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Notes from Limmud 2008

A Matter of Customs: Jewish festivals

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Why do we place three מַצוֹת on the Seder plate?

We have two because we always have two חַלוֹת; so where does the third one come from? We break one of the מַצוֹת and put half aside for the Afikoman; thus we have three because we need two intact loaves. This is a reasonable explanation—many great rabbis have said this—but it's wrong.

The Shulchan Aruch said there are three מַצוֹת. Machzor Vitri, one of our main sources for the customs of the Ashkenazi Jews, quotes Rav Amram Gaon. Someone wrote to Amram asking how we pray, and he wrote back with a whole siddur, the first siddur we have.

He holds two whole מַצוֹת and the broken slice ... [in order to say the blessing over two whole מַצוֹת]... But the Gaon, Rabbeinu Ḥananel, said that it is enough to use one whole slice and one broken slice.

To start to understand this puzzle, we have to unpick the riddle of the broken slice. The (Babylonian) Talmud discusses the bread you use at the seder, and the custom is to break over a broken slice of מַצָה, and not a whole slice, to symbolise it being לֶחֶם עֹנִי, the bread of the poor, as the poor cannot afford whole loaves.

Rav Amram Gaon has already modified this, because the rabbis are uncomfortable with the idea of using a broken מַצָה for הַמּוֹצִיא. (We use whole loaves, out of respect for the מִצְוָה.) This brings the number of מַצוֹת up to two and a half. Of course, this undermines the original idea of bread of affliction: we've now got more!

Both of the above sources are strongly connected to Babylonia. Rabbeinu Ḥananel is the first of the sages after the Geonim; he lived not in Babylonia, but in North Africa; he lived in Tunis.

Rashi, in Sefer Hapardes 48 wrote:

He says הַמּוֹצִיא over the whole מַצָה which is on the top, and over the half-מַצָה for לֶחֶם מִשְׁנֶה, and to follow the way of the poor,... Maror: he then takes from the whole bottom מַצָה, in order to perform a מִצְוָה with all three of them, and he sandwiches them together, in remembrance of the Temple following the custom of Hillel.

Rashi doesn't know what the third מַצָה is doing on the table, but he's uncomfortable with having a מַצָה and not knowing what it's for. So he uses it for the Hillel sandwich. But he's not saying the Hillel sandwich requires a third מַצָה, it's a retro-explanation.

This gives us a hint that the third מַצָה is an ancient custom whose reason has been forgotten, and the rabbis are inventing reasons to fit in with it.

Machzor Vitri quotes R. Yakar, father of Rashi's teacher Jacob ben Yakar, of Maintz:

He says the blessing הַמּוֹצִיא over them, and over one of them עַל נְטִילַת מַצָה [sic]. And he breaks it for the Afikoman. He makes a sandwich from one of them, following Hillel. But afterwards, R. Jacob ben Yakar said in the name of his father, "Since three of them come for the purpose of מִצְוָה, he should do a מִצְוָה with the three of them, but other people leave the third one whole, and it's not correct to do that."

He moves the third מַצָה, not to leave it an orphan on the table.

The Rashbam, Rashi's grandson, adds the following explanation:

I've seen another explanation for the three מִצְוֹת. According to what is written in Berachos 54b, four need to give thanks, amongst them someone who has been released from prison. Therefore, since those who departed Egypt need to give thanks, and to give a קָרְבָּן תּוֹדָה, which was made out of the Omer, which is an עִשָׂרוֹן, we make remembrance to the three חַלוֹת of thanksgiving which were made of one עִשָׂרוֹן in the Temple.

A completely different explanation! There is a rule in which if you ask someone the reason for something, and he gives you one reason, that's the reason. If he gives you five reasons, he doesn't know what the reason is!

R. Eliyahu Menachem son of Moshe of London, writes in a commentary to the Haggadah:

There are those who say הַמּוֹצִיא and עַל אֲכִילַת מַצָה and the sandwich all out of one of the מַצוֹת, but the correct opinion is to make three מִצְוֹת out of the three of them. One is used for הַמּוֹצִיא, one, עַל אֲכִילַת מַצָה, and the third is used for the sandwich.

This is not surprising, because the community of England was at that time an extension of that of France.

סֵפֶר הַחִילוּכִּים בֵּין בְּנֵי מִדְרָשׁ וּבְנֵי אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל, C8:

The people of Babylonia, when Pesach lands on Shabbos, put the broken מַצָה between whole מַצוֹת. But on a weekday they have just one. And the people of אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל whether on a weekday or on Shabbos put a broken מַצָה together with a whole מַצָה and say הַמּוֹצִיא.

This is the start of the custom of two and a half arising out of one and a half. But there [lacuna]

R. Eliezer of Worms, in Sefer Harokeach:

Why do we take [three מַצוֹת?] It reminds us of the three se'im of flour that Abraham told Sarah [to make into bread for his guests (Ex. 18:6)], and it is our tradition [lacuna, I'd guess: to follow in the example of his hospitality].

And break one into two? It reminds us of the Red Sea and the Jordan [lacuna, presumably: which were split when the Israelites left Egypt, and when they entered the Land of Israel respectively].

And why say הַמּוֹצִיא over a broken מַצָה and not over a complete מַצָה? That reminds us of the bread of affliction.

And why do we put the broken מַצָה between two whole ones? Because the Sages said a man must say his blessings over two loaves. He doesn't need to break both of them, but says two [blessings] and breaks one [מַצָה].

Why break another מַצָה with מָרוֹר? In order to fulfil the commandment עַל מַצוֹת וּמוֹרְרִים יוֹכְלֻהוּ ....

R. Jonathan HaCohen of Lunel, in Provence, where customs from France, Spain, Italy and Germany all came together, preserves the earliest form of the origin of the ritual. He lived in the tenth century. The custom arose in Israel, and travelled from Israel to Babylonia, and hence to the Jewish world, but the custom did not travel from Israel to Babylonia [sic; can't figure out what this should have been]. The customs of Israel travelled to Italy, and thence into Europe.

And why do we leave a third מַצָה on the table whole? In order to say over it the בִּרְכַּת הַמָּזוֹן‎1, for the rabbis taught (Sanhedrin 92a): Anyone who does not leave a whole loaf on his table does not see blessing in his life. If there is a person who hardens his heart and says he will bring another one and bless over it, answer him, that just as the four cups on the table are essential, and any other [wine he drinks at the Seder] isn't [part of the ritual], these three מַצוֹת on the table are the essence. Just as he exempts himself of his obligation with these four cups and anything else he drinks is just for the sake of drinking, so those four מַצוֹת are for the purpose of the מִצְוָה, and in order to exempt himself from his obligation.

It is the way of the world that after one finishes eating, he breaks bits of bread for the poor, from the bread left on the table. A mean person only puts on the table the amount he needs for his family and no more. Such a person isn't thinking about the poor standing there at the gate. If they ask him, he won't cut a new loaf for them. How much more if he has no other bread in his house—that is when he goes to the market, he buys exactly what he needs. But if he has leftovers on the table, then his eye isn't narrow, and he gives it to the poor.2

1. He doesn't make a sandwich; he's not bothered by it.

2. If there's one lesson you have to take from your years in Egypt, it's to learn that you have a responsibility to the poor.

That's the reason where the third מַצָה comes from, but the reason was subsequently lost. The intellectual tradition is more resilient to change than the chain of tradition, because it can always go back and look at the older sources; when a minhag changes, within two generations people feel this is hallowed by time.

May a woman light the Chanukah Lamp?

Mishna Kiddushin 1:7:

Regarding every positive time-bound mitzvah, men are obligated and women are exempt. Every positive mitzvah which is not time bound, both men and women are obligated. Every negative mitzvah, whether bound by time or not, both men and women are obligated... וכל מצות עשה שהזמן גרמה, אנשים חייבין ונשים פטורות׃ וכל מצות עשה שלא הזמן גרמה, אחד אנשים ואחד נשים חייבין׃ וכל מצות לא תעשה בין שהזמן גרמה בין שלא הזמן גרמה, אחד אנשים ואחד נשים חייבין...

Of course, it is more complicated than this, e.g. Shabbos, which combines both positive and negative commandments: "don't do any work" and "remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy". And then you have things like hearing the Shofar blown, which women are regarded as having taken upon themselves over the course of time. Eating matzah is also regarded as a positive-negative combo.

Lighting the Channukah lights is of course a מִצְוָה מִן דְרַבָּנָן, not מִדְּאוֹרַייתָא.

The laws of Chanukah emerge from those of Megillah readings. Arachin 3a says:

All are obliged to read the scroll. All are fit to read the scroll,. What are these meant to include? R. Joshua b. Levi said: Women are obliged or read the scroll because they, too, had a part in that miracle.

So already here the Talmud makes an exception for women.

Tosefta Megillah 3:7:
Women, slaves and minors are exempt, and do not fulfil the obligation on behalf of others.

So we have one source from the Tannaitic period says women are obligated, and one that they are exempt.

Halachot Gedolot—early halachic work compiled in Babylonia, in the eighth century, attributed to Rav Yehuda Gaon:

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from the obligation to read the Megilla, but are obligated to hear it.

The Jerusalem Talmud:

Bar Kappara said, it must be read before the women and before the children, for they were also in doubt. R. Yehuda b. Levi did thus; he gathered his sons and his household and read it before them.

But in Ashkenaz, we find the opposite: Rashi:

[Arachin 3a] Including women who are oligated to read the megillah and are acceptable to read it and to exempt men of their obligation.

[Megillah 4a] They were included in the same miracle, for Haman also decreed to destroy ... all the Jews, "young and old, children and women",

Rashbam: on the cups of wine at Pesach. This is grouped with two other mitzvos of redemption: the megillah and the chanukah lamps.

As a reward for the righteous women of the generation, they were redeemed, and also concerning the reading of the Megillah this is said, for it was brought by Esther, and also concerning Chanukah.

Esther was the one who defeated Haman: they were responsible for the miracle. Likewise with Yocheved and Miriam and Batya in the Pesach story; and Judith and Hannah in the Chanukah story.

So in the Sephardi world, the men light the Menorah and women watch and listen, but in the Ashkenazi world, the women do.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2009-03-13 12:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
That is confusing. Chanukah and Purim is mixed together but you actually do not mention Purim. Somebody who is not so familiar with our festivals will think that you read the Megillah Esther on Chanukah when it is actually Purim.

Date: 2009-03-13 12:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
If you're confused, blame the authors of the Talmud. ;^b

Date: 2009-03-15 10:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
OK, I blame them. Silly Rabbis.


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