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This Week's Torah Portion: The Passover Shabbat

Dëvar Torah – Shabbath dëChol haMo‘éd Pesach (Exodus XXXIII, 12 -- XXXIV, 26)

To appreciate the point of this discussion, a few terms likely unfamiliar to most readers must be defined.

The first is issur, “prohibition,” which is the antonym of hetter, a ruling permitting an action. The second is the idea of a mitzva dë’Oraitha, a commandment derived directly from a verse or combination of verses in the written Torah. This is different from a mitzva dëRabbanan, a commandment derived from a rabbinic decree either to protect against casual violation of a dë’Oraitha, or to correct some condition that has arisen as a result of historical circumstances. The consequences of violating a dëRabbanan are less severe than those of a dë’Oraitha.

Finally, there is the concept of asmachta bë‘alma, a mnemonic device in which a verse in the written Torah is used to serve as a reminder of a dëRabbanan, and is not the source of the actual ruling to which it applies.

With those concepts in hand, I hope that what follows is comprehensible to people not steeped in Talmudic reasoning. This is an example of serious halachic research.

The sabbath which falls during the intermediate days of Passover is graced with a special reading, drawn from Parashath Ki Thissa’. One of the reasons for this reading during the holiday season is the discussion of the three rëgalim, or “pilgrimage festivals,” so called because they require pilgrimage to Jerusalem when there is a Temple standing, of which Passover is one.

The passage begins:

Eth chag hamatzoth tishmor shiv‘ath yamim tochal matzoth asher tzivvithicha lëmo‘éd chodesh ha’aviv ki bëchodesh ha’aviv yatza’tha miMitzrayim.

 The holiday of matzoth shall you keep; seven days will you eat [the] matzoth which I commanded you for the season of the month of spring, for in the month of spring you went forth from Egypt (XXXIV, 18).

Just as the Passover is here called chag hamatzoth rather than the more familiar chag hapesach with an allusion to its occurrence in the spring, the other holidays are called by “seasonal” names: Shavu‘oth, which occurs fifty days after Pesach, is dubbed chag haqatzir (“the holiday of reaping”), while Sukkoth, which occurs in the autumn, is called chag he’asif (“holiday of the harvest”).

Interestingly, this passage follows immediately, without any indication of a change of subject, on the verse:

Elohei massécha lo’ tha‘ase lach.

 Gods of molten [or beaten] metal you shall not make for yourselves.

There is a famous difference of opinion concerning the applicability and meaning of these two juxtaposed passages that is worthy of some exploration.

In Pësachim 118a, the juxtaposition is discussed as follows:

Anyone who disdains the seasons is as though he worships idols, as it is said, "Gods of molten metal you shall not make for yourself," and it is written thereafter, "The holiday of matzoth shall you keep".