Passover First Days: A Passover Law That Mystified the Sages

Even the Sages were confused until Hillel arrived.

When Passover begins on Saturday night, as it does this year, special laws apply to the Paschal lamb that confused even the Sages.

Table for Five: Passover First Days

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

These matters of the Paschal offering override Shabbos when Passover begins on Saturday night.

-Pesachim 65b, B. Talmud

Rabbi Nathan Halevy, kahaljoseph.org

The laws of Pesach that fall after Shabbat are complex, as are the procedures of the Passover Sacrifice which only took place in the Temple. They performed certain parts of the sacrifice on Shabbat, whereas others were left till after Shabbat. The reasoning behind it all is quite complex.

The sacrifice, the sprinkling of the blood, the cleaning of the insides, and the burning of the fat, occurred on Shabbat.  The roasting of the sacrifice would happen after Shabbat, as it is connected to human needs, and not Hashem’s. The cleaning of the insides had to occur close to the time of slaughter, in order for the innards of the animal not to become ruined. Although this is for our sake, it was allowed on Shabbat. Although halacha allows for the fat to burn all night, the Torah still says to burn it right away, related to treasuring of the mitzvot.

It is interesting that a Mishnah focused on what is permitted on Shabbat emphasizes cherishing mitzvot. Amidst the tremendous focus on details, we must constantly remember the love and passion we have for mitzvot. As Zohar states, “A Mitzvah performed without love and fear is like a bird without wings and unable to elevate.” Our Mishna demonstrates the care that must be put into important matters. We must think things through, and endeavor to make things happen at the right time. As Shlomo says “How good is a word in its proper time.”

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at AJU

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”

Time is truly the essence and through time we achieve holiness and meaning.  For Jews, Shabbat and holidays are each valued, but marked in different ways. So, what to do when two sanctified moments coincide, asking us to consider conflicting practices?

In the ancient world, Passover falling on a Saturday night meant the pascal lamb had to be prepared for sacrifice on the holiday eve. The Talmud audaciously states that this requirement superseded some Shabbat prohibitions and practices.

Animal sacrifice is no longer the central component of the Passover celebration, but Saturday night seder does still happen and will happen this very week.  So, what do we do?

We search for and sell our hametz before Shabbat. Yet, our Shabbat observance still calls for bread for blessing.  So, we use egg matzah or we reserve a contained amount of actual challah to be eaten before a specified time Shabbat morning. My personal favorite is the integration of the blessings for our Passover kiddush and Havdalah as we mark the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the holiday (the rabbis even offer a great acronym to remember the specific order.)

The goal is not to amass how-to instructions or to simply check off the to-do list.  Rather, ancient sacrifice becomes a modern dance as we move between Shabbat and Pesach, creating meaning in each and strengthening both.

Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaics Faculty

Earlier this month my 7th grade students participated in a Moot Beit Din, debating issues in modern factory farming practices and possible tza’ar ba’alei chayim (causing pain to animals).  The students explored our tradition’s ambiguous messages on this topic.  On one hand, the Torah cares deeply about our animal friends.  On the other hand, how do we explain the Temple service and its bloody rituals?  Many have argued that the sacrificial service was a concession to the needs of ancient people that would not be reinstated in a future Temple, having been replaced by prayer.

But perhaps the Paschal offering has a different purpose.  The discussion in the Talmud quotes Numbers 9:2, instructing Israel to “offer the Paschal lamb in its appointed time,” suggesting the possibility that this sacrifice overrides Shabbat because it is offered at a specific time:  It is a reenactment of the dramatic story of our ancestors who killed the gods of their enemies in the middle of the night to profess their faith in deliverance from the one true God.  This is experiential education of the highest order.

We can understand why Temple Mount activists have been profiled in the press in recent years for their excitement to slaughter sheep as a “general rehearsal” for the renewal of the Paschal sacrifice. However, over the years, we have in fact developed and refined an incredible intergenerational, multimedia, interactive ritual that fulfills our educational and experiential goals without killing a living being: It is the Passover seder.

Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual leader, Temple Ner Simcha

In placing Passover observance over Shabbat observance, this law reflects the history of the Pesach being observed in the Torah prior to the commandment of Sabbath observance.  But it is more than that: it is also the political foundation stone of this nation.

Passover celebrates freedom that is given to us by God.  Shabbat is the personal expression of that liberty. This halacha reminds us that God gave us freedom, and only after recognizing that truth can we take advantage of this Divine gift through observing Shabbat.

The Declaration of Independence, and the country itself is based on this Talmudic understanding of these priorities. Jefferson beautifully expressed how it is God that endowed us with “inalienable rights,” including liberty, and that the purpose of government is to secure those rights with the consent of the governed.  But like this Talmudic passage, our nation’s founders were clear.  We must first recognize God’s hand in giving us freedom before acting upon that gift.

This passage is not just a reminder about necessary prioritizing for the religious purposes of Pesach and Shabbat. It is an important law for anyone who chooses to be politically active that they must always make sure that their activity is based in Divine principles. Otherwise their politics are not an expression of the freedom of Passover; but like Pharaoh, become an idol-worshipping of personal power.

May we all remember that freedom comes from God, and that all our actions need to be like Shabbat: an expression of God’s holy love in this physical world.

Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist and Writer-Director of the Passover comedy When Do We Eat?

Before the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the centerpiece of the Passover seder was eating a piece of the Korban Pesach, the Paschal offering, a male lamb or a goat in its first year. It was slaughtered in the Temple precinct, then brought out to a seder site in Jerusalem where a group of people who had previously agreed to eat that particular animal would celebrate Passover together. Although slaughtering an animal is prohibited on Shabbos, that prohibition is set aside when Passover begins on Saturday night, as it does this year, because the Torah specifies that the Pesach must be brought in its “appointed time” and the time of its slaughter is always in the afternoon before Passover night.

During in the Second Temple period, it occurred that Passover had not begun on Saturday night for many years (possible then because the calendar was not fixed – new months began when the Sanhedrin received the testimony of witness regarding the new moon). The leaders were not sure whether the slaughter of the Pesach would override Shabbos or not. Enter the great sage, Hillel, who was then a young and recently arrived Babylonian Jew, who demonstrated that the slaughter does indeed override Shabbos, just as the slaughter of the daily sacrifice overrides Shabbos. They appointed him Nasi, head of the Sanhedrin, and he rebuked them for allowing the Torah scholarship to have fallen so low. Immediately, a question was brought which he himself could not answer: if the knife for slaughtering the lamb was not brought to Jerusalem before Shabbos, could it be carried in on Shabbos? He realized his arrogance in rebuking his elders had caused him to forget the answer, but he told them to observe how the common people behaved, and the answer was soon revealed: the knife could be transported in an unusual manner (by having the lamb carry it in its wool) without desecrating Shabbos.

This incident surely contributed to the development of Hillel’s famously kind and patient personality.

With thanks to Rabbi Nathan Halevy, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Nili Isenberg, and Rabbi Michael Barclay

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