Massekhet Pesahim - An Introduction to the Tractate

January 19, 2006

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The Lewy Family Foundation
Marilyn and Edward Kaplan

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This day shall become a remembrance for you and you shall celebrate it as a festival for Hashem; for your generations, as an eternal decree shall you celebrate it. 
For seven days shall you eat matzot, but on the previous day, you shall nullify the leaven from your homes, for anyone who eats leavened food - that soul shall be cut off from Israel, from the first day to the seventh day. 
On the first day shall be a holy convocation and on the seventh day shall be a holy convocation for you, no work may be done on them, except for what must be eaten for any person - only that may be done for you. 
(Shemot 12:14-16)

Matzot shall be eaten throughout the seven-days; no hametz may be seen in your possession, nor may leaven be seen in your possession in all your borders.
(Shemot 13:7)

An unblemished lamb or kid, a male, within its first year shall it be for you; from the sheep or goats shall you take it.
It shall be yours for safekeeping until the fourteenth day of this month; the entire congregation of the assembly of Israel shall slaughter it in the afternoon...
They shall eat the flesh on that night - roasted over the fire - and matzot, with bitter herbs shall they eat it.
You shall not eat it raw or cooked in water; only roasted over fire - its head with its legs and its innards.
(Shemot 12:5-6 and 8-9)

You shall observe the month of springtime and perform the Passover sacrifice for Hashem your God, for in the month of springtime Hashem your God took you out of Egypt at night.
You shall slaughter the Passover sacrifice to Hashem your God from the flock and the herd in the place where Hashem will choose to rest His name.
You shall not eat leavened bread with it, for seven days you shall eat matzot because of it, bread of affliction, for you departed from the land of Egypt in haste - so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.
(Devarim 16:1-3)

Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: If any man will become contaminated through a human corpse or on a distant journey, whether you or your generations, he shall make the Passover sacrifice for Hashem.
In the second month, on the fourteenth day, in the afternoon, shall they make it; with matzot and bitter herbs shall they eat it.
They shall not leave over from it until morning nor shall they break a bone of it; like all the decrees of the Passover sacrifice shall they make it.
But a man who is pure and was not on the road and had refrained from making the Passover sacrifice, that soul shall be cut off from its people, for he had not offered Hashem's offering in its appointed time; that man will bear his sin.
(Bamidbar 9:10-13)

The holiday of Passover is made up of two separate hagim, which, due to their proximity on the calendar have been combined over the generation. Nevertheless, they are two distinct holidays, each with its unique character and rules:

  1. Hag ha-Pesah, in its most limited sense, is the 14th day of Nissan, the day on which the Passover sacrifice is brought. That night the korban is eaten in small groups as a reminder of the night that the Children of Israel left Egypt.
  2. Hag ha-Matzot, whose purpose is to commemorate the exodus from Egypt in a larger sense, begins on the 15th of Nissan, concluding seven days later. This holiday centers around the commandment to eat Matzah and refrain from eating hametz - leaven.


It is these two holidays that are discussed in Massekhet Pesahim. Some divide the tractate into two parts, referring to them as Pesah Rishon - the first Passover - which deals with the laws of hametz and matzah, and Pesah Sheni - the second Passover - which focuses on the rules and regulations concerning the Passover sacrifice, that is to say, the Temple service. Some argue that it is because of the dual nature of the holiday, as taught in the Gemara, that the tractate is called Pesahim in the plural. Of course, as related in the passage in Bamidbar above, there really are two Passover sacrifices, referred to as Pesah Rishon and Pesah Sheni, both of which are discussed in our tractate. Pesah Rishon is the normal Pesah that takes place on the anniversary of the exodus in Nissan, while Pesah Sheni is the "make-up" opportunity that is offered to those people who were tameh - ritually impure - or b'derekh rehokah - far from the Temple on the 14th of Nissan, and are permitted to bring the sacrifice one month later, in Iyyar.


As noted, the practical commandments that apply on Hag ha-Matzot are eating matzah and refraining from eating hametz. Neither the Torah nor the Sages of the Talmud really explain the reason for these commandments, but we find similar rules with regard to sacrifices in the Temple, which include matzot and (generally speaking) forbid hametz. This seems to indicate a higher level of holiness and purity in eating matzah rather than hametz.


Although the Torah recounts the story and laws of the Pesah holiday, beyond the basics commands about hametz and matzah, little detail is given. Since the Biblical penalty for eating hametz - karet - is a severe one, there is a pressing need to define what hametz is, from what it can be made, etc. Similarly, the Torah does not tell us what should be done with the hametz that is found in a Jewish person's house, or what the passage lo yeira'eh v'lo yimatzeh - that hametz should neither be seen nor found - actually restricts. Since hametz is found in every Jewish house throughout the year and is produced in many different ways, the Gemara makes sure to define these issues in detail. Aside from the limited rules having to do with hametz, there are also more general rules about forbidden foods and their usage that are discussed in the first part of Massekhet Pesahim.


The second part of this tractate really belongs less in the Order of Mo'ed - holidays - and more in Kodashim - mishnayot that deal with the Temple service - since it focuses on the Passover sacrifice. Laws about the Temple service are a separate part of the Talmud, not only because the subject material is different than what is found elsewhere, but also because the method of study that is applied is different. There is a greater emphasis on hermeneutical interpretations of Biblical passages, as well as more frequent references to halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai - oral traditions ascribed to Moses. Due to the high level of holiness associated with the Temple service, there are laws that are applied uniquely to this area of halakha. For example, when discussing the Temple service, not only are proper actions essential, but the kavanah - the intent that accompanies each action - must be the correct one, as well.


The Passover sacrifice is, in some ways, even more complicated than standard sacrifices in that it entails careful attention to detail not only when the sacrifice is brought on the mizbe'ah - the altar - but also afterwards when it is eaten as part of the Pesah seder, as a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt. In fact, many of the unique rules and regulations that apply to the korban Pesah are derived from Pesah Mitzra'im - the Passover sacrifice that was brought in Egypt at the time of the exodus, as described in Shemot 12.


This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud. To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.


Next: Pesahim 2a-b