Pesahim 2a-b – When Or means evening
The first Mishnah in Massekhet Pesahim teaches about the law that requires bedikah - a search for leaven - on the night of erev Pesah, the 14th of Nisan. The expression used by the Mishnah in teaching this law is or le-arba-ah asar bodkin et he-hametz le-or ha-ner, which is translated as "on the night of the 14th we search for leaven by the light of a candle." The difficulty with this is that the first word - or - appears to mean "the evening of" even though it usually means "light" (as, in fact, it does at the end of the Mishnah's teaching - le-or ha-ner, "the light of a candle").
Explaining how the word or comes to mean "the evening of" is such a difficult question that the entire first daf (page) of Massekhet Pesahim is dedicated to this one issue. So many different explanations are given that the rishonim ask why the Gemara continues to quote other proofs that or really can mean "the evening before," even after convincing arguments have been brought. The Rashba is quoted as saying that as an obvious question, the issue was raised in all of the yeshivot where this Mishnah was studied. When the Gemara was edited, the various answers were all collected and put together.
In his commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides points out that Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi who edited the mishnayot chose an obscure word to open the massekhet because he preferred to make use of a positive word at the beginning of the tractate, rather than a word that carries with it connotations of darkness. As we will see, this explanation is given by the Gemara later on.
As an example of a proof offered by the Gemara that the word or can legitimately be used to mean "evening," the Gemara quotes a passage from Tehillim (148:3) that describes how the kokhavei or - the stars of or - offer praise to God. Since stars are in the sky at night, clearly this means "night stars" and the word or can mean "night." The Gemara responds that this is not a proof, since it may simply mean "stars that give light." This argument is rejected by the Gemara, since that would imply that only stars that give light praise God, while stars that do not give light do not.
Some commentaries understand the Gemara's reference to stars which do not give light as referring to comets or the moon, whose light is reflected from the sun, as they do not have internal light sources. This does not seem to be the Gemara's intent, and, in fact, there are certainly dark stars in the heavens which do not give off light whose presence and location can be found through other means, such as the gravitational forces of black holes in space.
Pesahim 3a-b – Being careful with one’s words
As noted on the last daf (page), the Mishnah that opens Massekhet Pesahim begins with the word or, which is used to mean "the evening of," even though that definition is an unusual one. The Gemara suggests that this term was chosen, rather than simply using leil – "the night of," because it is lashon me'alia – "a higher level form of speech." The attempt to raise the level of sensitivity to word usage is supported by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's teaching that a person should always be careful to keep from saying something inappropriate. This is supported by a number of passages from the Tanakh, all of which prefer to speak in a cumbersome manner, rather than using a simple, direct word that conveys negative ideas. As an example of this, Rav Aha bar Ya'akov points to the passage where King Shaul wonders why David did not appear for the Rosh Hodesh meal (I Shmuel 20:26). Rather than saying "perhaps he was tameh" – i.e. defiled, the passage records him saying "perhaps something happened to him and it turned out that he was lo tahor" – i.e. not pure.
As is commonplace in the Gemara, the technical ruling is followed by a number of illustrations.
There were these three priests in the Temple, each of whom received a portion of the showbread divided among the priests. Since there were many priests, each one received only a small amount. One said to them: I received a bean-sized portion. And one said: I received an olive-bulk. And one said: I received a portion the size of a lizard’s tail. They investigated the background of the latter priest, who used the imagery of an impure creeping animal, and they found a trace [shemetz] of disqualification in his background.
Upon hearing the expression that the third kohen used, referring to an unclean animal, the authorities checked his background information and discovered that he should not have been participating in the service.
Aside from the Gemara's issue with the use of this term, it is interesting to examine where such an expression would come from. The choice of "a lizard's tail" as an independent measure of size stems from the fact that oftentimes a lizard will shed his tail if it is caught and will grow another one. Since a lizard's tail is about 4 centimeters long, clearly it describes a very small amount.
Pesahim 4a-b – Does a renter need to search for hametz?
Who is obligated to search their home for hametz?
Obviously every homeowner is obligated to make sure that his house is free of hametz by searching for it. The Gemara on our daf (page) asks about the case of a rental – is the renter obligated to search because the hametz belongs to him, or is the owner obligated to search because the hametz is in a house owned by him? The Ran points out that in such a case, on a Biblical level, most probably neither of them are obligated to search. The renter is not obligated, since he does not own the house; the owner is not obligated, since the hametz does not belong to him. Nevertheless, the Gemara is asking on a Rabbinic level – who is obligated to search?
The Gemara concludes that if the keys were in the hand of the renter before the evening of the 14th of Nisan, then he is obligated to search. If he only gains access to the property after that time, then the obligation to search falls upon the owner.
How about a case where someone rents a house on the 14th under the assumption that it has already been searched for hametz, only to find that it has not been searched? Can the renter claim that the transaction was a mekah ta'ut – a transaction made under false impression that would allow him to cancel the agreement?
The Gemara suggests: Come and hear a resolution to this dilemma, as Abaye said: Needless to say, that in a place where people typically do not pay a wage and hire others to conduct the search for leaven and everyone searches himself, a person prefers to fulfill the mitzva himself. However, even in a place where people pay a wage and have others search for leaven, it is not a mistaken transaction due to the fact that a person prefers to perform the mitzva with his own money. Consequently, it is not considered a mistaken transaction, as a person does not object to having to perform a mitzva.
The Ritva argues that if, in fact, people usually pay for bedikah (searching) to be done, and in this case the renter entered the deal under the impression that it was already paid for, the renter will be able to demand his money back from the owner of the house. The Ran disagrees, saying that although the mitzvah originally was the obligation of the owner, since it is the renter who benefits from it while the owner derives nothing from the removal of the hametz, he cannot be forced to pay for it.
Pesahim 5a-b – When and how does one destroy one’s leaven?
The search for hametz takes place the evening prior to the 14th of Nisan, but one is allowed to continue eating hametz until mid-day. The Gemara teaches that hametz is Biblically forbidden beginning at noon on that day. A baraita is brought that suggests a number of different opinions regarding the source for this halakhah, all based on the passage (Shemot 12:15) akh ba-yom ha-rishon tashbitu se'or mibataikhem – "but on the first day you should destroy the leaven from your homes."
Rabbi Yishmael asks – how do we know that the "first day" mentioned in the pasuk (verse) refers to the day before Pesah? Because of the passage (Shemot 34:25) that teaches "do not slaughter the blood of my sacrifice on leaven" meaning that the korban Pesah, which is prepared on erev Pesah, cannot be brought at a time when leaven is still permitted.
Rabbi Akiva teaches that the first day must mean erev Pesah, because work is forbidden on Yom Tov (Jewish holiday) as it is on Shabbat. Given that burning is one of the forbidden activities, how can we burn leaven on Yom Tov? So the command to destroy hametz on the first day must refer to the day before Pesah.
Rabbi Yosei argues that the word Akh in the pasuk implies a division of the day, so that only on part of it will hametz be forbidden.
Rava learns three basic rules from Rabbi Akiva's teaching –
- the appropriate method for destroying hametz is burning
- the passage that teaches about fire as prohibited on Shabbat emphasizes that every forbidden activity of Shabbat is illegal in its own right
- although making use of fire on Yom Tov is permitted for activities like cooking, it is not permitted for other purposes.
Of the 39 types of activities that are forbidden on Shabbat, burning (i.e. making use of fire) is unique in that it is the only one specifically mentioned in the Torah. At the beginning of Parashat Vayakhel we are taught "Six days you should work and on the seventh day you will have a holy Shabbat to God, whoever works on that day will be put to death. You should not kindle fire in the places that you live on the Shabbat day." In an attempt to explain why this particular melakha deserves special mention, some tannaim say that it is unique in that its punishment will only be that of a lav – a simple forbidden act – whose punishment is malkot (=lashes), rather than a death penalty. Rabbi Akiva in the baraita that is quoted in our Gemara takes a different position. According to him it is separated from the others in order to teach that each one of the melakhot is forbidden on its own, so that the individual who transgresses the Shabbat does not need to perform all of the forbidden activities in order to be held liable. Transgressing even one such activity is enough to be punished.
Pesahim 6a-b – Nullifying the hametz
Rava said: The reason for the requirement to render leaven null and void is based on a decree lest he find a fine cake [geluska] among the leaven that he did not destroy and his thoughts are upon it. Due to its significance, he will hesitate before removing it and will be in violation of the prohibition against owning leaven.
According to some manuscripts, Rav Yehuda's original ruling obligates a person to nullify the hametz be-libo – in his heart. Based on this reading the Ran and the Ramban explain that the main issue here is that a clear mental decision should be made that the hametz is valueless to the person as Pesah begins. The Ritva indicates that even if there is no obligation to make a statement out loud, ideally the person should say the words of nullification. Others argue that the Gemara is trying to emphasize that someone who says the formula of nullification should make sure that he means it in his heart, as well.
The Ran points out that on a Biblical level, searching for hametz and destroying it is enough preparation for the holiday, and even if some hametz is left, there would be no transgression. Rava's explanation that we fear finding hametz that had been missed accounts for the Rabbinic concern about places where hametz is not ordinarily brought, places where there is no obligation to search at all. The Ramban is quoted as saying that the nullification discussed here does not mean to declare the hametz hefker – ownerless – rather it is a statement that for the upcoming holiday hametz is considered something that is repulsive to him.
According to Jewish tradition, we recite the formula for nullifying the hametz that appears printed in haggadot. This Aramaic formula is derived from the Geonim, who translated it from a Hebrew version that appears in the Jerusalem Talmud. Given what we have learned, it is important to make sure that the text is not simply read, but its meaning is understood and accepted.
Pesahim 7a-b – The blessing on searching for hametz
Since Jews have been reciting this berakha for generations, Rav Yehuda's ruling hardly comes as a surprise. Nevertheless it is an important statement, as one could argue that the search is merely preparation for destroying the hametz, or even that the actual mitzvah is that no hametz should be found in one's house, so even destroying the hametz is simply preparation for that. The Rosh says that Rav Yehuda is teaching a valuable lesson – that the bedikah (search) is an essential part of the mitzvah of bi'ur (burning), so the berakha should be recited on it. According to the Maharam Halava, the Biblical obligation is the search for hametz; destroying the hametz is only a Rabbinic decree.
There are two different opinions about the version of the blessing that is said. The blessing begins with the traditional introductory words "Blessed are you, Hashem, our God, King of the world, who has commanded us…"
Rav Pappi quotes Rava as requiring one to conclude with the words leva'er hametz – to remove leavened bread.
Rav Pappa quotes Rava as requiring that one say at the end al bi'ur hametz – concerning the removal of leavened bread.
The Gemara concludes that the berakha that should be made is al bi'ur hametz. Based on the discussion in our Gemara, the rishonim attempt to find general rules that would reliably indicate when the berakha that precedes the act of performing a mitzvah should be said as la'asot - an expression that we are commanded "to do" the mitzvah and when we should say al mitzvat that we are commanded "on the mitzvah of…"
According to Rabbenu Tam, it depends how quickly the mitzvah will be performed. When the mitzvah is done immediately after the berakha we say al mitzvat; if there will be a gap between the berakha and the mitzvah we say la'asot.
According to the Ramban, a mitzvah that can be done via a messenger gets the al mitzvat blessing; when a mitzvah must be done by the individual, he says la'asot.
Rabbenu Yehonatan argues that a mitzvah that is done once is blessed as la'asot, while a mitzvah that will be done many times receives the al mitzvat blessing.