Welcome to Tractate Pesachim, where we will learn about all things Passover. Those familiar with Hebrew will recognize that the name of the tractate is plural — not because Passover comes more than once a year, but because the Hebrew word pesach refers not only to the spring holiday that we associate with matzah and family seders, but specifically to the Paschal sacrifice that was the core of the festival in antiquity.
A quick historical note: Back when the Temple stood, Passover looked quite different than it does today. Those who were able went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalemfor the holiday. They rented a room or pitched a tent, purchased a lamb or goat, and on the 14th of Nisan, on the eve of the holiday, brought the animal to the Temple to be slaughtered. Once the appropriate organs were offered on the altar, the rest of the animal was brought back to camp, roasted and enjoyed by the whole family with a side of unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
This way of celebrating Passover came to an abrupt end when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. The truth is, we have no idea what Passover looked like in the year 71, but we do know that the rabbis strenuously objected to Jews offering a Pascal sacrifice in the absence of a legitimate Temple. They were also hopeful that the Temple would eventually be rebuilt and the Passover sacrifice reinstated.
As the centuries wore on and the Temple was not rebuilt, the Tannaim, the rabbis of the Mishnah, took it upon themselves to record detailed instructions for the execution of all Passover rituals. The ten chapters of Pesachim in the Mishnah are devoted to purging leaven, selecting and offering a Paschal sacrifice and finally, in the tenth and final chapter, consuming that sacrifice. That last chapter offers a great deal of ritual that should accompany the Passover meal, things like reclining, drinking four cups of wine, dipping foods, asking questions, reciting from Hallel and sharing an afikomen. These rituals became the basis for the Passover seder that Jews practice today — though we do it without a Paschal sacrifice on the table.
Since the Talmud is a lengthy commentary on the Mishnah, this tractate follows the same structure, beginning with the removal of leaven and ending with a discussion of the Passover meal. As we saw with Tractate Berakhot, an initial and recurring concern is the question of timing. Here’s the first part of the mishnah on today’s page:
On the or (literally: “light”) of the 14th of the month of Nisan, one searches for leavened bread in his home by candlelight. Any place into which one does not typically take leavened bread does not require a search.
The 14th of Nisan is Erev Passover. Like all Jewish days, it begins and ends at sundown. Somewhere in this 24-hour interval, Jews are expected to root out the leaven in their homes. The mishnah designates the time for this task with the Hebrew word or, which means light. This is not a usual temporal word, and the Talmud immediately attempts to figure out what the mishnah means by it.
At first, it seems intuitive that a word meaning “light” should refer to morning — the part of the day when light first appears. The rabbis bring any number of prooftexts that use the word or in reference to the morning. However, it is inescapable that the mishnah also says one should use a candle to search for the leaven. Why would you need a candle to search if you have daylight? Indeed, the Talmud assembles seemingly just as many arguments that or refers to night — and ultimately, this is the position that stands. Light is night.
What other surprises might this tractate have in store? We can’t wait to find out!