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April 2, 2011 / 26 Adar 2, 5771
Unravelling the Mishnah of Tractate Pesahim
Week 1:
I am devoting my time to a discussion of the last tractate in the volume of the Talmud called Pesachim which describes how one prepares for the Passover Seder.

Pesahim, Chapter 10, Mishnah 1

On the eve of any Passover it is not permitted for a person to eat anything from the time of the Minhah (= Afternoon worship service) until it becomes dark. Even the poorest in Israel shall not eat until each has reclined, nor shall any person have less than four cups of wine, even if the poorest must be supported by the community.

Did you ever notice how similar the Seder ritual is to a Shabbat meal, and yet so different? They share in common at least one blessing over wine and Kiddush, n'tilat yadayim (ritual washing of the hands), Motzi (berakhah over bread), Birkat HaMazon (grace after meal); a family meal and often with guests; and the singing of hymns/songs.

That similarity explains why our first Mishnah that begins the description of the Seder ritual as it existed at the end of the second century CE: with the requirement not to eat anything until after sunset; and that every Jew, even the poorest one, is to be provided with the four cups of wine.

The Rabbis modified the familiar Shabbat pattern and refashioned it into a Hellenistic banquet format in order to affirm the important values of freedom and religious loyalty. They employed weekly regular household rituals to fashion a replacement for the Passover Paschal sacrifice and Festival rituals and symbols.

The Seder was created at a time of incredible change in Jewish life: the destruction of the Termple and termination of the sacrifical services, the failure of many revolts against a Roman occupation, the enslavement of masses of people and the creation of a new institution of religious leadership, which the Sages referred to as the Rabbis. All of this occured in front of a new and attractive Greco-Roman culture.

Our Mishnah emphasizes that although we are permitted to begin the celebration of Shabbat and eat even when it is still not yet completely dark that Passover requires our waiting until the night begins. Why? Because the Bible required the Pesah sacrifice and its eating to take place in the evening or during the night: (Ex. 12:8; Dt. 16:6) The home Seder ritual was parallel to the Temple sacrifice. At nightfall, we recite the Kiddush and begin the Seder.

But why shouldn't we eat anything from after the Mincha (approximately 3 PM) to when the seder begins? Why not a little žnoshÓ knowing it will be quite a while until the Seder begins and a longer time until the meal? After all we are permitted to eat before Shabbat and other Festivals begin! Most explanations suggest that waiting will insure we truly appreciate the taste of the Matzah. Matzah has come to symbolize the Passover offering which would have been eaten if the Temple still existed.

The importance of every Jew, even the poorest, to have four cups of wine was required in order to make Passover distinct from Shabbat. On Passover all of Israel were emancipated, men, women and children, rich and poor, and everyone was obligated as well as privileged to celebrate. For this reason, perhaps, most of us as Rabbis in the community accept contributions for the Maot Chittim Fund at the time of fulfilling the tradition of žselling chametzÓ to insure that still today everyone will have the means to celebrate Pesah.

This week's Mishnah lesson was written by
Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner.
He created and is the editor/author/administrator of www.jewishfreeware.org. See especially for 5771 Pesah new and updated FREE Family-Friendly Haggadot: Hebrew/Translation/Transliteration ; World's Largest Seder Songbook; and Passover Activities. Millions are being distributed annually FREE with encouragement for sharing and unlimited copying for individuals, families, synagogues, religious schools, day schools, nursing homes, assisted living residents, community sedarim, military chaplains, prisons to more than 78 countries. Rabbi Lerner is also President, Foundation For Family Education, Inc. 501c3, an educational project for hands-on Jewish learning that builds Jewish memories.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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