Grammar nerds, rejoice! Today’s page is for you — roll up your sleeves for a debate about active and passive voice. (We know you all have strong opinions on the subject!)
We know by now that one must search for leaven on the night of the 14th of Nisan and get rid of it the next morning. On today’s daf, we learn from Rav Yehuda that a blessing is required before searching for leaven. This is not a surprise as it follows the standard rabbinic practice:
Rav Yehuda teaches that Shmuel said: For all of the mitzvot, one recites a blessing over them prior to their performance.
Rav Yehuda’s innovation here, according to Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, is to suggest that the removal of leaven from our homes begins with the search the night before; and so, we say a blessing before beginning to search rather than before burning the leaven that we find.
What blessing do we say? Two answers are given:
Rav Pappi says in the name of Rava that one recites: Blessed are you God, Ruler of the universe, who made us holy through God’s mitzvot and commanded us to remove leavened bread (leva’er hametz).
Rav Pappa said in the name of Rava that one recites: Blessed are you God, Ruler of the universe, who made us holy through God’s mitzvot and commanded us concerning the removal of leavened bread (al bi’ur hametz).
The difference between these two is in the verbal form of the word “remove.” Rav Pappi’s blessing is cast in active voice, “to remove,” while Rav Pappa’s version is passive, “concerning the removal.” Gemara posits that Rav Pappi’s active version is accepted by both sages, because they agree that it indicates that the mitzvah will be performed in the future (i.e., after we say the blessing). And, while Rav Pappa thinks that his version can indicate a future action, Rav Pappi does not.
There is no blanket prohibition on passive voice in prayer formulae. For instance, the blessing for ritual slaughter ends with “who has made us holy through God’s mitzvot and commanded us concerning slaughtering.” Of course, the Gemara notes, there is no religious obligation to slaughter animals. Vegetarianism is not only acceptable, the Torah suggests that it is God’s preferred diet for humans. And so, we use the passive formulation in the blessing over ritual slaughter.
The Talmud explores several other examples, but does not reach a clear conclusion about the preferred language for blessings. Somewhat abruptly, and without justification, it declares that we utilize the passive formulation of the blessing before we search for leaven. It might be that since the completion of the ritual will not take place until the next morning, the rabbis felt that the active formulation was not appropriate in this case. It might also be that the passive formulation took root amongst the people and Gemara chooses not to upend this practice. Because the text is silent on the matter, it’s left to us to come up with an explanation.
Blessings that Jews use every day are voiced in both active and passive. We say “to light the Shabbat candles” (active) but also “concerning the taking of the lulav” (passive). Over the centuries, rabbinic commentators have searched for a systematic way to determine which formulation should be used. Some claim to have found one; others say that there is none. But no one has ever challenged Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel, “For all of the mitzvot, one recites a blessing over them prior to their performance.” Saying a blessing highlights the intentionality of our actions and instills them with holiness.