Thoughts on Pesach


Rabbi Bernard Fox



“And you should count, from the day following the holiday, from the day that you bought the omer wave offering, seven weeks.  They should be complete.”  (VaYikra 23:15)

This pasuk introduces the mitzvah of sefirat ha'omer – the counting of the omer.  The Torah requires that we count seven weeks from the day on which the omer sacrifice was offered.  The omer was a special grain offering brought on the second day of Pesach.  Each of the forty-nine days of these seven weeks is individually counted.  On the fiftieth day Shavuot is celebrated.  The command is performed through verbally announcing the count each night.


The Talmud explains that this mitzvah must be performed by all males.[1]  This law is derived from our pasuk.  Ivrit differentiates between the second person singular and the plural.  In this case the plural is used.  This means that the counting is performed by many.


There is another instance in which we are required to count towards a date.  This is the counting towards the Jubilee year – the Yovel.  The Yovel occurred in the land of Israel every fifty years.  This year was observed through a number of special laws.  Jewish servants were set free.  The land of Israel was redistributed to the descendants of those who had first occupied the land.  The land was not worked during the Yovel year.  Determination of the Yovel required counting.  Forty-nine years are counted from a Yovel year.  The fiftieth year is the next Yovel.


Who was responsible to count the years between the Yovel years?  This obligation was executed by the Great Court.[2]   This raises an interesting question.  The mitzvah of sefirat ha’omer performed by individuals.  The counting for Yovel is only performed by the Great Court.  Why are these mitzvot assigned to different elements of the community?


A careful analysis of Maimonides’ formulation of each mitzvah will help resolve this issue.  In addition to counting the years leading to the Yovel, the Great Court is obligated to declare the Yovel year.  These are two separate commandments.  The court is obligated to count the years and declare the Yovel.  Maimonides, understandably, relates these two commandments.  The counting is requisite for the declaration of the Yovel.  Both elements merge into a single objective.[3]


The Great Court is responsible for the establishment of the Jewish calendar.[4]  The court declared the beginning of each month and subsequently established our current calendar.  The establishment of the Yovel year is also a calendar function.  It is quite understandable that this mitzvah and the requisite counting should be responsibilities of the court.


Why is the counting of the omer an individual responsibility and not the duty of the court?  We can only conclude that sefirat ha’omer does not determine the date of Shavuot.  This occurs spontaneously with the advent of the second day of Pesach.  The counting is not required to designate the date of Shavuot.


What then is the purpose of counting the omer?  Through this counting we recognize the identity of these intervening days.  We acknowledge the special nature of each day of the omer.  As this is a personal act of acknowledgment, it must be performed by the individual.  The court cannot perform this mitzvah.





“What does the wise one say?  What are these testimonies, laws and rules that Hashem our G-d commanded you?  And you tell him of the laws of the Pesach.  One may not eat a dessert after the Pesach sacrifice.”   (Haggadah of Pesach)

One of the mitzvot fulfilled at the Seder is recounting the exodus from Egypt.  This mitzvah is ideally fulfilled through a discussion between father and son.  The Torah requires the father to employ a pedagogic style that matches the needs of the specific child.  The above passage describes the question of the wise son and the appropriate response.


The wise son asks the father to explain the meaning of the various commandments of Pesach.  The Haggadah instructs the father to answer the son through teaching the laws of Pesach.


This response is difficult to understand.  The father must retell the story of our redemption.  Although the method of teaching must match the child, the goal is to discuss these events.  Yet, the answer suggested by the Haggadah does not mention the redemption.


The first step in answering this question is to understand that the Haggadah is not dictating the complete answer to be given to the son.  The Haggadah is indicating the appropriate approach.  The answer is far more comprehensive than the short response included in the above passage.  The response must include a complete recounting of the events of the redemption.  However, the discussion must begin with a lesson concerning the laws of Pesach.


Why begin with a discussion of the laws?  What would be missing if the father immediately retold the story of the exodus and bypassed this discussion of the laws? 


The wise son recognizes that the Torah can only be fully understood through study of its law.  The father is required to reinforce this conclusion.  He encourages this study.  He shows the son that the profound lessons of the Torah emerge from the study of the law. Through this approach, the wise son discovers that the exodus is not just an event but also the basis for the laws of the Torah.





“The following are the ten plagues that the Holy One Blessed Be He brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt:  Dam (Blood), Tzfardeah (Frogs), Kinim (Lice), Arov (Wild Beasts), Dever (Pestilence), Sh’chin (Boils), Barad (Hail), Arbeh (Locusts), Choshech (Darkness), Macat Bechorot (The Plague of the Firstborn).  Rabi Yehuda expressed them through their initials – D’TzACh, ADaSh, BeAChaB.”  (Hagaddah of Pesach) 

The redemption from Egypt was preceded by ten plagues.  The Pesach Hagaddah lists these plagues.  The Hagaddah then tells us that the Sage Rabi Yehuda created a mnemonic from the initials of the ten plagues.  This mnemonic cannot be accurately transliterated from Hebrew to English.  This is because some Hebrew letters have alternate pronunciations.  Therefore, in some instances a letter is pronounced in one manner in the Hebrew word for the plague and in another manner in the mnemonic.


The commentaries discuss the purpose of this mnemonic.  We usually employ such devices in order to commit complicated or intricate material to memory.  This is not the likely explanation of Rabi Yehuda’s device.  Ten plagues are not terribly difficult to memorize.  What was Rabi Yehuda’s objective in creating this mnemonic?


There are various approaches to answering this question.  Many of these Sages note that the plagues are recorded in Sefer Tehillim.  There, the order is somewhat altered.[5]  This might create some confusion as to the actual order.  Rabi Yehuda wished to indicate that the actual order is found in the Torah.  He created a mnemonic that represents the plagues in the order in the Torah.[6]


This explanation assumes that the order in which the plagues occurred was significant.  In other words, there was a specific reason for this order and no other.  The Midrash seems to confirm this assumption.  The Midrash comments that the names of the plagues were carved onto Moshe’s staff.  These names were arranged in the order of their occurrence.  This seems to confirm the importance of the order.[7]


This raises a question.  Why was the order important?  Why did the plagues occur in a specific sequence?  Again, the commentaries offer a variety of responses.  One well-known explanation is offered by the Midrash.  The Midrash explains that the order is similar to the strategy followed by a king putting down a rebellion.  First, the king places a siege around the rebellious city.  He cuts off the water supply.  Similarly, the Almighty turned the water in Egypt to blood.  Then the king commands his troops to sound their trumpets.  This is an attempt to confuse and discourage the rebels.  The frogs fulfilled this function.  Their constant croaking unnerved the Egyptians.  The Midrash continues to delineate the similarities between the order of the plagues and the strategy of the king.[8]


Other commentaries offer a completely different explanation of Rabi Yehuda’s mnemonic.  They explain that Rabi Yehuda was not merely attempting to indicate the sequence of the plagues.  Instead, he was dividing the plagues into three distinct groups.  What are these three groups?  The first three plagues were plagues of the earth or water.  The water was turned to blood.  Then, an infestation of frogs was generated from the water.  Next, the dust of the earth turned to lice. 


The next group is harder to characterize.  These seem to be plagues that emerge from the general surroundings.  The first of these was an infestation of wild beast.  These animals emerged from the surrounding wilderness.  Pestilence and boils followed this. 


The final group of plagues descended from the heavens.  These were the plagues of hail, locusts and darkness.  Tacked on to this last group is the plague of the firstborn.  This plague is not truly a member of this group.  However, it is attached to the last group in order to create an effective mnemonic.[9]


There is a basic difference between these two approaches to explaining Rabi Yehuda’s mnemonic.  In order to better understand this dispute, it will help to consider a pasuk in the Torah.  Hashem sends Moshe to Paroh to warn him of the coming plague of Hail.  Moshe makes an interesting statement.  He tells Paroh that Hashem could immediately end the bondage of Bnai Yisrael in Egypt.  He could bring a plague of pestilence upon Egypt that would obliterate the Egyptians.  However, the Almighty does not choose to do this.  Instead, it is His will to extend His conflict with Paroh.  Why does Hashem wish to continue the struggle?  Moshe explains that Hashem wishes to demonstrate and publicize His omnipotence.[10]


What is Moshe’s message to Paroh?  Moshe is explaining that Hashem could destroy Paroh and his nation immediately.  Why is Hashem not acting more forcibly?  Moshe explains that this part of the Almighty’s will to demonstrate His omnipotence.


How did the plagues illustrate Hashem’s omnipotence?  This demonstration required two elements.  First, the plagues could not be mistaken for a natural set of catastrophes.  Second, they demonstrated the extent of the Almighty’s control over all elements of the environment.  The plagues included both of these elements.  They followed a plan.  This is the message of the Midrash.  The plagues followed the strategy of a king suppressing a rebellion.  The expression of this strategy in the sequence of plagues demonstrated the element of design.  Clearly, these plagues were not a series of natural catastrophes.


The plagues also affected every element of the environment.  The first three plagues originated in the earth and water.  The second set of three was produced by the general surroundings.  The lash three descended from the heavens.  This demonstrated the Almighty’s control over every element of the environments. 


We can now understand the dispute between the commentaries.  Which of these elements is represented by Rabi Yehuda’s mnemonic?  According to the first interpretation, the mnemonic represents the element of design in the plagues.  According to the second interpretation, the mnemonic communicates the Almighty’s control over the various elements of the environment that was illustrated by the plagues.





“Raban Gamliel said, “Anyone that does not discuss these three things does not fulfill one’s obligation.  And these are the things:  the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror.”  (Hagaddah of Pesach)

Raban Gamliel explains that at the Seder we are obligated to discuss the various mitzvot that are performed during the evening.  He comments that any person who does not discuss the mitzvot of the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror does not fulfill one’s obligation.  This statement is included in the Pesach Hagaddah.  The author derived the statement from the mishne of Tractate Pesachim.


Raban Gamliel’s statement is somewhat mysterious.  He asserts that it is absolutely necessary to discuss the various mitzvot performed on the Seder night.  One’s obligation cannot be fulfilled without this discussion.  However, he does not identify the specific obligation to which he refers.  Exactly, which mitzvah is fulfilled with this discussion?  If this discussion is omitted, which commandment is incompletely performed?


Maimonides seems to provide an answer to this question.  In his Mishne Torah, he places Raban Gamliel’s law in the seventh chapter of the Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah – the laws of Chametz and Matzah.  This chapter deals exclusively with the laws Tzipur Yetziat Mitzrayim – retelling the account of our redemption from Egypt.  The placement of Raban Gamliel’s requirement in this chapter indicates that it is essential to the mitzvah of Tzipur.  One does not fulfill the obligation to recount the events of our redemption without a discussion of the mitzvot of Pesach, Matzah, and Marror.  In other words, the redemption must be described through a discussion of the Pesach, Matzah, and Marror.


The Tosefot offer a different perspective on Raban Gamliel’s law.  In order to discuss this perspective, a brief introduction is needed.  The Talmud provides a source for Raban Gamliel’s law.  We are obligated to offer a Pesach sacrifice each year.  We cannot perform this commandment in our times.  However, during the Temple period this commandment was performed.  The Torah tells us that our children will ask for an explanation of this sacrifice.  We are to respond by providing an account of the offering of the first Pesach sacrifice.  This took place in Egypt.  Through the merit of offering this sacrifice, the families of Bnai Yisrael were spared from the final plague – the plague of the death of the firstborn.  In other words, the Torah clearly states that the Pesach sacrifice must be discussed.


The Tosefot ask an interesting question.  Raban Gamliel asserts that we must discuss the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror.  The Talmud provides a source for the obligation to discuss the Pesach sacrifice.  However, Raban Gamliel insists that we must also discuss Matzah and Marror.  What is the source for the obligation to discuss these two mitzvot?


Tosefot answer that the Torah does not explicitly state that we are obligated to discuss Matzah and Marror.  However, the Torah does equate Matzah and Marror to the Pesach sacrifice.  The Tosefot apparently refer to the injunction to eat the Pesach with Matzah and Marror.  Through this equation, Raban Gamliel derives the obligation to discuss Matzah and Marror in addition to the Pesach sacrifice.[11]


Let us analyze the Tosefot’s reasoning more carefully.  The Tosefot explain that the Torah equates the mitzvot of the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror.  They reason that a requirement that is fundamental to the Pesach sacrifice is also essential to the mitzvot of Matzah and Marror.  We are required to discuss the Pesach sacrifice.  Therefore, discussion must also be needed in order to properly perform the mitzvot of Matzah and Marror.  It is clear from the Tosefot’s reasoning that they regard the requirement for discussion as essential for the proper performance of the mitzvah of the Pesach sacrifice.  The mitzvot of Matzah and Marror are associated with the commandment of the Pesach.  Therefore, discussion is also essential for the proper performance of these commandments. 


This analysis indicates that the Tosefot disagree with Maimonides.  According to Maimonides, the discussion of the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror is part of the commandment of Tzipur.  The Tosefot seem to regard the discussion of the Pesach sacrifice as an aspect of the commandment to offer the Pesach.  They associate the obligation to discuss the mitzvoth of Matzah and Marror to the mitzvoth to eat Matzah and Marror.  In other words, these three commandments – the Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and Marror are not performed in their entirety without discussion.


[1]  Mesechet Menachot 65b.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 10:1.

[3]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 10:1.

[4]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Kiddush HaChodesh 1:5.

[5]   Sefer Tehillim, Chapters 78 and 105.

[6]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Hagaddah of Pesach.

[7]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Hagaddah of Pesach.

[8]   Midrash Tanchuma, Parsaht Bo, Chapter 4.

[9]   Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam), Commentary on the Hagaddah.

[10]   Sefer Shemot, 9:15-16.

[11]   Tosefot, Mesechet Pesachim 116a.