Tzav: Fast of the Firstborn

hero image
Pidyon Haben
17 Mar 2011


This column indicates that the firstborn of the father does not need to fast (or participate in a siyum) on Erev Pesach. Actually, the Shulchan Aruch explicitly states that such a first born does participate in the fast. I apologize for the error.

The Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:1) states that Rebbe ate neither chametz nor matza on erev Pesach; one reason is that he was a firstborn. More explicitly, in tractate Sofrim (21:3) it states that one may not fast in Nisan except for the fast of the firstborn on erev Pesach. Thus the Shulchan Arukh rules that the firstborn should fast on this day (SA OC 470). The Tur writes that this fast is a commemoration of the miracle in which the firstborn Jews were saved from the plague that visited the Egyptian firstborns.

While the sanctity of the firstborn, for example for redemption of the firstborn, is only a son who is the firstborn of the mother, these were not the only firstborns who were affected by the plague in Egypt. Our tradition states that the firstborn of the father was also smitten; that the heads of households were hit by the plague; and that Bitya, the daughter of Pharaoh who drew Moshe from the Nile, was saved from the plague in merit of her kindness, suggesting that firstborn women were also smitten.

Indeed, the Ra’aviah (end of siman 525) states that the firstborn of the fathers should also fast, and the Agudah (10:91) states that women should also fast. (Both cited in Beit Yosef OC 470, citations from glosses in Mif’al HaTur edition.) Yet this is not the custom; rather, as the Rama writes (Darchei Moshe OC 470:1) in the name of Maharil, the fast is specifically dependent on those firstborn who have the sanctity of the bechora. We may ask, since the fast is a commemoration of the salvation, why do we distinguish among the different groups of people who were saved from the plague?

We can answer this question based on a remarkable insight of the Netziv.

The Netziv’s starting point is a different, well-known difficulty regarding the plague of the firstborn. On the one hand, the Torah seems to emphasize that this plague was carried out directly by Hashem. In Shemot 11:4 Hashem states, “I will go out into the midst of Egypt”; in Shemot 12:12 He says, “And I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and I will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man to beast; and I will execute judgment on all the gods of Egypt; I am Hashem”. Indeed, we recite in the Hagada that the repetition comes to emphasize the personal aspect of this retribution: I, and not an angel; I, and not a seraph; I, and not an agent; I, and no other.

Yet only a few verses later, we find that Hashem will prevent the “destroyer” from smiting the children of Israel, if they put the commanded signs on their entrances (Shemot 12:23). On the previous verse, Rashi explains, “Once permission is given to the destroyer to assail, it doesn’t distinguish between the righteous and the wicked”. Here the Torah, and the Sages, seem to be emphasizing that the destruction was not wrought through HaShem’s direct intervention.

The Netziv explains that HaShem’s presence did indeed pass through Egypt, but not in order to punish. Rather, whenever flesh and blood encounters the awesome holiness of the Divine Presence it becomes vulnerable. We find this idea in many places in the Torah. For example, at Mount Sinai the people said, “Let not G-d speak to us, lest we die” (Shemot 20:16). After the sin of the golden calf, HaShem tells Moshe that His presence will no longer be among them, rather “I will send an angel before you… I will not go up in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I consume you in the way” (Shemot 33:2-3). Finally, in the case of Korach, all those who approached the Sanctuary were destroyed, and afterward when HaShem’s glory descended on the camp this began the plague on the rebellious people, which was stopped only by the incense (Bamidbar chapters 16, 17).

The Netziv explains that as HaShem’s presence passed through Egypt, it moved and attracted the souls of all those with exceptional spiritual force, whether for good or for bad. He explains that the forces of evil are also spiritual forces, and these also ultimately draw their sustenance from the Divine, and are attracted to it. However, when they draw too close they are consumed since they are not fit to approach so close to holiness.

As the Divine presence passed through Egypt, two kinds of spiritual forces drew close to it: those with an inherent spiritual elevation and those that arrogate to themselves spiritual leadership. The firstborn’s status is inborn; all those who were the firstborn of the mother were drawn towards the Divine presence. Other individuals viewed themselves as exalted and important; these include the heads of households and the firstborn of the fathers. It also included firstborn daughters, at least in the case of someone so important as the princess Bitya. These individuals also perished in the plague.

According to the Netziv, we can easily see why only firstborn sons of the mother fast. These are the only individuals whose special importance is inherent and inborn. The firstborn in Egypt perished because they were firstborns; household heads and others perished not because of their status but rather because their status granted them, at least in their own eyes, an elevated spiritual flow and importance. However, this flow of spirit was not one of holiness, but rather a negative spirit which was a kind of parasite on holiness. Therefore, it could not survive such a direct encounter with the Divine Presence which passed through Egypt; it became fair prey for the “destroyer”.

Indeed, even the firstborn of Israel would have perished were it not for HaShem’s special protection, since at the time of the Exodus, their spiritual level was far from one that could safely encounter the Divine presence. The Netziv explains that it is exactly this “shielded” encounter with holiness that endowed the first born of Israel with their special sanctity. (This explanation has much in common with the explanation based on Chassidut we wrote on the pidyon bechor.)

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.