by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
In the Hebrew Bible, Passover appears to be a conflation of three holidays:
* chag ha-aviv (“festival of the new ears of grain”), a one-day celebration of spring on the 15th of the month that was called Aviv until the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E, then renamed Nissan.
* chag ha-matzot (“festival of the unleavened bread”), a seven-day period of refraining from eating, or owning, any leavened food. This period fell at the beginning of the barley harvest in the spring.
* pesach (“skipping over”), a one-day observance in Aviv, in which a lamb or goat kid was sacrificed, and the meat was roasted and eaten in one night.
Some modern scholars speculate that the Torah combines an ancient festival of matzot (when farmers cleared out their old grain products in preparation for the new grain) with an ancient festival of pesach (when shepherds celebrated the spring lambing by sacrificing a lamb and performing a skipping dance)—and then incorporates both spring holidays in the story of the exodus from Egypt.
Thus the special Torah reading for the first day of Passover, Exodus 12:21-51 (in the Torah portion Bo), begins with Moses’ instructions to the Israelites for the night of the tenth and final plague in Egypt: the death of the firstborn. Each family must slaughter a lamb as a pesach offering, paint the blood on the lintel and doorposts of its home, and stay indoors all night, eating the roasted meat, while God “skips over” the marked houses and kills only the firstborn children of the Egyptians. The Torah adds that the Israelites shall continue to re-enact this ritual every spring.
Then, after describing the final plague and Pharaoh’s command that the Israelites leave at once, the Torah says:
The people picked up their dough before it could become chameitz, their kneading-troughs wrapped up in their cloaks upon their shoulders. …And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot… And they baked the dough that they had taken from Mitzrayim in rounds of matzot, because it was not chameitz, because they were banished from Mitzrayim and they could not delay, and they had not even prepared provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:34, 37, 39)
chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.
Mitzrayim (מִצְרַיִם) = Egypt. The dual form —ayim (ַיִם) probably refers to the combined kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The first three letters, מצר, might be related to the word meitzar (מֵצַר) = narrow strait, constriction, confinement, bondage.
I have always found the above explanation of the festival of matzot unconvincing. If the Israelites normally made leavened bread in Egypt, then they would always have a jar of sourdough starter bubbling in the house. Why not bring that jar along with a kneading-trough and flour? The story in the book of Exodus smacks of a post-hoc, invented rationale.
Nevertheless, one of the special Torah readings for intermediate days of the week of Passover, Exodus 13:1-16 (also in the Torah portion Bo), makes the festival of matzot an essential part of the observance of Passover:
Moses said to the people: Remember this day on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery. For with a strong hand God brought you out from this, and you shall not eat chameitz. Today you are leaving, in the month of Aviv… and it will happen when God brings you into the land…then you shall serve this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat matzot, and on the seventh day [will be] a festival for God. Matzot shall be eaten these seven days, and chameitz must not be seen with you, and se-or must not be seen with you in all your borders. And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: Because of this, God acted for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:3-8)
se-or (שְׂאֹר) = sourdough starter; any leavening agent.
Throughout history, religions have connected their new holidays to pre-existing holidays. Sometimes the only real connection between the new and old holiday seems to be the time of year. Spring is certainly a good time of year to celebrate both the promise of new grain and the concept of liberation.
But the connection between the festival of matzot and the story of liberation from Egypt may be deeper than that.
In last week’s post, Tzav & Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 1, I wrote about the symbolic meanings of matzot and chameitz proposed by Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. and by Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in the 19th century.
Philo considered how leaven makes bread rise and puff up, like an arrogant person. He wrote that eating matzot is a reminder of our humility before God.
Hirsch wrote that chameitz is the bread of independence, and matzot the bread of dependence. Among other arguments, he cited a verse from the special Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover, Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 (in the Torah portion Re-eih):
Seven days you shall eat matzot, the bread of oni, because in hurried flight you went out from the land of Egypt—so that you shall remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)
oni (עֹנִי) = misery, wretchedness; a state of dependence due to poverty.
By eating matzot in remembrance of our deliverance from slavery, Hirsch argued, we acknowledge that we did not escape from poverty and oppression by our own actions, but only because of God’s actions: the ten plagues or miracles, and the warnings God communicated through Moses. We rose to the independence represented by chameitz only because God lifted us out of Egypt.
That is as far as Hirsch went. But I wonder: Does leaven itself represent one aspect the divine? What if God is the fermentation in our souls, and in the world, which leads to liberation and expansion?
During Passover we might acknowledge that without the divine spark, we would be as flat as matzah. We could not escape from Egypt, Mitzrayim, or the constrictions in our own souls. We would be slaves to our genetic predispositions and to all the psychological complexes we have acquired during our lives.
But if the divine spark in our souls bubbles up like the se-or that bubbles up and makes bread rise, and we are inspired with an insight, then we can make different decisions. With a holy insight, we can push open some of the narrow places in our psyches, and expand into a new life of more freedom and independence.
But we cannot change from matzot into chameitz through sheer willpower. It takes a touch of leavening, and that is a gift from God.
The festival called Chag ha-Matzot, Pesach, or in English, Passover, lasts for seven days in Israel. By Jewish tradition, Passover lasts for eight days outside of Israel (to make sure that those who live far away will be observing Passover during all of Israel’s seven days). This year in the diaspora, Passover begins on a Friday evening and ends on a Saturday evening the following week. That means we will study the special Torah portions for Passover—including the ones in this blog post—for two weeks.
So it will be two weeks before I return to the annual cycle of Torah portions, and post my new thoughts on Shemini, the next Torah portion in the book of Leviticus.
May all my Jewish readers have a happy Passover! And may some divine insight bubble up in everyone during this change of seasons.