From Purim to Pesach in Thirty Days

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Roy Feldman

A b’raita found at the bottom of Pesachim 6a introduces a unique halakha:

שואלין ודורשין בהלכות הפסח קודם הפסח שלשים יום

One must engage in the study of the laws of Passover for thirty days prior to Passover.

The g’mara finds a Biblical source for this mitzvah in Moshe’s talks to B’nei Yisrael.  On the original Pesach, he informed them about Pesach Sheni, the second opportunity to bring a Paschal sacrifices for those who were unable to do so at the original time.  Pesach Sheni takes place thirty days after Pesach Rishon, and so the Talmud derives that we are to learn about Pesach thirty days before it takes place.

This halakha seemingly contradicts another one found in the very last lines of tractate Megillah:

תנו רבנן משה תיקן להם לישראל שיהו שואלין ודורשין בענינו של יום הלכות פסח בפסח הלכות עצרת בעצרת הלכות חג בחג

Moshe established that Israel should study the laws of each time at its time: They should study the laws of Passover on Passover, the laws of Shavuot on Shavuot, and the laws of Sukkot on Sukkot.

According to this passage, the requirement to study the laws of Passover only takes place on Passover itself, and not thirty days prior to it.  Which one is it then?  Are we required to study the laws for thirty days, or just on the holiday itself?

A number of suggestions have been made as to how to resolve this apparent contradiction.  The parallel passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi writes that rabbis are required to study the laws for thirty days, while laypeople are only required to study the laws on Passover.

שואלין בהלכות פסח בפסח הלכות עמרת בעמרת הלכות חג בחג.  בבית וועד שואלין קודם לשלשים יום

Partly based on this, the Ra”n explains that rabbis ought to be prepared to answer Pesach-related questions a month before the holiday as that is when people begin preparing for it.  The Ra”n notes that precedence must be given to Pesach-related questions in the thirty days preceding the holiday.

The Tur in Orach Chaim 429 rules in accordance with our original passage that one must study the laws of Passover for thirty days, and the two central commentaries on the Tur offer resolutions to our contradiction as well.  The Bach suggests that the passage in tractate Megillah did not necessarily mean that one must study the laws of Passover on  Passover, but rather that the laws of each holiday should be studied around that holiday.  Since Pesach has such complicated rules, it requires thirty days of study.  The Beit Yosef distinguishes between study of the practical laws of Pesach and the study of the philosophy or ideas behind those laws.  The practical laws should be studied for thirty days in order to facilitate proper cleaning of the house and baking of matzos.  The holiday of Passover itself ought to be spent studying the philosophy of those laws and their interpretations.

I would like to suggest one more interpretation of this sui generis law.  It is an established fact that our tradition views the holidays Pesach and Purim as related ones.  In his comment on the Talmudic phrase, משנכנס אדר מרבן בשמחה (we increase our joy in the month of Adar), Rashi attributes the increased joy to the fact that the Jews are about to have both Purim and Pesach (not just Purim).  Moreover, in a leap year which has two months of Adar, Purim is delayed and observed in the second month of Adar only to ensure its proximity to Pesach, למסמך גאולה לגאולה, to connect the two redemptions.

Purim and Pesach each represent a different kind of redemption and subsequent freedom.  Purim represents grassroots redemption.  The plot to save the Jews in the Book of Esther was initiated by people, planned by people, and executed by people.  The exodus from Egypt which we commemorate on Pesach, however, is a G-d-driven redemption.  As slaves in Egypt, B’nei Yisrael did not even necessarily know that there was an alternative to their enslaved existence.  G-d appointed Moshe; G-d initiated the redemption, He planned it, and He ultimately executed it through plagues and supernatural miracles.  This distinction is further illustrated by our tradition that Pesach and Purim represent the two historical instances in which our people accepted the Torah.  After the exodus, the Torah was thrust upon B’nei Yisrael by G-d against their will.  In the days of Ahashverosh, the Jews accepted the Torah again, this time by choice.

Of course, both models of redemption, although contradictory, are present in Judaism and must pervade our consciousness today.  Our religion is unabashedly theocentric—G-d created the world and He is the King of kings, but it is at the same time humanistic—He created humanity in His image and commanded people to rule the world.  The sages, in their infinite wisdom, desired us to maintain an active link between Purim and Pesach in order to bring to the fore this connection each day between the two holidays.  And Torah study is the most appropriate way to do so.  Talmud Torah is a human-led activity: it must be initiated by people, and Torah must be learned, interpreted, analyzed, and argued by people.  It is decidedly a this-worldly activity.  Simultaneously, it is a G-d-led activity.  What drives our learning is our desire to know G-d’s will and understand His mitzvot; ultimately, it is His word that we are studying.  In the thirty days between Purim, on which we commemorate the human-led redemption, and Pesach, on which we commemorate the G-d-led one, we engage in the activity which includes within it both models simultaneously.  May these days leading up to Pesach be ones filled with Torah study which leads us to the recognition of our past redemptions and anticipation of future ones.

Rabbi Roy Feldman currently serves as Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and is a proud SBM alumnus.

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