It is common knowledge that one should not eat Matzah on Erev Pesah, but while many people assume it is a practice and not a prohibition, Maimonides writes:
אָסְרוּ חֲכָמִים לֶאֱכֹל מַצָּה בְּעֶרֶב הַפֶּסַח כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּהְיֶה הֶכֵּר לַאֲכִילָתָהּ בָּעֶרֶב. וּמִי שֶׁאָכַל מַצָּה בְּעֶרֶב הַפֶּסַח מַכִּין אוֹתוֹ מַכַּת מַרְדּוּת עַד שֶׁתֵּצֵא נַפְשׁוֹ
The sages have forbidden the eating of matzah on the day preceding Pesaḥ, so it will be obvious when people eat Matzah at night that it is for the sake of the Mitzvah. And if one ate matzah on Erev Pesah, he gets lashes until he dies.
This Halakha is a bit scary. Where did Maimonides get it from?
Apparently, from the Yerushalmi:
א”ר לוי האוכל מצה בערב הפסח כבא על ארוסתו בבית חמיו והבא על ארוסתו בבית חמיו לוקה
Rabbi Levi said, one who eats Matzah on Erev Pesah is like one who has intercourse with his betrothed in the house of his father-in-law. And one who has intercourse with his betrothed in the house of his father-in-law is lashed.
So, we have found the source for Maimonides’ ruling, but the problem just got more complicated. We now have to understand two things:
- What is the source for the statement of Rabbi Levi? Is it a rabbinical decree? If so, where is it mentioned and why is Rabbi Levi the only one who reports it? Why is it not phrased as a decree: “The rabbis decreed that one should not… etc.”?
- How did Maimonides make the leap from lashes to capital punishment? The Talmud Yerushalmi says only that one gets lashes, but not that they are going to be lethal?
The second question was discussed at length by Maimonides’ commentators, but if we thought they would challenge Maimonides, we are in for a surprise. Most of them tend to uphold his ruling.
Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona writes:
פירש הערוך מלקות דאורייתא הוא על חייבי לאוין באומד… אבל עובר על מצות עשה כגון סוכה ולולב ואינו עושה היו מכין אותו עד שתצא נפשו בלא אומד… וכן עובר על דברי חכמים היו מכין אותו בלא מספר ובלא אומד… נראה מדבריו דמכת מרדות הוא עד שתצא נפשו ואף הרמב”ם ז”ל כתב בפ”ו מהל’ חמץ ומצה אסרו חכמים לאכול מצה בערב פסח כו’ ומי שאכל מצה בע”פ היו מכין אותו עד שתצא נפשו ולפי דבריהם יש בזה חומר בדברי סופרים יותר מדברי תורה
The Arukh explains that by biblical law lashes are given for the transgression of a prohibition, based on assessment [of how many lashes can a person withstand]… but if one does not want to fulfill a commandment, such as Sukkah and Lulav, he would be lashed until he dies, without assessment… and one who transgresses the ruling of the rabbis is also lashed with no quantity or assessment… and it seems from his words that מכת מרדות – lashes of rebellion are until one dies, and so wrote Maimonides regarding Matzah on Erev Pesah. According to them, transgressing the rabbis’ ruling is more severe than transgressing biblical commandments.
Rabbenu Nissim’s answer is still not satisfying, and Rabbi Haim of Brisk tries to suggest a different answer in the typical method of the Brisker school:
משמע דאין כאן חיוב הכאה על הגברא בעד שעבר באיסור דרבנן אלא הוא רשות לבי”ד להכותו, וכעין שבי”ד מכין למיגדר מילתא בתורת כפיה
It seems that the obligation of lashes is not connected to the person who committed transgression (meaning that he must receive lashes) but rather a license to the court to administer lashes in order to establish rabbinical law.
In other words, R. Haim wants to say that these lashes can be avoided, but it is hard to see that in Maimonides’ words.
Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein quotes two earlier sources who try to explain the harsh punishment for eating Matzah on Erev Pesah:
ורבנו מנוח בא ליישב קושיא זו… מצות אכילת מצה אין לו לאכלה אכילה גסה… אבל היכא דאכל מצה ערב הפסח… איכא תרתי: א. אכילה גסה ב. אין היכר באכילתה וכאילו לא אכלה בלילה דמי. ומשום הכי מכין אותו מכת מרדות, דכמבטל מצות עשה חשבינן ליה, כיון שאין בה היכר… כתב החק יעקב בשם יש מי שאומר, שהאוכל מצה בערב פסח הוא מהתורה. מדכתיב בערב תאכלו מצות ולא ביום
Rabennu Manoah answers this question… The Mitzvah of eating matzah is not fulfilled with crude eating (meaning that one is already full and he forces himself to eat the Matzah)… if one eats Matzah on Erev Pesah there are two problems: 1. Crude eating. 2. There is no sign when he eats Matzah at night that he is doing it for the Mitzvah. That is why he is lashed because it is as if he did not fulfil the Mitzvah.
The Hok Yaakov wrote in the name of an anonymous author that eating Matzah on Erev Pesah is a biblical prohibition, since the Torah says “you shall eat Matzah at night” [and we can deduct from it] at night and not during the day.
Let us analyze the arguments presented here. Rabbenu Manoah claims that if one eats Matzah on Erev Pesah, he will not have appetite at night. According to that, one should get lashes for eating too much of any type of food. Rabbenu Manoah probably knew that this argument is insufficient, and therefore added the second reason. But for that argument to be valid, the prohibition should have been very specific: if one eats Matzah on Erev Pesah in a way which will render the Seder insignificant, he will be punished. If someone grabs a piece of Matzah on Erev Pesah and eats it, dos it really make the Seder experience null and void?
Furthermore, while the Torah does say that if one willfully did not do the Pesah sacrifice he will be punished, that punishment is not administered by humans. If the transgression is indeed failing to eat Matzah on the Seder night, and if Matzah is equated to Korban Pesah, the Talmudic statement, and Maimonides’ ruling, should have read:
כל האוכל מצה בערב פסח מת בהכרת, שלא קיים מצות אכילת מצה בלילי פסחים
If one eats Matzah on Erev Pesah he will die at a young age, because he failed to observe the Mitzvah of eating Matzah on Seder night.
But that is not what is written, so the second argument of Rabbenu Manoah is also not convincing.
Now, the argument of Hok Yaakov, that not eating matzah on Erev Pesah is a biblical prohibition because of the inference from the text is very strange, because if we apply this logic to similar biblical commandments, we will find many new and unheard-of prohibitions, such as starting Kippur early. How so? The Torah says מֵעֶ֣רֶב עַד־עֶ֔רֶב תִּשְׁבְּת֖וּ שַׁבַּתְּכֶֽם – You shall cease [from working and eating] from the night to the following night. By the logic of Hok Yaakov, that means that you cannot cease from work on the eve of Kippur, and that the few minutes that we add before Kippur are actually the last sin before the fast starts.
No one suggests that, obviously, and that renders the argument of Hok Yaakov invalid.
Rabbi Yisakhar Tamar is also perplexed by the illogical disparity between the punishment administered for transgressing prohibitions of different levels:
והנה הלכה זו תמוה מאד דבמלקות תורה של חייבי לאוין מלקין אותו ארבעים ובאיסור דרבנן עד שתצא נפשו
This Halakha is very strange: if one transgresses a biblical prohibition, he only gets 40 [i.e. 39] lashes, but if he transgresses a rabbinical one, he is lashed to death?
He answers his question:
ונראה ששני דינים שונה הברייתא במכות מרדות, א) כשעבר על איסור דרבנן חובטים אתו עד שיקבל עליו שלא לזלזל יותר באיסור דרבנן, וכמו… לאכול מצה בערב פסח, שאז חובטים אותו עד שיקבל… ואם הוא חצוף ועומד ברשעו… חובטים יותר אבל רק עד ל”ט מלקות ולא יותר… ב) ההלכה השניה במכת מרדות שמסרב לקיים המצוה היא עד שתצא נפשו, וכגון שאומרים לו עשה סוכה ואינו עושה
It seems that there are two different laws in the Barayta regarding lashes of rebellion: 1. When one transgresses a rabbinical prohibition he is lashed until he accepts to not disregard again rabbinical prohibitions, such as… eating Matzah on Erev Pesah, in which case he is lashed until agreeing… if he is stiff-necked… he gets more lashes but no more then 39… 2. The second halakha with lashes of rebellion is when he refuses to observe the Mitzvah, in which case he is lashed to death, as when being told to build a Sukkah [and dwell in it] and he refuses.
Putting aside the problematic issue of lashes in general, Rabbi Tamar’s argument does not answer the question about Maimonides’s ruling, but he claims it does.
There is a simpler solution to the words of Maimonides, which Rabbi Tamar also presents:
גירסא זו תמוה, ועיין בחומש תורה שלמה במלואים סוף סימן ל”א שכתב שבדפוסים הראשונים ובארבע כתבי יד שלפניו ליתא כלל המילים עד שתצא נפשו, רק בדפוס וינציא של”ד הוכנסו שם בראשונה
This version is strange, and see Humash Torah Shelema (appendix, 31) who wrote that in the early printed editions and the four manuscripts which he had, the words “until he dies” are not written, and were inserted for the first time in the 1574 Venice edition.
This view is supported by Rabbi Israel Eisenstein:
נראה דהרדב”ז והרב דוד עראמה לא היו גורסים כלל גבי אוכל מצה בערב פסח דמכין אותו עד שתצא נפשו, וכמו שמבואר במעשה רוקח שם דיש גירסאות שאין כתוב זה ברמב”ם. וכן כתב בשו”ת מהרלנ”ח באגרת הסמיכה
It seems that Rabbi David ben Zimrah and Rabbi David Arameh did not accept the version “until he dies”, as the Maaseh Roqeah explains that these words do not appear in some versions of Maimonides, and it is also the opinion of Rabbi Levi ben Haviv in his letter on the Semikha.
Finally, in the most accurate edition of Mishneh Torah currently available, the Frankel edition, the words do appear, but the editor comments that:
ברוב כתבי יד וברוב דפוסים ישנים ליתא
These words do not appear in most manuscripts and most early print editions.
So, we can sigh with relief and conclude that eating Matzah on Erev Pesah is not a capital offense. Still, it is worrisome to think that a mistake made by a scribe who probably added those three words out of memory to a manuscript of Maimonides he was copying, led many Halakhic authorities to believe that one might be killed for eating Matzah on Erev Pesah, and to invent seemingly convincing arguments to prove it.
Though this was a scribal error, for many generations people believed that this is indeed the punishment, and even if they did not, the analogy in the Yerushalmi to near-incestuous relationships was scary enough to not only deter them from eating Matzah on Erev Pesah, but to make them expand the prohibition. Among the additional restrictions, not all approved by the poskim, but practiced by people nonetheless, are:
- Not eating Maror or eggs on Erev Pesah.
- Not eating Hazzeret on Erev Pesah.
- Not eating any vegetables used on Pesah starting on Rosh Hodesh Nissan and also on the first day of Yom Tov, which is the eve of the second Seder.
- Not eating fruits on Erev Pesah and the first Yom Tov (because of Harosset).
- Not eating Matzah starting on Rosh Hodesh.
Seeing how this statement turned into a prohibition and then spiraled out of control, I believe it is imperative to excavate its roots.
To do that, we need to visit ancient Israel after the destruction of the Temple. My teacher and mentor, Professor Yitzchak Gilat, has shown that the Judea and Galilee regions differed sharply in their commitment to rituals revolving around the Temple. While common sense would have dictated that the Judeans would be more zealous in preserving the memory of the Temple, it was the opposite. The Galileans were the ones who kept Temple-related practices with greater devotion. There could be two main reasons for that:
- Historically, Judea and Jerusalem were cosmopolitan, and their inhabitants were influenced by the Greek and Roman cultures. They were more liberal, therefore, in their attitude to some practices which they considered antiquated or narrow-minded.
- Emotionally, the shock of losing the Temple was much greater for those living in its vicinity, and they therefore were the first ones to despair and give up hope of its rebuilding.
These different attitudes are reflected in Mishnah Pesahim:
מקום שנהגו לעשות מלאכה בערבי פסחים עד חצות עושין, מקום שנהגו שלא לעשות אין עושין
There are places where the Minhag is do work on Erev Pesah until midday, and there one can work, and there are places where the Minhag is not to do work, and there one is not allowed to work.
The Mishnah suggests that everybody agrees that work is forbidden after midday but does not explain the rationale of the prohibition.
According to most commentators, the reason is that one might get carried away in his work and forget to prepare for Pesah, but this is not convincing. In his comprehensive commentary Melekhet Shelomo, Rabbi Shelomo Adani, explains that the prohibition is tied to the special nature of Erev Pesah as the day of offering a sacrifice. In the time of the Temple, when one brought a personal sacrifice, that day was considered for him or her a Yom Tov. Erev Pesah, in which every member of the nation brought a personal sacrifice, was therefore an individual Yom Tov for each member of the nation.
Indeed, Erev Pesah is always referred to in the Torah as פסח, while the days between the fifteenth to the twenty-first of Nissan are called חג המצות.
After the destruction of the Temple חג הפסח, the Feast of the Pesah Sacrifice, lost some of its significance and status, and its memory was preserved by refraining from work on that day. Some people, however, kept working until midday, and the Mishnah tells us who were those people:
ביהודה היו עושין מלאכה בערבי פסחים עד חצות ובגליל לא היו עושין כל עיקר
In Judea they would work until midday but in the Galilee they would not work all day.
This disregard towards the memory of the Temple quickly evolved (or devolved) into the next phase: people were arguing that the only reason you had to wait until nightfall at the time of the Temple is the sacrifice, but now that there is no sacrifice, it is fine to start the Seder earlier.
There is a paragraph in the Haggadah which was written as a response to those who wanted to celebrate Pesah earlier:
והגדת לבנך: שומע אני מראש חדש? תלמוד לומר “ביום ההוא”. אי ביום ההוא, יכול מבעוד יום? תלמוד לומר “בעבור זה” בשעה שיש מצה ומרור מונחים לפניך על שולחנך
You should tell your son: can I learn [hear] from the verse [that the telling will be done] from Rosh Hodesh?
[No, because] the verse says “on that day.”
If it is on that day, is it possible [to do it] when it is still day?
[No, because] the verse says “for this”, when Matzah and Maror are placed in front of you on the table.
This paragraph is taken from the Midrash Halakha, and unless it comes to reject the trend of making the Seder earlier, it makes no sense. Here are the logical difficulties in the paragraph:
- The first question breaks the beginning of the verse into two sections, but they cannot be read separately. If we read the verse as it is written: והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא – you should tell your son on that day, there would be no reason to think that the commandment to tell starts on Rosh Hodesh.
- Rosh Hodesh Nissan is not mentioned in the verse or in its context.
- We do speak of the Exodus every day. It is mentioned in the prayers and Birkat HaMazon.
- Why is “this” understood as only Matzah and Maror? Why is Pesah not mentioned?
The answer is that this paragraph in the Midrash and the Haggada has a clear agenda. It is meant to anchor in the text the argument that one cannot start the Seder earlier in the day, and I am not referring to half an hour before sunset, but rather to a little after midday. The first argument is a deliberate exaggeration, sort of a strawman argument, meant to show that any attempt to make the Seder earlier is against the text. The words יכול מבעוד יום are aimed directly at those who claimed that since there is no Pesah sacrifice, the Seder could start earlier. For that same reason, when the author says that the elements of the Seder must be in front of you, he only mentions Matzah and Maror, but not Pesah. His argument is circular, though, because his opponents would claim that the Matzah and Maror can be in front of you earlier.
Because the argument of the Midrash Halakha was not strong enough, another layer of defense was added. The first Mishnah of the tenth chapter of tractate Pesahim says:
ערבי פסחים סמוך למנחה לא יאכל אדם עד שתחשך
On the eve of Pesah, close to Minha time, one should not eat until darkness falls.
This is not about saving appetite for the Seder, it is about starting the Seder before nightfall. The proof to that is the second and third part of the Mishnah:
אפילו עני שבישראל לא יאכל עד שיסב
ולא יפחתו לו מארבע כוסות של יין
Even the poorest Jew should not eat without reclining,
and they should give him no less than four cups of wine.
This interpretation is different than the Talmudic one, because at the time of the Talmud the movement to make Seder earlier has already died. The Talmud explains the first part about saving appetite for the night, but that makes the Mishnah inconsistent. According to my interpretation here, however, the Mishnah is consistent. Its subject is the leader of the Seder, and it lists three conditions, saying that the leader of the Seder:
- Cannot start early.
- Must recline.
- Must have four cups of wine.
We can now go back to the statement of Rabbi Levi and ask why eating Matzah on Erev Pesah was compared to sexual relationships between betrothal and marriage. The answer is that in both cases the culprits were the people of Judea. We have already seen that Judeans cared less about the nature of the fourteenth of Nissan after the destruction, and would continue working on that day until noon.
They were also notorious for not respecting the limits set by the rabbis regarding separation during the period of betrothal. This is reflected in the following statement:
…הארוסות ינשאו חוץ מן הארוסות שביהודה מפני שלבו גס בה
The Mishnah deals with the rule that a widow must wait three months to remarry, for fear that she is pregnant. If she would remarry within the three months there will be a doubt regarding the identity of the child’s father. The exception is a woman who was betrothed and lost her betrothed. The Mishnah says that widowed betrothed women can remarry, because the halakhic separation guarantees that they are not pregnant. But there is an exception to the exception. You guessed right! In Judea they cannot remarry because לבו גס בה which can be roughly translated as “he feels comfortable with her.” Judean couples, in other words, were suspected of having relationships between betrothal and marriage.
This interpretation shows the brilliance of Rabbi Levi’s somewhat aggressive statement. He killed two, or several birds, in one shot. He said that one is not allowed to eat Matzah on Erev Pesah, thus eliminating the possibility of an early Seder. He then added that the desire to celebrate earlier is a sign of disregard of the destroyed Temple, which was typical to Judeans, and he concluded with hinting that it is also a sign of callousness, similar to the one Judeans practice in their pre-marital life, and for which they were criticized by the rabbis.
The prohibition of eating Matzah on Erev Pesah is a classic example of a rule or statement rooted in the nation’s social, political, and religious conditions, which in later generations has been misinterpreted. The original intention, which was to guarantee that the Seder will be celebrated at night, has morphed into a dreaded prohibition, expanded by people in time and scope, and for some, even the idea that it could be punishable by death.
In practice, we can live without a day of Matzah or bread, but it becomes a serious problem when the fourteenth falls on Shabbat, but that is a matter for another discussion.
1 Laws of Hametz and Matzah, 6:12.
2 Peshaim 2:7
3 1320-1380, commentary on the Ri”f, Ketubbot 16:2.
4 R. Nathan of Rome, 1035-1106.
5 1853-1918, commentary on the Talmud, Menahot, 41:1.
6 1934-, Hishuqay Hemed, Pesahim 99:2.
7 Lev. 23:32.
8 1896-1982, Alay Tamar on the Yerushalmi, Nazir 4:1.
9 He writes that Maimonides’s ruling can be understood by the arguments he presented, but am I unable to dee his
logic. I would appreciate input in deciphering his statement.
10 1837-1905, Amuday Esh, 1.
11 ילקוט יוסף, קצוש”ע, אורח חיים תעא:ח: יש נוהגים להחמיר שלא לאכול מרור בערב פסח… ויש נוהגים להחמיר גם שלא לאכול ביצים
12 מטה משה, עמוד העבודה, חלה:תרד: נהגו אנשי מעשה שגם אין לאכול חזרת… בערב פסח
13 פסח מעובין, איסור אכילה בערב פסח, קטז: …מנהג א”א ז”ל היה שלא לאכול ירקות היוצאים בהם בפסח וכרפס מר”ח ניסן ואילך… וביום
א’ של פסח
14 שולחן ערוך הרב, אורח חיים, סימן תעא: יש נוהגין להחמיר עוד שלא לאכול פירות בערב פסח או ביום ראשון של פסח כדי לאכול חרוסת
15 חיי אדם, חלק ב-ג, כלל קכט:יג: אך יש נוהגים שלא לאכול אפי’ מראש חודש, והאוכל מצה בערב פסח, כאילו בא על ארוסתו קודם שבירך
17 Yemen-Israel, 1567-1630.
18 Pesahim 4:5.
19 מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יז
20 After I first published this article, few colleagues commented that some among sectarian Jews did celebrate Pesah
on Rosh Hodes Nissan, so this could also be a polemic against sectarian Judaism.
21 The earliest time to start the Seder, according to the Tur, 472, is in a way that Matzah will be eaten with nightfall.
One can calculate the time needed for the Haggadah in a way that will get him to the Matzah at around forty minutes
22 Mishna Yvamot 4:10.