Talmud Tips

For the week ending 23 April 2024 / 15 Nissan 5784


by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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The Matzah Meal of Freedom and Purity

Rabban Gamliel would say, “Whoever does not explain the reason behind the mitzvah for these three things on Pesach, does not fulfill his obligation, and they are: the korban Pesach, matzah and maror (bitter herbs).”

This mishna is likely to be familiar to everyone as part of the Hagaddah Shel Pesach that is read at the Seder. Historically, when the Beit Hamikdash stood, the korban Pesach was eaten on Pesach night together with matzah and maror. There are two views regarding how they were eaten: all at once, as a “sandwich,” which is the opinion of Hillel, or these three food items of mitzvah could even be eaten separately, which is the ruling of the Chachamim. Nowadays, when we do not have a korban Pesach, eating maror is a rabbinic mitzvah, and eating matzah is a Torah mitzvah. This is since the Torah teaches, “In the evening, they will eat matzah,” meaning that the obligation to eat matzah is independent of the korban Pesach and is a Torah mitzvah even in our time (Shemot 12:18). Nowadays, we eat the matzah and the maror separately, with separate blessings, with the matzah being eaten first.

The Maharsha makes a fascinating observation in the teaching of Rabban Gamliel. In this mishna, Rabban Gamliel teaches a requirement to explain the reasons for the need to eat each of these specific foods, including the korban Pesach when it was possible. Otherwise, we have not fulfilled the mitzvah. This requirement to explain the reason for the mitzvah in order to fulfill it is unique to these three mitzvahs, explains the Maharsha. For any other mitzvah in the Torah that involves eating, no reason is required to be enunciated. At most, a blessing is said, before or after the act of eating — or both. But no explanation is necessary. What makes the mitzvahs of Pesach, matzah and maror unique to require that we state the reason for our eating them in order to fulfill the mitzvah? This question seemingly provides “food for thought” for our upcoming Pesach Sedarim, with the help of Heaven.

The Maharsha offers an answer to this question, which I will try to state briefly, and I heartily suggest the readers to learn the Maharsha’s explanation in full, if possible. It is certainly, in my opinion, to be on any respectable “Recommended Reading List” when learning this daf or when learning the Pesach Hagaddah in preparation for the Seder.

The theme that serves as the common denominator for these three mitzvahs is a fundamental theme of Pesach, and is essential to understand in order to truly appreciate what Pesach really means to us as individuals and as a nation. Pesach is a time when Hashem not only took us out of physical slavery in Egypt to physical freedom. More importantly, He took us out of a spiritual slavery-state of the impurity of Egypt, from the horrific spiritual slavery of knowing nothing other than idolatry. He “took us out,” and step-by- step brought us closer to the pinnacle of spiritual purity, drawing us closer and closer to Him and His holy Torah.

This is the running theme of the Pesach, mitzvah and maror mitzvahs, which highlight our recalling and reliving the Pesach experience: Hashem brought us out of a place of spiritual impurity in a way that gave us the opportunity to discard this impurity and follow the will of Hashem in purity and holiness.

Pesach: “The korban Pesach that our ancestors ate was on account of Hashem passing over the houses of the Jewish People in Egypt (when he killed the firstborn Egyptians during the tenth plague). As the Torah says, ‘It is a Pesach offering to Hashem, for He passed over the houses of the Jewish People in Egypt when He killed the Egyptians — and He saved our houses.’” (Shemot 12:27) This reason expresses the theme that Hashem — while killing the idolatrous Egyptians who worshipped the lamb as a deity — told us to slaughter the lamb in view of the Egyptians to signal that it was time to stop the impure, idolatrous practices of the past, and move toward the holiness of being close to Hashem, Who would give us the holy Torah and sanctify us with its commandments.

Maror: “These bitter herbs that we eat are because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt, as the Torah says, ‘“And they (the ancient Egyptians) embittered their (the Jewish people’s) lives with hard labor, with clay and with bricks and with all kinds of labor in the fields, all their work that they worked with them with back-breaking labor.’” (Shemot 1:14) In taking us out from Egyptian slavery, Hashem not only saved us from the bitter hardship of torturous labor, but also saved us from the bitter impurity of idolatrous Egypt, in order to bring us to the sweetness of becoming close to the One Almighty by receiving the Torah and living according to its wisdom.

Matzah: (Here it gets a bit “tricky.”) According to the text in our gemara, Rabban Gamliel says that “matzah is because our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt. As the Torah says, ‘They (the Jewish People) baked the dough that they had taken out of Egypt as matzah cakes, for it had not become chametz, as they were driven out of Egypt and could not tarry — and, also, they had not made provisions for themselves.’” (Shemot 12:39) The Maharsha explains how the reason for matzah, based on this verse, should be understood as following the same theme of spiritual purity as explained for the korban Pesach and maror. Eating matzah on Pesach — with no chametz for seven days — is eating “bread” that has not risen, leavening being a symbolic sign for haughtiness — which leads to impure and forbidden thoughts, words and deeds. This is why the korban mincha — the meal-offering eaten by the kohen — is made as matzah and not chametz. When the kohen serves Hashem in eating the korban mincha, he certainly does so in the utmost purity and holiness. Likewise, is our Divine service in eating unleavened matzah on Pesach.

The Maharsha acknowledges that the reason for matzah that we find in our Hagaddah is different from that which we see on our daf. He writes that the text we have in our Hagaddahs is the correct text according to most copies of the Talmud Bavli that he had seen, and is the text accepted by many Rishonim. This alternate text reads, “This matzah that we eat is because there was insufficient time for the dough that our ancestors took out from Egypt to rise, before the King who reigns over kings — HaKadosh Baruch Hu — revealed Himself to them and immediately redeemed them. As the Torah says, ‘‘They (the Jewish People) baked the dough that they had taken out of Egypt as matzah cakes, for it had not become chametz since they were driven out of Egypt and could not tarry — and, also, they had not made provisions for themselves.’” (Shemot 12:39)

According to our Haggadah’s text, the Maharsha has two new questions. One: If the matzah was baked after leaving Egypt, it was after midnight at that time, and why is the mitzvah to eat matzah to be fulfilled specifically before midnight? Two: Why were the Jewish People in Egypt commanded to eat unleavened matzah (with the korban Pesach and maror) on the first Pesach before they had hurriedly left Egypt with their dough, without time for it to rise? He answers both of these questions in accordance with the same theme he proposed for understanding the essence of three Pesach food mitzvahs. In the context of this Torah verse, matzah is a food of purity and humility, and Hashem — in His great kindness — took the Jewish People out of the unimaginable impurity of Egypt before they had a chance to “become chametz” — i.e. before they became too steeped in the Egyptian impurity. Hashem did this in order to purify the Jewish nation, bring us close to Him, and, ultimately, sanctify us by giving us His holy Torah at Mount Sinai.

Pesachim 116b

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