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Study Guide - Class #6

We still have one mitzvah left in this series on Passover, mitzvah 21.  This is a mitzvah to speak about matters related to the Exodus from Egypt on the night of Passover at the time of eating matzah.  The source verse for this mitzvah says, “You should tell your son on that day, saying ‘This is because of what God did for me when I left Egypt.’”


There are two major themes in this essay: a further discussion of why the mitzvot about the exodus are so important, and a description of the process of the author’s seder.

          The major theme that our author adds in the shorshei hamitzvah section is a deeper discussion of why the exodus from Egypt is so important.  So far, he has focused on the miracles done to make the exodus possible.  Those miracles are also important philosophically. 

          We will see in mitzvah #25 a commandment to believe in God.  There, the author will explain that belief in God is an axiom of Judaism; everything else is dependent on that starting point.  Here, the author sees the exodus as supporting evidence for that axiom. Since many miracles took place and thousands of people experienced them, we have evidence of God changing the rules of nature.  Only if God has control of the rules of nature could God have changed those rules.  That bolsters the notion that God created everything, including people, and that God exerts “watchful control and power” over all his creation.  For that reason, we have so many mitzvot related to the exodus, and we mention is so often in blessings and prayers.  It is a supporting pillar of the whole system.

          The author mentions two other concepts.  First, he adds that, among the miracles done for the Jews, was that God took revenge on the Egyptians on our behalf.  Second, he connects this mitzvah specifically to a concept that we have seen before, that our actions influence our characters.  We are required to speak about the exodus; speech is especially effective at “arousing the heart.”


          The second major theme in this essay is the author’s description of the seder.  He writes for his son a description of the process and actions we do at the seder, but not the text we say.  Presumably, a text was available to his son elsewhere but the stage directions were not.  We have quite a few manuscripts of haggadot from the Iberian Peninsula, but they are 50 years or more later than our author.  They vary greatly on how much information they give as to the process of the seder.

          I assume we have all attended enough sedarim to be familiar with modern practice, at least as it applies in our own communities.  Our author’s seder does not match ours in several ways:

          The author washed his hands at his seder more often than we do, and said a brachah, a blessing, on that washing more often than we do.  He washes at least one hand before each cup of wine, without a brachah.  He washes before eating the vegetable, karpas, with a brachah.  At the Passover seder when the Temple stood, participants had to be tahor, ritually pure.  (We will learn a great deal more about how that worked later in our study.)  The extra washings here, with or without the brachah, are related to how the practices of staying tahor appear in the seder ritual after the destruction of the Temple, when being tahor is no longer possible.

          Rather than saying an individual brachah before drinking each cup of wine, at our author’s seder, the participants only said the brachah before the first and third cups.  A brachah is needed on the first cup, since no one has drunk anything yet.  A brachah is needed on the third cup, since it follows birchat hamazon, grace after meals.  But as to the second and fourth cups, since the participants are still focused mentally on the same thing, there is no interruption between the first and second cups, and between the third and fourth cups, so no additional brachah is needed.  The author explains that there is considered to be no interruption in concentration as long as the discussion stays on the same topic and does not stray to an inconsistent topic.

The author mentions saying after-blessings during the seder for the two vegetables we eat, karpas and maror, and says we say that blessing after eating the maror. 

Our author also mentions an optional fifth cup of wine. We do not know how many matzot our author would have had on his seder table.

Just by way of comparison, I checked the Rylands Haggadah, also from Spain, but in the mid 14th century.  That text instructs saying a brachah on washing before karpas, and dipping the karpas in haroses.  According to the translator, the author would have dipped his karpas in haroses, rather than in salt water or vinegar as we do.  This follows Rambam.  The translator gives the standard Ashkenazi recipe for haroses, but our author may well have had a different recipe, one including fruits available in Spain like dates and raisins rather than apples. 



Now for some of the details:

          We will by trying to focus on vocabulary as we go along, to help us expand our repertoire of halachic terminology.  Here, the author notes that, although the source verse says you should tell “your son,” actually the mitzvah is to tell someone.  If no one else is available, tell yourself.  Note the author’s terminology:  lav davka.”   The term davka means “precisely this” or “specifically.” Here, one might have said, “’tell your son’ davka, specifically your son, not anyone else.”  However, our author says, this is “lav davka” your son: not specifically your son, but anyone who is available.

          In the concluding paragraph, the author introduces another new term. This is a positive mitzvah, so there is no punishment for breaking it.  The author describes failure to fulfill this mitzvah as “bitul asseh,” “nullifying a positive mitzvah.”  A positive mitzvah is called a “mitzvas asseh,” a commandment to do something.  A negative mitzvah is called a “mitzvas lo ta’aseh,” “a commandment not to do something, or just a “lav,” a no-no.

          When the author describes filling the cups of wine at the seder, he actually says to “mix” the wine.  This terminology comes from earlier halachic sources.  We know that, in the ancient world, wine was drunk diluted with water. The usual explanation, given here by the translator, is that their wine was more alcoholic than ours, so that, when they diluted the wine, they ended up with something very much like our wine.  That seems unlikely to me.  The limiting factor on the alcohol content of wine is that too much alcohol kills the yeast that cause the wine to ferment, so their wine probably stopped fermenting at about the same level of alcohol as ours does.  It could be that they just liked the wine diluted.  Or it could be that they drank wine two different ways, one as an alcoholic beverage on its own, and one as water mixed with enough wine to kill the harmful bacteria polluting the water.  I do not know if our author literally means to mix wine with water at the seder, or whether he really means to pour the wine and is just borrowing earlier technology.


That concludes this series of mitzvot directly related to Passover.  Mitzvot #18, 22 and 23 introduce us to the concept of a b’chor, a firstborn.

          One theme of Genesis is that the firstborn male in a family has a special status.  For example, Jacob “buys the birthright of the firstborn son” from Esau for a bowl of lentil stew.  Jacob and his mother arrange to mislead Isaac in the hope that the special blessing for the firstborn son will go to Jacob rather than Esau.  The firstborn son inherited the leadership of the family, and that included spiritual leadership.  With the giving of the Torah, the spiritual leadership was given to the Levites.  Even then, any firstborn son retains a double portion of inheritance.  The mitzvot here, and other related mitzvot we will see later, indicate that the expected special status of firstborn sons remains an issue that needs to be dealt with.

          Mitzvah #18 is a positive mitzvah.  The source verse requires us to “sanctify to me [God] all firstborn that open the womb” of both people and animals.  The author explains that this covers two categories mentioned in the verse: firstborn male Jews and firstborn male behemot, domestic mammals (as opposed to hayyot, wild animals.)  (The concept also covers donkeys, which get their own mitzvot, # 22 and 23.) Note here the precise phrasing the author uses to interpret the verse.  The verse refers to “behemot,” “domestic mammals,” and the author says “behemot davka,” precisely domestic mammals and not wild animals.

          The author describes the process of sanctifying these firstborn animals.  When the owner has a qualifying animal, the owner declares, “This one is holy.” After caring for the animal for a short period of time (30 days for a small animal like a goat, 50 days for a large animal like an ox, at which time the baby animal can survive without its mother), the owner is obligated to give that animal to a cohen chosen by the owner.  The cohen slaughters it in the Temple, offers up its fat and blood on the alter, and eats the rest of the animal, but only in Jerusalem. This is our first glimpse of a very large and complex set of interrelated topics: agricultural taxes, the role of the cohanim, and the procedures in the Temple.  If the details here seem to be lacking context, be assured we will get a great deal more context as we go along.

          This mitzvah applies to men and women, and it applies at all times.  It applies to cohanim and levi’im, so a cohen who has a b’chor in his flock gets to keep it for himself, but has to bring it to the Temple, treat it like a korban and eat it in Jerusalem.  (The other mitzvot related to the concept of b’chor do not apply to cohanim or levi’im.) By Torah law, d’oraita, this mitzvah only applies in Israel.  But by rabbinic law, d’rabanan, it applies everywhere.

          That rubric raises a problem:  what to do when there is no Temple, and when we are no longer sure who the cohanim are.  The cohanim cannot bring the animal as a korban and eat the remainder in Jerusalem.  There are two opinions.  According to the first opinion, the owner should lock the animal up and let it die.  The owner cannot use the animal, and there is no cohen to give it to.  That seems cruel and wasteful, but there is nothing else to do.  According to another opinion, give it to a cohen and let the cohen keep it until it develops a blemish that would disqualify it as a sacrifice.  Then it becomes ordinary non-sacred property of the cohen, who can do with it whatever he pleases.  This option does not deal with the problem that we no longer know for sure who the cohanim are.

          Note the final line of the essay.  The author notes that this is the first mitzvah we have seen that is triggered by a specific circumstance, that one is the owner of an animal that qualifies as a b’chor.  (I think the translator understands that line differently.)

          The shoresh of this mitzvah is to help us recognize that everything we have comes from God.  When we work hard toward some goal, like raising a flock of animals, we feel proud and excited when all our hard work pays off.  Just at the moment we need to feel grateful, too.  By depriving ourselves of this prized possession, and dedicating it to God, we are reminded that we have nothing on our own, only what God allocates to us.  This mitzvah appears within a passage describing the mitzvot of Passover.  Our author relates this dedication of firstborns to gratitude that, when God slew the Egyptian firstborns, he spared ours.


There are several aspects of this mitzvah that indicate our author is beginning to think about how his book will operate as a whole.

          The author mentions that we will eventually see other related mitzvot, and tells us a little about what they are and when we will see them.  In particular, the related mitzvah about firstborn Jewish males will come up, but not until mitzvah #392.  He also mentions the application of this concept to donkeys in mitzvot #22 and 23, which we will come to shortly.  He even distinguishes these other mitzvot from the mitzvah at hand:  the current mitzvah applies to cohanim, whereas the other related mitzvot do not.

          Our author is also beginning to experiment with different ways to use the dinei hamitzvah section.  Here, he gives us the basic information about how the mitzvah works, something he neglected to do in some of the earlier mitzvot.  Instead, he gives us a list of topics for further study, but those topics are less central to how the mitzvah works.  He also mentions some topics where one can easily see the answer might be difficult to figure out.  For example, what happens when a Jew and a non-Jew jointly own the animal?   What happens when the owner does not know which of two animals was the firstborn?  Some of the topics relate to defining a qualifying animal.  For example, what type of defect in the animal disqualifies it as a korban?  Is an animal considered “opening the womb” if it is born by Caesarean section?


          Mitzvot # 22 and 23 govern firstborn male donkeys, the only non-kosher animal to which b’chor applies.  Obviously, a non-kosher animal cannot be treated as a korban, and the cohanim cannot be required to eat it.  According to this mitzvah, the owner of the donkey replaces the donkey with a lamb sometime during the first 30 days after the donkey is born.  The owner gives the lamb to a cohen, who can do anything he wants with it.  The owner gets to keep the donkey.

          If the owner of the donkey has no lamb, he or she can replace the lamb with money.  There is no fixed price.  A generous person gives the price of a very fine, first-class lamb; a less generous person gives the price of a frail, low-class lamb.  The cohen gets the money, and he can do whatever he pleases with the money.

          According to mitzvah #23, there is a severe penalty to a donkey owner who fails to comply with the regimen in mitzvah #22.  He is required to kill the donkey by breaking its neck from behind with a hatchet.  He is allowed no benefit from the carcass.  If the donkey dies before it is redeemed, the owner can get no benefit from that carcass either.

          In the dinei hamitzvah section of mitzvah #22, we see the author experimenting again.  Here, the questions for further study seem intriguing and difficult.  Many of the topics go to issues of ambiguity about who owns the donkey.  We really do not have enough information to begin to answer these questions.


Last, we have mitzvah #24, a negative mitzvah not to go out beyond a designated area on Shabbat.  We each start out Shabbat in a particular city, town or other settled area; this mitzvah limits how far we can go beyond that settled area during that Shabbat.  Rambam and Ramban have very different understandings of how this topic operates.  Our author explains the mitzvah as the Rambam sees it, and then explains how Ramban sees it.  We will do the same.

          Start with the shoresh hamitzvah.  Genesis explains that God created everything and then rested on the seventh day.  We rest on the seventh day also, affirming as we do so that we believe God created everything.  A comfortable stroll is consistent with resting, but a long hike out past the settled area is not.

          The source verse here says that, on Shabbat, a person “should not go out of his place.”  The place, the rabbis understand, is the settled area in which he starts Shabbat.  As long as there are houses close to each other, one is still within the settled area.  The author  indicates that the houses have to be 70 cubits (see below) or less from each other to count as part of the settled area.  He doesn’t say that as clearly as he might; instead, he implies it in the dinei hamitzvah section.  This mitzvah limits how far beyond that settled area he or she may go.  The boundary beyond which the person may not go is called the “tchum Shabbat.”

          Before we figure out the rest of this mitzvah/essay, let’s be clear about some distance measurements.  Start with an amah, a cubit, about the length of the lower arm (about 20 inches.)  2000 cubits is a mil (a little over half a mile.)  A parsah (the translator calls it a parasang) is four mils, or a little over 2 miles.

          D’oraita, the tchum Shabbat is a 3 parsaot past the last dwelling in the settled area, about 6miles.  The rabbis, d’rabanan, shorten the distance to a mil, about half a mile.  Our author explains that they chose to make a “geder,” an additional restriction, sometimes called a “siyag,” a fence.  This is a common type of rabbinic legislation.  The rabbis limit one’s activity to keep one well clear from the possibility of violating a Torah law. Here, the rabbis cut down the permitted area very substantially, to about 1/12 of the d’oraita distance. 

Actually, our author points out, Ramban says that Rambam made an error in his Sefer haMitzvot, where he claims that the tchum d’oraita is only a mil.  But Rambam corrects this to 3 parsaot in the Mishneh Torah.

          This mitzvah applies in every place, in every time, for men and women.  The punishment is different for breaking the Torah rule and the rabbinic rule.  The punishment for breaking the Torah rule is malkos, lashes, limited by Torah law to not more than 39 strokes.  The punishment for breaking the rabbinic rule is “macas mardus”, “lashes for rebellion,” however many lash strokes the rabbis choose to administer.  We have seen this distinction before. 

          That is how this topic works for Rambam.

          Ramban has a very different view.  He interprets the source verse to prohibit carrying outside of one’s place on Shabbat.  According to our author, he sees the entire prohibition of tchum Shabbat as rabbinic, d’rabanan, relying on many sources in the Talmud Bavli.


          The dinei hamitzvah is another attempt to make these lists of topics for further study more interesting.  Here, the topics have to do with defining what the settled area is, and how to measure it.  Look carefully at this list and see if you can understand why each of these questions would matter, and why the answer to each question is unclear.