Friday, April 17, 2009

Seventh Day of Pesah I

Why does the Torah require us to celebrate the Seventh Day of Pesah as a distinct holiday with a prohibition of work, festival prayers, etc.? This seems like a reasonable question (albeit in retrospect) since the Torah provides no explicit account of its purpose.

Over Yom Tov, I delivered two derashot (speeches) in which I offered independent - although I believe complementary, rather than mutually exclusive - explanations for the institution of the seventh day of Pesah. I will present them here as a series of two posts, and then perhaps a final summary in which I plan to explore their relationship to one another.

There is a curious verse in Parashat Re'eh that we read on the final day of Pesah in the Diaspora:

Six days shall you eat Matsot; on the seventh day it is a day of assembly/rest (i.e., atseret) to Hashem, your God; you shall do no work.

This is certainly a strange statement, and for more than one reason.

First of all, the prohibition of consuming hametz - generally expressed in the positive form, "eating matsot" - extends to the seventh day of Passover as well; it is not restricted to the first six days as the verse would seem to imply. We know this from another passuq in Parashat Bo:

On the fourteenth day of the month in the evening you shall eat matsot, until the twenty first day of the month (i.e., the seventh day of Pesah), in the evening.

A second difficulty with our verse is its structure. It evokes associations to the description of Shabbat in the Torah "six days shall you do work, but on the seventh day you shall rest", or of the Sabbatical year "six years shall you sow your field and gather its produce, but during the seventh year you shall release it and abandon it." However, in this case, not working is not the opposite of eating matsah; there is no reason to mention eating matsot in the verse at all. The Torah could simply have stated, "on the seventh day, it shall be a day of assembly to Hashem, your God; you shall do no work."

I believe that this unusual passuq contains a profound idea. The Torah continually addresses us on both a physical and an intellectual plane. Oftentimes, as in the case of abstaining from hametz, the Torah directs or stimulates our minds through the framework of the physical. However, the Torah never establishes a purely material state or performance as an end in its own right.

If Pesah were to conclude with six days of Hol Hamoed and no final "atseret" holiday, a key component of the objective of the Yom Tov would not be achieved. We would be going through physical motions that failed to culminate in intellectual or moral enlightenment. There would be a change of habits of eating, solidified over seven days' time, but no corresponding opportunity for reflection on the real meaning of that change.

This is why the Torah had to create the seventh day of Pesah - it is a day for contemplating and internalizing the lessons and implications of our separation from hametz, a day for connecting the physical experience of the holiday - what feels like the essential experience, for most people - back to the fundamental themes and principles we articulated at our Sedarim on the first days of Pesah.

Now we can better understand the verse with which we opened our inquiry:

"For six days you shall eat matsot" - that is, you shall engage in a physical action/abstention, beginning with the Seder of the first night of Pesah, but extending five days beyond it and preserving a measure of its holiness for the duration of an otherwise mundane week.

"And on the seventh day it is an atseret to Hashem, your God, you shall do no work" - that is, on the seventh day you must elevate yourselves even further than you already have through your period of abstention from hametz; you must remove yourselves, not only from certain foods, but from the workaday mindset altogether. This way you can consecrate your time and energy to reflection upon the deeper significance of the hametz-free existence you have maintained, and you can walk away from the holiday both edified and inspired.

In a subsequent post, I will explore an alternative reason for the institution of the seventh day of Pesah and then, hopefully, we will see how the two approaches are interconnected.

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