 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 and is therefore called the “food of faith” (meikhla de-mehemnuta) by the Zohar (2:183b). By eating matza on the Seder night with the proper intent, one achieves faith, and by eating matza all seven days of Pesaĥ, one implants that faith firmly in one’s heart (Pri Tzadik, Pesaĥ 9).

Since matza signifies faith, it is understandable that its entire manufacturing process must be performed very meticulously, as we will learn below (ch. 12, p. 200 ff.). This is because the roots of all things depend on faith, 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, devoid of any 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 possibly 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.

7. 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.’”

R. Zvi 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.

R. Zvi 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 the product of human intelligence. He explains that the importance of the Pesaĥ 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 central fundamental principle is missing: that God chose us from among all nations, gave us the Torah, and commanded us to celebrate Pesaĥ and eat matza on the Seder night.

R. Zvi 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 allows himself to interpret it any way that comes to mind. Thus he demeans the holy days; he thinks they are customs and traditions that human beings invented to give expression to all sorts of spiritual notions, thereby denying 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.

8. One Inquires about the Laws of Pesaĥ Beginning Thirty Days before Pesaĥ

We inquire about and expound upon the laws of Pesaĥ beginning thirty days before Pesaĥ. We learn this from Moshe, who on Pesaĥ itself explained the matter of Pesaĥ 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 Pesaĥ approached, examining them to be certain that they were free of disqualifying blemishes (Pesaĥim 6a; AZ 5b).

This enactment was not canceled even after the Temple was destroyed; one must study the laws of Pesaĥ thirty days before the holiday arrives. As is well known, Pesaĥ has very many laws, pertaining to preparing the home for Pesaĥ, seeking and destroying ĥametz, baking the matza, and the Seder. Some Rishonim maintained 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 Pesaĥ (Ran and Rashba). Nevertheless, since many Rishonim maintain that it is indeed obligatory to set a fixed time for studying the laws of Pesaĥ beginning thirty days before Pesaĥ, it is proper that every individual do so, beginning on the fourteenth of Adar (Purim). It is also proper for schools and yeshivot to set a fixed time for studying the laws of Pesaĥ during this period.

There is a dispute amongst halakhic authorities on whether one is obliged to study the laws of the other holidays thirty days in advance. Some say that since 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’iya (pilgrimage burnt-offering), shalmei ĥagiga (pilgrimage peace offerings), and shalmei simĥa (festival peace offerings) – therefore it is proper to study the laws of each festival thirty days in advance. Others say that the practice today primarily concerns Pesaĥ, since its laws are so numerous and strict (MB 429:1).[3]

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

[3].  Tosafot AZ 5b, s.v. “ve-hatnan” states that even after the destruction of the Temple this decree was not nullified. MB 429:1 (see also BHL ad loc.) reinforces the opinion that one must learn the laws of Pesaĥ thirty days before, and rejects Ran’s opinion since most Rishonim disagree with him. This is also the opinion of many Aĥaronim, including SAH 429:1-3, which explains the issue thoroughly and states that this is a rabbinic decree (as opposed to the opinion of Baĥ, 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 Pesaĥ, 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 Shulĥan Arukh itself: some infer that it concurs with Ran from the fact that it only mentions the term “ask”; 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 Baĥ this is in fact a Torah obligation, most authorities view it only as a rabbinic decree. 

It is also worth noting that there are authorities who maintain that the main obligation is for rabbis and Torah teachers to begin teaching the laws of Pesaĥ thirty days before the festival, but there is no obligation on each individual. This is what Ĥok Yaakov states in 429:1, 3, adding in the name of Rokei’aĥ, Raavan, and Kol Bo, that even the reading of Parshat Para right after Purim was established to remind the people to purify themselves for the upcoming Pesaĥ. Similarly, many Aĥaronim write that this is the reason for the establishment of the custom to teach the laws of Pesaĥ 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 Pesaĥ 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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