A lesson on Passover – by Seree Cohen.

The Torah says don’t eat chametz, eat matzah. What could this possibly have to do  with Cohanim?  (1)

Passover is around the corner and it’s a good time to take a quick look at some of the things we do during this holiday, and especially on the first evening, known as Leyl haSeder, the night when the Seder (order) is conducted along with reading the Haggadah (from the root for ‘relating, telling’ – Ex.13:8 vehigadta ).

For this brief study, we first need to read Shemot (Exodus) chapters 12 & 13.  Further in this article, I’ve summarized the verses most relevant to this discussion, but it is important that both chapters are read fully.

Those of you who have participated in the courses will have learned that there is a difference between an absolute commandment and a conditional one.  We saw this with Adam and Chava, who were told not to eat of a certain tree lest they die – in other words, they should not eat of it, but if they do, they will not be punished.  Rather, they will set in motion a process called ‘death’ which encompasses a range of experiences that cannot coexist with living in Eden.   In the verses of Ex.12-13, we can also see two aspects of the same commandment: you shall eat matzah (unleavened bread); and, you shall not have any chametz (leavening) in your possession (and therefore, of course, you shall not eat it) for 7 days.

Let us look briefly at the main points of Ex.12:

v.3 – on the 10th day of the month, every household shall set aside a lamb

v.5 – it shall be young and free of blemish (it may also be a goat)

v.6 – it shall be kept aside for the next 4 days (that is, ‘dedicated’)

v.8 – the flesh shall be roasted on the night of the 14th, eaten with unleavened bread

v.9 – the whole animal must be completely roasted

v.10 – whatever is not eaten must be thoroughly burned through: nothing shall remain of it in a useful state

v.11 – it shall be eaten hastily, with the people of Israel in a state of readiness: with your shoes on your feet, etc.

v.14 – this day shall be a memorial…forever

v.15 – from the first day (of this dedicated week) all leaven must be out of the home, and whoever eats leaven during the coming 7 days will be cut off from Israel.

v.19 – repeats the fact that no leaven can be found in Israel’s habitations

v.21 – Moses conveys the command to all heads of families to kill the Passover lamb and eat it within the family group

v.29 – At midnight G-d smites all Egypt’s firstborn, both human and beast.

v.41 – (At midnight), G-d brings out the whole of His host

Ch.13:2 – Every first born of Israel (and of beast) is sanctified to G-d

First we must clarify the following:  as we see from the verses in these chapters and particularly, the summarized verses, we are commanded to eat matzah up until midnight of the first day of the festival (remembering that ‘day’ in the Jewish calendar commences at sundown) [Ex.12:29, 41].  However, it is further commanded that it is forbidden to eat any form of chametz for a full seven days.  Other than the first evening, there is no positive commandment to eat matzah, but there is a commandment concerning what NOT to eat.  We could say that the default is: only matzah on the first night, and NO chametz for the whole 7 days.

At this point, it is worth taking a brief glimpse at the significance of the two different blessings made on eating the matzah.  During the seder itself, the blessing is: Blessed are You, G-d, our Lord, King of the Universe, on eating the matzah [al achilat matzah]. During the rest of the festival, the blessing is the same as that for bread:  Blessed are You, G-d, our Lord, King of the Universe, who draws bread out from the earth [hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz].

By setting these specific blessing, the Sages have clearly indicated the two different aspects involved in eating matzah:  for most of the festival, eating matzah represents the equivalent of eating everyday bread, and thus the blessing pronounced is the same as that for bread; in other words, the blessing we make indicates the default of NOT eating chametz.  But during the Seder conducted on the first night, the blessing clearly corresponds to the positive commandment to eat matzah [Ex.12:8]. We can now also understand, very easily, why this commandment to eat matzah is limited to being completed by midnight [v.29, 49].

But there is an additional explanation of why we MUST eat matzah by midnight of the first day, and MUST NOT eat chametz for a full week.  The sages explain that for this week, the whole people of Israel are like Cohanim (Cohen – priest; plural – Cohanim) in G-d’s eyes; and that when G-d told Moses he would redeem the Hebrews, as they were still known, he was in fact redeeming B’ni, B’chori – my son, my firstborn.  We can see how this is alluded to by drawing on the laws relating to the Cohen and comparing them with some of the actions we take during the seder service.

Somewhat later in the Torah, we learn that the Israelites were divided into 3 main groups: Cohen (priests), Levi (Levites; Leviim) and Israel (everyone else).  All those considered ‘Israel’ received a portion of land; only the Cohanim and Leviim did not.  The tribe of Levi and particularly, the Cohanim from within that tribe, were considered ‘firstborn’ to G-d and thus, wholly dedicated to G-d’s service. While the focus of life for ‘Israel’ was generally the physical and material, the focus for the Leviim and Cohanim was the spiritual.  The connection between the two spheres, Cohen-Levi  and Israel, came about through the services centered around the altar.  The Israelites would bring their sacrifices and offerings, and the Cohanim and Leviim would carry out the required preparations, and receive a part of these sacrifices, then return the rest to the person or family who had brought the offering (2). Every action made by a Cohen during his shift that involved touching something moist or intended for holy purposes (the offerings and sacrifices) required that a Levi would first pour water over the Cohen’s hands to purify them, though no blessing was made.  In addition, one of the strictest laws concerning priestly service was that absolutely no leaven was allowed ever to touch the altar; nor was any iron allowed to touch it.

We can now take a closer look at some of the interesting actions universally undertaken by Jews celebrating the seder service.  These actions, while often called ‘customs’ or ‘traditions’, actually contain far deeper meaning and raise Jews who keep them to a very high spiritual level:

We note that immediately after the blessing over the wine, we wash our hands and then eat ‘karpas’ (variously, lettuce, parsley or some other leafy vegetable) but we do not recite a blessing over washing the hands in the manner that we normally do before we sit down to a full meal that includes bread.  In fact, one attendee of the seder service brings a bowl of water to each of the others at the table; hands are washed and no blessing is recited. This follows the actions of the Cohen’s service at the altar; the Cohen’s hands are washed by the Levi.

Among the symbolic items on the seder plate there is usually a piece of meat with bone, roasted completely while still maintaining an edible state, representing  the Passover sacrifice [Ex.12:9-10].  When we refer to it during the reading of the Haggada, we usually point to it or touch it with our finger but must not touch it with our cutlery or utensils: this is in accordance with the command that no metal object may touch the altar or anything on it.

The Hebrews and later, the Israelites, are commanded to take a Passover sacrifice and eat it in their family group.  This is the only sacrifice of which the Cohanim did NOT receive a portion.  Instead, it is used in entirety by the family.

Let us look for a moment at a slightly earlier situation, appearing in Ex.1:9:   [v.8 – Now there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph].  V.9 – And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the nation-of-the-children-of-Israel are too numerous and too mighty for us.

This is the one and only time ever when the Hebrews are called am-bnei-yisrael or, as I have tried to indicate in the translation, nation-of-the-children-of-Israel. We know that up until this point, the persons who came to Goshen, an area adjacent to Egypt proper, were Jacob and his extended family.  Yet generations later, in Ex.1: 8-9, a new Pharaoh prophetically calls this people, who have proliferated despite their hardship, the ‘nation of the children of Israel’ – a strange term that encompasses the transition from a loose populace to a unified group, before they themselves realize they are about to become a nation.

Additionally, we eat a ‘sandwich’ comprised of two pieces of matzah around lettuce or karpas, which is noted specifically in the Haggadah as ‘according to Hillel’ and called “Korech”.  Hillel the Elder has in fact adopted this act straight from the Cohanim and integrated it into the seder: the Cohanim would eat matzah with their regular meals during their shifts.  In this way, they ensured that no chametz could come into contact with the altar.  Simply stated, we eat the Korech, emulating the actions of the Cohanim during priestly service.

Finally, immediately following the Torah’s detailing of the Passover sacrifice and how the Hebrews must prepare themselves [Ex.12] we find, in Ex.13:2 what seems to be a strangely inserted reference to ‘dedicated firstborns’.  Yet its position here beautifully sums up the state of the Hebrews as they flee Egypt and transform into a nation.

We are now well positioned to understand that all differentiations between Jews are eliminated on the Seder night.  We are all equally considered dedicated  like  ‘cohanim’ to G-d, who redeemed His goy kadosh (3), His holy people, who are like first-borns, like priests.  On this night, 14th of the first month of the year of months, it was as though the Hebrews were like newborns, about to be reconnected with G-d in a unique form that culminated in multiple miracles and finally, the giving of the Torah.  Therefore, on this night, up until midnight, we are commanded to eat matzah in memory of the hastiness of our exit from Egypt, and in recollection of the fact that in G-d’s eyes, we were all as first-borns and thus dedicated to Him, as the Levites and Cohanim are dedicated forever.  For one full week, sheva yamim, we remain in this state of dedication, and therefore may not eat any chametz whatsoever.  At the end of the sheva yamim, this state of firstborn, dedication, or priesthood, is ‘redeemed’ and we return – shav – to our normal status, of Cohen, Levi, and Israel, and can then return to eating chametz.

May we enjoy a wonderful Pessach.

*  *  *  *  *

(1)  In the name of my teacher, Rabbi Y.(M) Kujawsky.

(2)  In this way, the inverse aspects, being the spiritual wellbeing of Israel and the physical wellbeing of the Levites and Cohanim, were also closely inter-related: any change for better or worse in one group would impact to the same degree on the other group.

(3)  This specific term appears in Ex.19:6 – v’atem tih’yu li mamlechet cohanim vegoy kadosh – and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.  In Deuteronomy, which recapitulates the various laws that the Children of Israel must observe, Deut.16:1-8 restates the laws of Passover, and 28:9 refers to the people again as am kadosh – a holy nation.

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