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The Obscure Order of Mishnayot "Arvei Pesachim" and its Meaning

Rav Avraham Walfish
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I would like to demonstrate that the Mishna is a carefully ordered work, and that much can be learned from studying its organization. As an example, I would like to treat a familiar chapter, Perek "Arvei Pesachim," the final chapter of masekhet Pesachim, which deals with the mitzvot of the seder. In order to understand the structure and meaning of this chapter, I will open with a discussion of the halakhot and the structure of the first mishna and utilize this mishna as a point of departure for examining more general themes within the Mishna's presentation of the seder.

The first mishna serves as a kind of general introduction to the seder. It is unclear, however, what the three laws mentioned in this mishna - (a) not eating prior to nightfall, (b) to recline during the meal, (c) the four cups of wine - have in common, and why they were selected to set the mood for the Mishna's depiction of the seder. We may note that these halakhot are connected by an interlocking "chain" structure, in which each sentence shares a point with the previous one. (a) and (b) are linked by the shared expression: "lo yokhal ad she...," "one should not eat until…" ; (b) and (c) both refer to the "ani she-be-Yisrael," "the poor among Israel." Clearly the mishna has carefully selected, connected and arranged these three halakhot - but to what purpose?

The latter two halakhot seem to convey a clear message: the seder makes no allowances for poverty. All Jews, whatever their financial and social standing may be, participate equally in a meal which is marked by symbols of high social rank: reclining and liberal quantities of wine. Indeed, these symbols are to be included in the meal, even though their fictitious nature is apparent: the poor man will recline, even though he does not possess the appropriate furniture (Tosafot Yom Tov, s.v. Va-afilu ani); he will be provided with four cups of wine, even from funds of communal charity, normally not used for such seemingly frivolous purposes (see Pesachim 112a and Tosafot Yom Tov s.v. Va-afilu min ha-tamchui).

How does the first halakha of this mishna tie into this pattern? The gemara offers three explanations for the prohibition of eating between mincha and nightfall:

a general prohibition against having a meal on erev Shabbat or erev chag in order not to spoil one's appetite for the festive meal (in accordance with the view of R. Yehuda, against R. Yose, in Tosefta Berakhot 5:1 - Yerushalmi, and compare Bavli 99b-100a);

  1. in order not to spoil one's appetite for eating matza at night (Pesachim 107b, and compare Rashi 99b s.v. Lo yokhal);
  2. lest one become involved in eating and fail to bring the korban pesach (Pesachim 107b).

Following either of the first two explanations will enable us to connect this halakha with the other two halakhot in the mishna, insofar as all three halakhot involve preparations for the meal. The first mishna describes how a person is to gear up for the seder: he must insure that he will have an appetite, that his furniture (appropriate or inappropriate) be set up for reclining, and that he have sufficient wine. The third explanation, however, seems to separate this halakha from the rest of the mishna.

There is, however, a variation on the third explanation which opens up a new perspective on the structure of this mishna and, in fact, is suggestive of an approach to understanding the conceptual structure of the entire chapter. Melehket Shelomo (citing Tosafot 99b s.v. Ad) notes a reading of halakha (a), namely, not eating before nightfall, which focuses not on a prohibition against eating in general but on the eating of the korban pesach: "It comes to teach us that, even though the slaughtering of the korban pesach is during the day, it is not eaten during the day as other sacrifices are." The difference between korban pesach and other sacrifices may be conceptualized as follows: in most sacrifices, the focus is what is offered on the altar (blood sprinkled and body parts burned); the eating of part of the sacrifice is an adjunct to the part offered on the altar. This is implicit in the Talmudic dictum, "Mi-shulchan gavo'a ka-zakhu," "They have acquired from Heaven's table" (Kiddushin 52b). The part of the sacrifice given for human consumption is, as it were, inviting man to partake, as a guest, of the "meal" celebrated at God's "table," the altar. Hence, the time for eating the sacrifice commences immediately after the portion of the altar has been offered. Regarding the korban pesach, however, the focus is reversed: the main purpose of this offering is to be eaten (see, for example, Mishna Pesachim 7:5), and the eating is a mitzva in its own right. Thus there is one time for sacrificing (14 Nissan) and one for eating - the night of the 15th.

The foregoing discussion has exposed us to some central issues within the Mishna's treatment of the seder. We may note, first, that the first mishna focuses on eating and drinking - the seder is, first and foremost, a meal, not a beit midrash. This idea, we will soon see, is central to understanding the entire chapter. Second, the explanations of the first halakha have centered on three different foci of the seder meal: the mitzva of simchat ha-regel (a festive meal - compare Tosefta 10:4), the mitzva of eating matza, and the mitzva of eating korban pesach. Third, the elements of the meal which our mishna focuses on are (mostly or entirely, depending on the explanation chosen for (1)) not the central mitzvot required by the Torah, but rather rabbinic requirements - reclining, four cups - which serve as a framework for the meal, rather than its focal point.

In order to understand the significance of these points and their interrelationship within the Mishna's seder, let us address one of the central questions of our chapter: which seder is being described? Is the mishna describing the seder of its own times or the seder of Second Temple times? This question confronts us in the first two words of the chapter: arvei (or: erev) pesachim. Tosafot (99b s.v. Erev pesachim) note the textual variant erev/arvei, assuming that the reading "arvei pesachim" means "Passover evenings," whereas "erev pesachim" would be rendered "evenings of Paschal offerings." The "erev pesachim" reading is supported by significant textual evidence (manuscripts, Tosefta, Bavli and Yerushalmi readings of mishna), to which we may add the observation of modern linguistic scholars that the plural form "pesachim" in Talmudic sources always refers to the sacrifice rather than the festival. Hence the "title words" of the chapter already indicate that the seder about to be described is that of Temple times - the Mishna seems not to be terribly interested in "updating" the seder.

Against this conclusion we may note the closing words of mishna 3: "and in the Temple they WOULD (hayu) bring before him the body of the paschal lamb" - indicating that the opening of this mishna refers to present times. However, here too the weight of textual evidence supports the reading preserved in the Yerushalmi's mishna and in Tosefta 10:9, in which the word "hayu" is omitted, supporting R. Shaul Lieberman's conclusion (Tosefta Kifshuta p. 654) that the mishna is contrasting the seder inside and outside the mikdash, both taking place during a time when the Temple stood. Indeed, there is only one point in the entire chapter which clearly refers to post-Temple times: Rabbi Akiva's addition to the "asher ge'alanu" blessing (mishna 6), which includes a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the sacrificial service.

Our conclusion, that the Mishna's focus is on the seder of Temple times, sways us in the direction of accepting the understanding of the first halakha in mishna 1, which ties the prohibition of eating to the korban pesach. Moreover, the above comments suggest an understandas to how the different interpretations of this halakha arose. Some explanations focus on the prohibition against eating in its original context, that of korban pesach, while other explanations attempt to account for the prohibition in the context of the post-Temple seder.

The Mishna's focus on the way in which the seder was celebrated during Second Temple times is reinforced by the structure of the chapter.[1] The chapter divides neatly into three sections (kevatzim):

I 1-3 Introduction & first cup

II 4-6 Second cup

III 7-9 Third and fourth cups & conclusion

In each section the key components are:

A) the cups, which open each section (in section I, the end of mishna 1 introduces the theme of four cups, concluding the introductory halakhot of this mishna, and then mishna 2 opens with the first cup): "mazgu lo kos x;" and

B) the korban pesach, which closes each section.

This structure underscores the focus that the Mishna wants us to maintain. The cups of wine serve as the main structural feature of the seder. The korban pesach is the focal point of the meal. The Mishna teaches us that the main mitzva of the evening, the korban pesach, needs to be carried out within the framework of a rabbinic structure, the four cups.

Indeed, the cups serve as occasion for every stage of the seder. The first cup introduces the seder, as it ushers in every holy day (at the opening of the festive meal), with the blessing on the day. The third cup closes the meal, as it closes every festive meal, with birkat ha-mazon.[2] The other two cups occasion the unique verbal content of the seder: both of them share recitation of the Hallel. The second cup also serves as stimulus for the child's question to his father: "Here, upon pouring the second cup, the son asks his father: What is different about the current occasion, that we pour a second cup prior to eating?" (Rashi to Mishna on Pesachim 116a).

Every festive meal opens and closes with one cup of wine; the seder opens and closes with two cups of wine: two before the meal and two after the meal. The additional cups, one before and one after the meal, underscore the special celebration associated with this meal. They also coordinate the meal with the discussion, study and song which accompany ot. The centerpiece of the chapter - mishna 5 (middle mishna of the chapter's nine mishnayot) - is Rabban Gamliel's integration of the menu with the framework of study: one must not only consume pesach, matza and maror, but elaborate their symbolic significance. Indeed, the original text of the "Ma Nishtana" of mishna 4, as preserved in Yerushalmi's mishna text as well as manuscript versions [3], contained three questions, related to these three elements: two "tibbulim" (vegetables = maror); chametz and matza; cooked and roasted meat (= korban pesach).

To sum up: the literary structure of Pesachim chapter 10 serves to highlight its conceptual structure. The seder focuses on the korban pesach, which serves as focal point both for the meal itself and for the discussion. The main import of the discussion is to explain the significance of the korban pesach and of its ancillary mitzvot, matza and maror. The eating of the korban pesach meal is enhanced by Chazal's placing it within the setting of the four cups, which provide for the consumption of this meal a framework which integrates the sanctity of the day, festive joy, study of the exodus and explanation of the symbolic significance of the meal and its components, and Hallel.

We may now return to the first mishna and understand more fully the significance of its three provisions. The first halakha not only ensures that the meal be consumed with hearty appetite, but also underscores the uniqueness of the korban pesach, whose consumption is the centerpiece of the seder of Second Temple times. Consumption of the korban pesach must take place at night for two reasons: (A) its function is to commemorate - in a way, to reenact - the korban pesach consumed during the final hours in Egypt preceding the exodus; (B) its consumption needs to function as a festive meal both commemorating and celebrating the exodus.

The second halakha, reclining, emphasizes the significance as well as the ambiance of the meal. This is a meal whose consumption symbolizes the free-man status of each and every Jew. Therefore, each Jew is required to set aside the normal fetters of social hierarchies and distinctions and eat the meal in a spirit and setting which emphasize his importance.

The third halakha continues the theme of social equality and adds the key structural feature of the seder: the four cups. These three elements - korban pesach, spirit of freedom, and four cups - set the stage for the seder, in which these themes are to be expressed and developed.

[An unabridged version of this articles appears in Alei Etzion 7.]



[1] I confine my analysis to the structure of the Mishna as it appears in its final redaction. Yosef Tabory, "Mishnat Arvei Pesachim," Bar-Ilan Annual (26-27:5755), attempts to reconstruct the original form of our chapter and analyzes its significance for understanding the original plan and meaning of the seder.

[2] Compare Mishna Berakhot chapter 8, which opens with kiddush and closes with birkat ha-mazon.

[3] See discussion in D. Goldschmidt's Haggada shel Pesach Ve-toldoteha, pp. 10-13.

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