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”.

The Rashbam ad loc. explains that “one who disdains the seasons” refers to someone who does forbidden work on the intermediate days of a holiday. He bases this on another Talmudic passage (Chagiga 18a) which asks what the purpose of v. 18 is, since the sanctity of the holidays is specified elsewhere (cf. e.g. Leviticus XXIII, 7-8, where the first and seventh days of Passover are called a miqra’ qodesh, a “convocation for a sacred purpose”). Therefore, concludes the Talmud, our verse comes to warn us that the period of five days between the first and seventh days of Passover is also sacred, and mëlachoth are forbidden on them.

The prohibition of certain mëlachoth during this intermediate period, which is termed chol hamo‘éd, “the mundane period of the season,” is not at issue. It is codified by the Rambam (Hilchoth Yom Tov VII, 1) and the Shulchan ‘Aruch (Orach Chayyim 530:1). What is controversial is the nature of the prohibition.

Rabbi Yëchi’él Michel haLévi Epstein, in his masterful commentary ‘Aruch haShulchan, neatly summarizes the controversy. The Ba‘alei Tosafoth, Nimmuqei Yoséf and the Rosh (all early authorities) consider the Talmudic application of verse 18 to be asmachta bë‘alma, a mere mnemonic device intended to remind us of the rabbinic post-biblical prohibition of mëlachoth on chol hamo‘éd. He finds support for this opinion in a passage from Yërushalmi Chagiga II, 3, which asserts that the Rabbis forbade certain mëlachoth because of the distraction involved, “in order to encourage people to occupy themselves with Torah” during the holiday. Such an explanation makes it easy to understand why (as is the case) only certain mëlachoth are forbidden on chol hamo‘éd while others are not.

This is basically also the view of the Rambam. In Hilchoth Yom Tov VII, 1 he writes:

Chol hamo‘éd, even though “rest” is not said concerning it, since it is called a miqra’ qodesh and since it is an occasion for [offering] a chagiga sacrifice in the Temple, is prohibited in doing mëlacha, that it should not be like other mundane days which have no sanctity at all, and one who does a mëlacha on it receives the punishment for rebellion against the rabbis, because the prohibition is from the words of the Scribes.

However, the Rashbam dissents from his fellow Ba‘alei Tosafoth, and he is joined in this opinion by the Ramban and Rashba, as well as by the Rif, all of whom rule that there is an issur dë’Oraitha, a prohibition in the written Torah derived from verse 18. So how do they account for the fact that only certain mëlachoth are forbidden?

The ‘Aruch haShulchan tries to reconcile the views by suggesting that the issur dë’Oraitha only applies to certain categories of mëlachoth. Beyond these, he surmises, there are also “certain mëlachoth permitted in the written Torah and the Rabbis forbade them because of the distraction, as discussed” in the Yërushalmi Chagiga.

If the Ba‘alei Tosafoth, Rambam, and others are correct, that the issur is rabbinic and verse 18 is used as asmachta bë‘alma, this leaves it free for another application. What might it be?

In Hilchoth Yom Tov VI, 16, the Rambam writes:

Just as there is a mitzva to honor the sabbath and make it a delight, so concerning all holidays is said miqra’ qodesh … and anyone who disdains the season is associated with idolatry.

So much so that, in Hilchoth Tëshuva III, 14, he includes one who disdains the seasons “among those who, even though they are of Israel, have no part in the world to come.” The Rambam thus applies the Talmud’s assertion, and with it verse 18, to all the holidays and not merely to chol hamo‘éd.

Why this might be can be inferred from another passage in Yërushalmi Chagiga (III, 1), in which we find:

[The Rabbis] used to interpret [v. 17 by asking] what is written after it? “The holiday of matzoth shall you keep.” They would say, anyone who is able to calculate a leap year and does not calculate it is as though he worships idolatry.

This calculation of a leap year (‘ibbur hashana, in Hebrew) is the intercalation of an additional month of Addar to prevent the month of Nisan, and with it Passover, from slipping from the spring into the winter. Since our verse mandates that Pesach occur bëchodesh ha’aviv, the wishes of the Torah are served by ensuring that the lunar and solar years stay “in sync” enough that Passover always occurs in the spring. Such a slippage, presumably, would be the real “disdaining of the seasons” referred to in v. 18, according to those who hold like the Rambam, et al.

What would be so terrible about the rëgalim moving around the solar year in a similar fashion to the Muslim holidays? Why is the Torah at such pains to prevent this?

First, of course, is the fact that the historical Exodus occurred in the spring. Nonetheless (as numerous commentators have famously noted) the Torah’s justification of Sukkoth, that the sëchach (“thatch”) which makes a hut a sukka is symbolic of the ‘ananei hakavod (“clouds of glory”) which shielded Israel from the sun in the desert, also arguably mandates that Sukkoth should occur in the spring, when the clouds first appeared. Mere history does not suffice to explain the Torah’s insistence that Sukkoth, the chag he’asif, fall in the autumn.

Enter Rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno, who also seems bothered by this odd juxtaposition and offers this insight. First, since idolatry is quite explicitly prohibited elsewhere, (cf. e.g. Exodus XX, 4), what precisely are elohei massécha, and why must they be separately prohibited?

He answers that this refers to “talismans, by means of which those who make them intend to get possessions and physical necessities.”

One must imagine that such a practice is in accordance with “natural law” just as much as the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology have to be adhered to in this world, and so would not constitute rebellion against G-d “so long as the practitioner does not accept the talisman upon himself as a divinity.”

Not so, thunders Sforno, “he has in truth done the opposite of [G-d’s] will.” Relying on such forces or powers (leaving aside, for our purposes, the entirely different question of whether or not they are efficacious) constitutes, in effect, their deification. This, he suggests, is the reason for the succeeding passage. It is through our careful observance of the mitzvoth discussed therein that we can ensure abundance to take care of our physical needs.

The process begins, he says, with Passover, and the emphasis here is on its occurrence in the spring, the planting season, because through Pesach the spring is blessed. The passage next mentions bëchoroth, first-born animals which have to be redeemed, because through them the cattle are blessed. Then it mentions shabbath, through which the six days of the workaday weeks are blessed; then Shavu‘oth, the beginning of the harvest (“reaping”), and finally Sukkoth, the end of the harvest. Timely reminders all, and timely opportunities to accrue the merits to guarantee that all these activities are, indeed, blessed.

The Sforno thus evidently agrees with the Rambam concerning the applicability of our verse, and provides a clear rationale for observing Passover in the spring and Sukkoth in the fall which transcends mere historical occurrence, and is why the Rabbis make “disdain of the seasons” tantamount to idolatry.

Of course, in order to observe any of these festivals properly (and certainly chol hamo‘éd Pesach and Sukkoth), intensive Torah study is necessary, as is emphasized in the passage from Chagiga II, 3, making their timely observance relevant for every generation. It’s particularly relevant to our generation, when the marvels of physics, chemistry, and biology have blinded us, to an extent, to the true Source of abundance to meet our physical needs.