Class Notes - Class #4

First, let’s try to create an outline of the process of bringing the korban pessah, the Passover sacrifice.  If this list doesn’t match the content of the list you made, go back and check the mitzvah references to see how this works.


1.     Form a havurah, a group of people who will jointly bring a particular sacrifice.  (Mitzvah #5).  Each member of the havurah will have an obligation to eat the particular sacrificial animal the havurah brings.  No one else will be able to eat that particular sacrificial animal.


Since certain people are not allowed to eat the korban pessah, there are some qualifications that need to be checked.

a.     Make sure that everyone in the havurah is fully Jewish. (Mitzvah #14).

b.    Make sure that all men in the havurah are circumcised. (Mitzvah #17).

c.     Make sure no one in the havurah is an apostate or a non-Jew. (Mitzvah #13).


2.     Choose an appropriate animal, a yearling male kid or sheep.  It may be taken from the flock owned by a member of the havurah, or it may be purchased.  (Mitzvah #5).

3.     On the afternoon before pessah, the 14th of Nissan, take the animal to the Temple courtyard for slaughter.  Note that these mitzvot only apply in the time the Temple is in operation.

4.     Take the carcass to the place designated by the havurah for its Passover seder.


There are detailed mitzvot about how to prepare the meat (mitzvah #7):

a.     Roast it whole on a spit.

b.    Do not break any bones.

c.     Do not use sauce or marinade.  Do not cook it in water.

d.    Cook it thoroughly.  Make sure it is fully cooked, not partly cooked.


There are detailed mitzvot about what the members of the havurah cannot do during the evening (mitzvah #6):

a.      Do not go to sleep.

b.     Do not leave the premises.


5.     That night, eat the meat when the participants are satisfied from having eaten other things.  Eat at least an olive’s bulk, k’zayit.  (Mitzvah #6).  Do not leave any leftover meat.  (Mitzvah #8).  Later in our study we will find a mitzvah that if any is left over, it must be burned (mitzvah #143.) 



Let’s go on to the shorshei hamitzvah, which the author treats as a unified whole in these mitzvot.  (We’ll come back to the long discourse in mitzvah #16.)

          The author repeats one main theme:  the role of these mitzvot is to remember the miracles God did in taking us out of Egypt.  The author is less obvious about why remembering that is so important.  He does extend the idea in his explanation of mitzvot 13 and 14: that the exodus from Egypt represents the moment that the Jewish people enter under God’s loving protection, “tachat konfei hashechinah,” and enter into a covenant with God committing to Torah and faithfulness.  Those are crucial concepts in the formation and direction of the Jewish nation.


          The author pursues another theme about the details of how we are required to eat the korbon pessah.  Because of the status the Jewish people enter, as those committed to Torah and faithfulness, the Jews become “free people deserving of greatness and kingship.” (Mitzvah #8).  We become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  So we are required to eat the Passover sacrifice the way high-class people eat.  We eat it roasted; it tastes best that way.  We do not dilute it with water, we eat straight meat; ordinary people use meat as a flavoring in soup or stew because the meat is just too expensive.  We do not break the bones; there is enough to eat without digging after every last drop.  We do not take it outside the premises; ordinary people who have a treat take bits to share with their neighbors.  This meal is the epitome of luxury. 

          Please note that, for all of that, each participant is required to eat only a k’zayit of the meat.  And that is eaten only at the end of the meal, as dessert.  In short, although the style of the meal is “as the upper class lives,” the actual expense of the korban pessah is not very great.

          The author adds one more aspect to the requirement that we eat the korban pessah roasted rather than boiled:  that it takes less time.  It reminds us of the haste with which the Jews left Egypt. (Mitzvah #7)


Now let’s go through the mitzvot one at a time:


          Mitzvah #5 is the requirement that we bring an appropriate animal to the Temple to be slaughtered on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan. 

          In the dinei hamitzvah section of the essay, the author includes some of the details of what the Temple courtyard was like on that afternoon.  There were three lines of people with their animals waiting for shchitah, slaughter.  The levi’im were reading the psalms that make up hallel.  Trumpets were sounding.  It must have been quite a scene.

          Our author is very fond of seeking out and quoting sources in the literature that describe vividly how the practice of the Temple was accomplished.  There is a strain in the tana’itic literature that seems to preserve a living memory of Temple times, and our author quotes that strain whenever he can. That helps him draw a vivid picture of Temple practice.


          The appropriate time for this mitzvah is on the 14th of Nissan, “bein ha-arbayim,” “between the evenings.”  In general, this refers to twilight time.  Actually, halachah looks at time periods at the beginning and ending of each day very carefully. Early morning starts with dawn, when the first bit of sunlight becomes visible.  Then comes sunrise, when the sun itself first becomes visible, followed by full sunrise, when the entire sun is visible.  At the end of the day, there are comparable periods: twilight, when the sun begins to set, when the sun finishes setting.  Each of these moments is significant for triggering various mitzvot.  The problem is that the rishonim disagree about exactly when each of these moments occurs.  The issue is much more complex than one would expect.  Here, the author simply repeats the words of the verse, “bein ha-arbayim” and leaves it at that.  It is sometime around twilight.


          The punishment section of the mitzvah is a little confusing, as it assumes information not yet presented by the author.  We already know that there is no predefined punishment for failing to fulfill positive mitzvot.  We know there are two exceptions, circumcision and this mitzvah, which are punishable with karet.  Now we add another concept, the distinction between acts done internationally, “b’mazid,” and acts done unintentionally, “b’shogeg.”  There is a general rule that if a mitzvah is punishable by karet if it was done b’mazid, intentionally, then breaking that mitzvah unintentionally, b’shogeg, requires the violator to bring a korban hatat, a sin sacrifice.  There are three exceptions, mitzvot punishable by karet if done b’mazid but do not require a korban hatat if done b’shogeg.  These are the two we know about already, and blasphemy, mitzvah #70.


          This entire set of mitzvot applies to both men and women, according to the author.  He does not explain why.


Mitzvah #6 is the requirement to eat the korban pessah.  The punishment section of this mitzvah introduces a new concept.  We know that there is normally no punishment for failure to fulfill a positive mitzvah.  However, here the author explains that the beit din has police power to force someone who says he will not fulfill a positive mitzvah to do so.  The beit din can use any kind of motivation up to and including physical force.  This power exists in the theory of halachah.  I am not aware of evidence of this having been done.


Mitzvah #7 is a mitzvah to eat the korban pessah roasted and to refrain from eating the korban pessah if it is not roasted. The mitzvah prohibits two things: eating the korban pessah if it was cooked with liquid, and eating the korban pessah if it is not cooked fully.  The Torah mitzvah here does not prohibit eating the korban pessah absolutely raw, but the rabbis do prohibit that.

I am confused about whether this mitzvah is a positive mitzvah, a negative mitzvah, or both.  It has a positive aspect, to eat the korban pessah roasted.  It has a negative aspect, not to eat the korban pessah underdone or cooked with a liquid.  It is atypical for our author to create an ambiguity like this; I think it is a function of his not writing as clearly at the beginning of this work as he does later. I may also be related to the issue of how many mitzvot this actually is.  We will come back to the author’s discussion of that question when we are done with the substantive material about korban pessah.


The author restates the midrash halachah that explains why this mitzvah prohibits cooking the korban pessah in any kind of liquid, not just water, even though the source verse only mentions water.  The verb does repeat the word for cooking, “bashel m’vushal.”  The midrash halachah often picks up on repetition like that to use as a source of further rulings.  Here, the midrash assumes there must be more that one type of cooking, and so extends the verse’s reference to water to other types of liquids.


Mitzvah #8 is a negative mitzvah: do not leave any leftovers of the korban pessah.  If there are leftovers, they should be burnt.  That is like kings and other high-class people who disdain leftovers.

 The punishment section adds another new tidbit of information.  We know that there is usually no defined punishment for failure to fulfill positive mitzvot.  It would be reasonable to assume that there are punishments for violating negative mitzvot, although we have not seen any yet.  Sometimes the concept of a mitzvah is expressed in both a positive and negative mitzvah.  Here, for example, there is a negative mitzvah (not to leave leftovers of the korban pessah) and a positive mitzvah (to burn the leftovers if there are any, mitzvah #143).  When the concept of a mitzvah is expressed as a positive/negative pair of mitzvot, there is no punishment for breaking those mitzvot.  I do not know why that should be.


          Mitzvot #13, 14, and 17 explain that there are certain people who may not eat the korban pessah. 

Mitzvah #13 is a negative mitzvah not to allow a “meshumad,” an apostate, to eat the korban pessah.  The source verse says not to give any to a “nachor,” alien or stranger.  The author explains this means an apostate.  He does not define that term.  In his time, where different religious communities were more clearly separate than in our times, the definition of an apostate was probably pretty clear – someone who had converted to a different religion.  I do not know how that might apply under modern, more flexible conditions.  Of course, this mitzvah only applies at the time the Temple stood, so that is not a problem at the moment.  The author does not mention whether a non-Jew is permitted to eat the korban pessah.  Rashi, in his commentary on Exodus, says the prohibition applies to non-Jews.

Our author explains by way of shorshei hamitzvah that, since the institution of korban pessah represents the Jewish people entering the central covenant with God, it is logically inappropriate for someone who has rejected that covenant to participate.

Again we have a bit of new information in the punishment section.  It is another exception to the general principle that breaking a negative mitzvah is punishable.  The exception here is that there is no punishment for breaking a negative mitzvah if breaking it involves no affirmative action.

Mitzvah #14 is a negative mitzvah not to allow someone who is not fully Jewish to eat the korban pessah.  The mitzvah applies in two cases.  First, it applies to a “toshav,” a non-Jew living under Jewish sovereignty who commits to belief in God as understood by Judaism, and commits not to worship idols.  The toshav is not Jewish, however, and is not obligated to observe Jewish ritual law.  As our author puts it, “it is someone who has resolve not to worship idols, but eats carcasses (non-kosher food.)”

The source verse for this mitzvah also says not to give a portion of the korban pessah to a “ger.”  Literally, ger means a stranger.  In halachah, the word is understood in a number of different ways.  For the purpose of this mitzvah, the word ger refers to someone in the process of converting to Judaism who has not completed the process.  In particular, it refers here to a male potential convert who has had a circumcision but not immersed in mikvah.  For the purpose of this mitzvah, it does not mean someone who has completed the conversion process and is fully Jewish, who is certainly obligated to participate in the mitzvah of korban pessah.

Since mitzvah #17 is closely related by topic, let’s look at that next.  It prohibits an uncircumcised Jewish male from eating the korban pessah.  Even though he may not eat the sacrifice, he may and should eat matzah and maror. 

The author says that the same shoresh applies to this mitzvah as applies to the prior two mitzvot we discussed.  As to someone who chose not to have a circumcision but could have, that rationale makes sense.  The author specifies that this mitzvah applies even to a Jewish male who should not have had a circumcision, for example someone whose older brothers died from circumcision.  (This probably reflects families with a propensity to hemophilia.)  Here, the individual is fully Jewish and has done everything required of him.  He in no way is excluded from the Jewish people.  Our author does not follow up on this inconsistency.

Among the topics for further study in this mitzvah is how this mitzvah might apply to someone who himself is circumcised, but who is responsible for the circumcision of someone else and hasn’t done it.  That person seems closer to fitting the shoresh our author explains.

This mitzvah actually raises a case of someone who gets punished for breaking a negative mitzvah: an uncircumcised Jewish male who voluntarily eats the korban pessah.  This person is punished with malkos, lashes.  There is a mitzvah for beit din to administer lashes to someone who breaks a negative Torah commandment purposely.  We will get to the mitzvah that governs this late in our study.  We will pick up more details of when such a punishment applies as we go along. 


Mitzvah #15 prohibits carrying the meat of the korban pessah outside the designated place for the group to celebrate the Passover seder.

Here the author gives several topics for further study: what happens to meat taken outside, what defines the designated place, what happens if there is a wall between the spaces designated for two groups and the wall breaks.

Here again we have someone potentially punishable with malkos for breaking this mitzvah.  Note here that the violator might be a man or a woman.  The author refers somewhat obliquely to a definition of what it means to carry the meat outside the designated place; the definition of carrying it out is the same as the definition of carrying something for the purpose to violating Shabbat.  The author does not tell us what it takes to violate Shabbat by carrying, though; he only says that the same rules apply.  It happens often in the halachic system that two seemingly unrelated rules are linked in some way.


Mitzvah #16 is pretty straight forward as it applies to the institution of korban pessah.  The mitzvah prohibits breaking a bone of the carcass.  Topics for further study include issues related to defining what is a bone: Is it a bone if it still has meat on it?  If it is sinew of cartilage?


That covers our author’s discussion of korban pessah.  These mitzvot contain two passages tangential to that topic that still need our attention.


We noted that mitzvah #7 was confusing. The mitzvah is to eat the korban pessach roasted, not cooked in liquid or underdone.  We were confused as to whether this is a positive or negative mitzvah, and how to put together what seem to be three different concepts.  That brings the author to a disagreement between Rambam and Ramban on counting the mitzvot.  We are still early in this book, and the author’s writing style has not quite jelled, so his discussion here is not entirely clear.

Nothing in our author’s discussion explains how the negative and positive aspects of this mitzvah fit together, but the author does expand on whether the two negative aspects, not to eat the korban pessah underdone and not to eat it cooked with liquid, are one mitzvah or two.

 We know that Rambam counts this as one mitzvah, and our author follows that count. 

Ramban counts these as two separate mitzvot.  Ramban sees this as a case where two very different prohibitions appear in the same verse.  Then, Ramban counts two separate mitzvot although Rambam sometimes counts one. For example, one verse prohibits bringing sourdough and honey on the Temple’s alter.  Rambam counts that as one mitzvah, but Ramban argues that, since these are such different things, they count as two mitzvot. 

Another situation is where the Torah states a general principle with examples that are similar to each other.  Here, Ramban counts only one mitzvah, just as Rambam would. For example, both authorities agree that the verse requiring Jews to keep accurate weights and measures is one mitzvah, even though the source verse lists different kinds of weights.

 Here, the Torah says to eat the korban pessah roasted; the details are the prohibitions against eating it cooked with liquid or underdone (not really roasted.)  Ramban interprets this as two disparate concepts expressed in the same verse, and thus considers these two separate mitzvot.

This discussion is a good illustration of why the enterprise of counting exactly 613 separate mitzvot is controversial.  It seems perfectly reasonable to say that the two concepts here, not to eat the korban pessah underdone or cooked in water, are just two details of the overall concept to eat it roasted. It is not clear from our author’s discussion why the Ramban concluded these two aspects were different enough to count as two mitzvot.

In the case of korban pessah, there is a disagreement between Rambam and Ramban about punishment. Let us take the case of someone who eats a k’zayis of korban pessah cooked in liquid and a k’zayis of korban pessah that is not fully cooked, both at the same time.  According to Rambam, since the person broke only one mitzvah, he only gets punished once, with one set of lashes.  According to Ramban, since these are two separate mitzvot, the person gets two sets of lashes.

Our author goes on to another aspect of Ramban’s approach in this passage: the notion that it is possible under certain circumstances to punish someone twice for breaking one mitzvah.  This happens when the Torah gives a number of examples within one mitzvah.  Then, a violator receives one punishment of lashes for each example violated.

For example, the Torah says a nazir may not eat grape products, and then lists various types of grape products.  Ramban counts that as only one mitzvah. But, according to Ramban, a nazir who violates it by eating, say, a k’zayis of raisins and a k’zayis of grape skins at the same time, would be punished twice by the beit din.  Rambam would say that, since it is only one mitzvah, it can incur only one punishment.

What I have said explains, I think, almost all of the author’s discussion of this topic.  There is once sentence that does not seem to fit, and I cannot find a way to read it consistent with the rest of what our author says in this passage.  That sentence begins, “V’amnam b’inyan hamalkos,” “In regard to the punishment of whiplashes.” (Feldheim translation p. 103.)  If you have some insight into how to read this sentence consistent with the rest of the passage, please let me know.


One more small side point.  In referring to Ramban in this passage, our text repeatedly says “zichrono l’brachah,” “may his memory be for a blessing.”  We know this work was written in the mid-1200s because the author refers to the date of the upcoming shmittah year.  And we know that Ramban was still alive then; he argued in the Barcelona Disputation about fifteen years later.  Recall that our author, in his introduction, instructed copyists to correct errors.  All of the manuscripts we have were written well after Ramban died.  Probably, this phrase was inserted by copyists to correct something that had been true in the author’s day but was not longer true when the work was copied.


That leaves us with one more passage in this reading, the direct address our author makes to his son in mitzvah #16. This is one of about twenty instances where the author addresses his son directly, in second person. Most of the other second-person passages are much shorter than this one. It gives us wonderful insight into the parent-child relationship.  Here, the passage is also fundamental to our author’s understanding of the overall purpose of mitzvot.

Our author responds to a question: Why do we need so many mitzvot about Passover?  Wouldn’t we have gotten the message with a mitzvah or two?  The substantive answer to this question is a very important piece of our author’s understanding of how the total collective of mitzvot operate.

There is a crucial link between one’s actions and one’s character traits.  Our author believes that actions generate character traits, rather than character traits generating action.  Thus, God requires many actions of us, in the hope that, by doing good actions we will develop good character traits and become good people.  This is true even under the most extreme of circumstances.  A person who is “evil of heart” will improve by doing mitzvot, because doing mitzvot will steer the person toward good character traits.  On the other hand, a person of good character who is required by the ruler to do an evil job (tax farmer comes to mind) will have his personality influenced toward evil. 

Our author cites gemara Makkot as saying that God gave the Jews many mitzvot in order that the Jews be meritorious.  Do not mistake this for saying that, by keeping each mitzvah, we accumulate points that earn us our way in to the world to come.  Rather, by doing lots of mitzvah actions, we have lots of opportunities to incorporate the moral lessons into our character, and acting on those characteristics and moral lessons will make us deserving of reward.  Mitzvot that remind us of all those mitzvot, like mezuzah or tzitzit, are important because they remind us constantly of the mitzvot, which, in turn, will help us develop good character traits.

We will come back and spend a little time thinking about the notion of trying to see some sort of root or purpose in mitzvot.  Here, we can see that how one articulates the particular moral lesson of any give mitzvah is very important, because that is what will define what character trait the mitzvah encourages us to pursue. 


The second striking feature of this passage is what it reflects about the parent-child relationship our author has with his son.  In the father’s opinion, his son is hanging out with the wrong crowd.  The son defends this behavior by saying that the less than stellar character traits of his companions will not rub off on him.  His father is having none of it.  He accuses his son of being childish and immature.  He insists that the son is not immune to the influence of his friends, that many have tried to associate will people without having their bad traits rub off, and that those people have not succeeded.

We don’t know who the author’s son is spending his time with, only that his father does not approve.  Yitzhak Baer, in his History of the Jews in Christian Spain (JPS 1992) explains the social conditions of the Jewish community during our author’s time.  The remnants of the courtier class within the Jewish community were at odds with the more traditional, lower class members of the community.  Baer quotes Ramban’s description of the courtier class:  “men who do not pray, recite no grace over their meals, are not careful with their bread and wine, and secretly even desecrate the Sabbath – veritable Ishmaelites.” (p.106) Elsewhere, Baer also mentions sexual improprieties.  Perhaps our author is worried about the influence such folks would have on his son.

For me, this passage sounds surprisingly familiar.  I recognize the worried parent.  I recognize the teen-age testing behavior.  I recognize the predictable parental harangue, and I expect it will backfire, as these things usually do.  There is one difference here, though.  The father is devoting time to a joint endeavor with his son.  What difference that will make we will have to wait and see.