Talmudic Debates on the Holidays 5: Pesach

We continued our Talmud class on the holidays of the year last evening and this class was dedicated to two issues relating to Pesach.

The first issue we discussed with the tradition of bedikat Hametz, searching for the hametz on the night before the holiday begins. We looked at the Talmudic section which discusses why the search is supposed to done by a ner, which we translate as candle, but probably in Talmudic times was a small lamp.

The tradition of using a ner is based on the reading of several Biblical verses which connect the words “search” and “find” and “candle” concluding with a verse from the prophet Zephaniah in which it is said that God will “search Jerusalem with nerot, candles” to determine the sins of the people. Then a verse from Proverbs is mentioned which says that God searches with a candle the innermost parts of a person.

There is then an interesting statement about why that extra verse from Proverbs is added. The text reads that one might think that God (being merciful) would choose to search Jerusalem with a ner in order not to discover the minor sins but only to see things which were very visible and therefore would be lenient towards minor indiscretions in judging people. This idea is then ruled out based on the verse from Proverbs which clearly states that God seeks out the innermost parts in great detail.

While the Talmud doesn’t state this clearly, it is apparent that the reason this discussion arises is because of those people who might thinkĀ  that searching with a candle (especially the very small candles that are given to people today in “searching for hametz”packets) means that only the biggest pieces of hametz would be found. The text from proverbs is used to eliminate that approach in favor of the idea that using a candle allows one to see into the cracks in the wall and floor and eliminate even the smallest piece of hametz.

But, I believe that the fact that the interpretation based on Zephaniah that God searches only for the major sins is brought up does, in fact, justify this approach as legitimate. And the fact that the Mishna in other section points out the fact that at a certain point “eyn lidavar sof”, there is no end to Pesach cleaning if you go too far makes me believe that there is on some level a justification for seeing bedikat hametz, searching for the hametz, as more of a ritual than an actual cleaning and the use of the candle enables us to put a finishing touch on the major cleaning with a ritual which only focuses on big pieces of hametz. Don’t forget, following the ritual, we say a declaration that whatever hametz which we might have missed is “hefker”, ownerless like the dust of the earth.

I believe that the entire discussion in the Talmud can be read as reminding us that we need to be realistic about Pesach cleaning and not go overboard beyond what could be reasonably expected.

We then studied the section in the Talmud concerning the 4 cups of wine which are drunk at the Pesach seder. There is a tradition that, in fact, 5 cups of wine are drunk and that tradition is ascribed to Rabbi Tarfon although in our texts of the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon does not refer to the 5th cup. Apparently there was a tradition that the text of Rabbi Tarfon’s statement has been corrupted and that he did in fact designate a 5th cup.

There are several interpretations as to the entire issue of the number of cups but the one that I like the best relates the 4 cups to the 4 Divine promises made in one short section of the book of Exodus: “I will bring you out”, “I will take you”, “I will redeem you” ” I will save you”. There is a 5th promise made in that same section: “I will bring you into the land”. According to this interpretation, there was a debate among the Rabbis whether that 5th promise had been fulfilled or whether it is referring to the ultimate redemption at the time of the Messiah. Those who felt the promise had not been fulfilled mandated only 4 cups. The others called for 5 cups.

According to this interpretation, a compromise was reached. There would be 5 cups but the 5th would not be drunk. That would remain for Elijah, the herald of the Messiah and the one who according to the Rabbis would answer all outstanding Jewish legal questions when he arrived (including of course the question of how many cups of wine should be drunk). So, we have Elijah’s cup not only to hope for the Messiah but to hope for an answer to the difficult questions of our lives.


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