Metzorah / Pesach


This is the law of the metzora on the day of his purification.  And he should be brought to the Kohen.  (VaYikra 14:1)

Parshat Tazria discussed the laws of the metzora.  This is a person stricken with tzara’at.  The affliction is a result of spiritual failings.  The metzora is ritually unclean. Our pasuk introduces the discussion of the cleansing and purification process of the metzora.  The Chumash explains that the afflicted individual must be brought to the Kohen.  The Kohen is responsible for the execution of this process.


The commentaries are concerned with the wording of our passage.  The metzora is brought to the Kohen.  The implication is that the Kohen does not come to the metzora.  The metzora must come to the Kohen.


What is the reason for this law?  In order to answer this question, we must recall one of the special laws governing the conduct of the metzora.  During the period of the affliction, the metzora must live outside of the city or camp.  This means that the afflicted person cannot enter the camp to consult with the Kohen.  The Kohen must leave the city and come to the metzora.


This practical consideration would seem to require that the Kohen come to the metzora!  What is the meaning of our pasuk?  How can the metzora come to the Kohen?


Sforno explains that there is another consideration that is relevant.  The honor of the Kohen must be respected.  Therefore, it is inappropriate for the Kohen to travel to the metzora.  However, the metzora cannot enter the city!  How are these conflicting considerations resolved?  Sforno explains that this is the issue addressed by the pasuk.  The metzora must approach the city.  The Kohen meets the metzora directly outside the boundaries of the camp.  This procedure respects the position of the Kohen without compromising the prohibition against the metzora entering the city.  This is the meaning of the pasuk.  To the extent possible, the metzora must be brought to the Kohen.[1]


Sforno’s explanation is very interesting.  The Chumash is stressing that the metzora must respect and honor the Kohen.  This implies that the metzora has a special need for this lesson.  Why is this message so relevant for the metzora?


Maimonides explains that tzara’at is a punishment for lashon hara – gossip and tale bearing.  He adds that this behavior ultimately leads to the denigration, by the gossiper, of the righteous.[2]  What is the connection between these two activities?


Perhaps, the righteous are particularly susceptible to being targeted for lashon hara.  What motivates us to speak lashon hara?  Lashon hara is a means by which we can feel better about ourselves.  We denigrate others that we feel are, in some way, better than ourselves.  We are saying that our target is not really such a good person.  We no longer need not feel that we compare poorly to this person. 


We can now identify the reason that the tzadik is very susceptible to being targeted.  The tzadik challenges our estimation of ourselves.  The behavior of the righteous gives us cause to recognize our own faults.  This occurs through a process of comparison.  This can be a painful realization.  Some individuals will be tempted to speak lashon hara against the tzadik.  This tactic helps alleviate the pain created by the comparison.


The Kohen is devoted to the service of Hashem.  He represents commitment to Torah and righteous behavior.  This status exposes the Kohen to lashon hara.  It is fitting that, as part of the purification process, the metzora express respect for the Kohen.  Perhaps, for this reason the entire process of identifying tzara’at and purification is the responsibility of the Kohen.  This arrangement forces the metzora to demonstrate humility in the presence the Kohen.


The Kohen shall then order that for the person undergoing purification there be taken two live clean birds, a piece of cedar, some crimson thread and a hyssop branch.  (VaYikra 14:4)

This pasuk introduces the purification process for the metzorah.  The Chumash describes the purification process in some detail.  The first portion of the process involves the items listed in our pasuk.  One of the two birds is slaughtered.  The blood of this bird is mixed with fresh water.  The second bird, along with the cedar, crimson thread and hyssop are dipped into the mixture of blood and water.  The mixture is sprinkled on the metzorah.  The live bird is then released.


It is difficult to determine the meaning of this process.  The commentaries offer various explanations.  One of the most interesting is provided by Rav Yosef Karo.  In order to understand this interpretation, we need an introduction.


The human being is a combination of the spiritual and material.  These two elements compete for dominance within the individual.  How should a person resolve the conflict between these elements?  There are various approaches to this issue.  Some religions favor denial of the material element of our nature.  If all of humanity would adopt this approach, humanity would cease to exist.  The instincts provide the motivation for many human endeavors.  The obvious example is procreation.  Clearly, humanity cannot survive if the instinctual drives are completely suppressed.


An alternative is to adopt the opposite extreme.  Some individuals forsake their spiritual element.  These people choose to become completely absorbed in their material desires.  This solution to the human conflict is also ineffectual.  First, often these people feel unfulfilled.  It seems we have a need for spiritual expression.  A life bereft of any spiritual endeavor feels empty and meaningless.


Furthermore, the human being has the potential to achieve eternal existence.  The spiritual element is not extinguished by death.  However, this element must be developed during the period of one's existence in this world.  If one does not develop spiritually, the element becomes atrophied.  It cannot survive material death.

We can now understand Rav Yosef Karo's comments.  He explains that the two birds represent the two aspects of the human being – the spiritual and material.  One bird is slaughtered.  This bird represents the instinctual element.  Complete dominance of this element results in the destruction of the individual.  Happiness in this world is lost.  Eternal existence is forsaken.


The other bird represents the spiritual element of the human being. This bird is dipped into the blood of the slaughtered bird.  What is the message, here?  One cannot completely ignore the instinctual element.  Instead, the spiritual person must acknowledge the instinctual element and even indulge this element to a limited extent.  This is essential for the existence of society and the stability of the personality.  This acknowledgement is symbolized through the dipping of "spiritual" bird into the blood of the "material" bird.

The bird is then freed.  This act symbolizes the freedom of the spiritual element to pursue spiritual endeavors.  Acknowledging the instinctual element does not damage the individual's spiritual element.  On the contrary, denial of the instincts is destructive.  The healthy individual recognizes the importance of the instincts and through this recognition attains spiritual freedom.[3]  Using this approach Rav Yosef Karo also explains other elements of the purification process.


Before one begins to search one recites the blessing, “that sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us on the removal of chametz”…  (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 432:1)
And there are those who observe the custom of placing pieces of chametz in a place that they will be found.  This is in order that the blessing will not be recited needlessly.  However, if these pieces are not distributed, it does not prevent the recital of the blessing.  This is because a person’s intention in reciting the blessing is to remove chametz if it is found.  (Ibid, Rema 432:2)

On Pesach, leavened substances – chametz – are forbidden.  A number of commandments regulate our interaction with these substances.  These mitzvot prohibit consumption and possession of chametz.  It is prohibited to even benefit from this forbidden substance.  In addition to these prohibitions, there is a positive command regarding chametz.  One must remove all chametz from one’s possession prior to Pesach.  Two processes are employed to fulfill this positive command.  First, a thorough search is conducted on the night of the fourteenth of Nissan – the night prior to Pesach.  Any chametz found during this search is subsequently destroyed.  Second, we nullify our ownership of all chametz.  This is accomplished through the pronouncement of a specific legal formula.  This formula is recited after the search for the chametz and repeated after the destruction of the chametz.


The search for the chametz fulfills a positive command to remove the chametz from our possession.  Therefore, it is preceded by a blessing.  This blessing is described in the above quotation from Shulchan Aruch.  Rema – Rav Moshe Isserles – deals with an interesting problem.  It is prohibited to recite a blessing needlessly.  This blessing is recited prior to fulfilling the commandment to remove chametz from one’s possession.  It is possible that the person reciting the blessing will not find chametz.  No chametz will be removed.  If this should occur, the mitzvah of removing chametz has not been fulfilled.  The blessing was recited needlessly.


Rema, suggests that this consideration led to the development of a popular custom.  Pieces of chametz are placed in a specific place in the house.  The search is conducted.  At least these pre-placed pieces of chametz are found.  This assures that some chametz is removed.  The mitzvah is fulfilled.  The blessing is not  recited needlessly. 


It easy to appreciate the logic of this custom.  It seems to respond to a valid consideration.  However, Shulchan Aruch does not require the placement of these pieces of bread.  Furthermore, Rema explains that there is a basis for Shulchan Aruch’s dismissal of this issue.  He points out that it is not absolutely necessary to find chametz in order for the blessing to be recited.  He argues that the meaning of the blessing is determined by the intention of the person by whom it is recited.  This person does refer to the commandment for the destruction of chametz.  However, one's real intention is that we are commanded to destroy any chametz one may find.  Therefore, this objective is fulfilled regardless of finding actual chametz.  This explains the position of Shulchan Aruch.  There is simply no need to validate the blessing though distributing pieces of bread.


Rema’s argument is somewhat difficult to understand.  The terms in the blessing are not an expression of personal thoughts.  Our personal interpretation of the blessing is irrelevant. The blessing refers to a specific commandment.  In order to determine the meaning of the blessing, we cannot consider a subjective interpretation of one reciting the blessing.  We must analyze the actual commandment.  This blessing acknowledges the mitzvah to remove chametz from one’s possession.  Rema seems to concede that the commandment requires the actual removal of chametz.  If so, the personal interpretation of the individual reciting the blessing is unimportant!  If the mitzvah is fulfilled, the blessing is valid.  This requires the actual removal of chametz. 


An alternative explanation of Shulchan Aruch’s position can be derived from a discussion in the mishne.  The mishne raises an interesting question.  The search for chametz seems to ignore a practical problem.  How can the search actually assure that one’s domain is free of chametz?  Assume a person checks one room of his or her home.  This individual then moves on to another room.  In the interim, prior to completing the inspection of the second room it cannot be regarded as free of chametz.  Any chametz in that room could be dragged by a mouse to the already inspected room.  As a result, it seems impossible to determine that the house is completely free of chametz.  The mishne responds to this issue.  It explains that we do not concern ourselves with this consideration![4]  This is a rather odd response.  How can a valid consideration be dismissed?


This mishne is conveying a basic concept underlying the process of searching for chametz.  The search is not merely a practical means of determining that the domain is free of chametz.  In an absolute sense, this is impossible.  One cannot inspect the entire domain simultaneously.  Even were this possible, the inspected domain could become contaminated by chametz.  This chametz could be bought into the inspected domain from another home not yet inspected.[5]  What then is the value of the search? 


The mishne is telling us that the search is effective because it confers upon the domain a legal status.  Once a room is inspected this legal status is created.  The room is legally regarded as chametz-free.  This legal status exists despite the possibility of contamination.  Halacha can and does chose to disregard the possibility of contamination.  Halacha has the right to determine the requirement for creating a legal state.  In short, the search is effective because it creates a legal status of chametz-free.  It is not effective because it creates an actual practical assurance. 


We can now understand Shulchan Aruch’s position regarding the blessing over the search.  The search is not merely a means for finding and removing chametz.  The search creates a chametz-free status in the domain.  This suggests an alternative understanding of the mitzvah to remove chametz.  We are not actually required to remove all chametz from our domain.  The mishne explains that this is virtually impossible.  Instead, we are required to create a legally chametz-free domain. The blessing prior to the search acknowledges that we are fulfilling this commandment.  Therefore, it is valid whether or not chametz is found.  It is valid because the mitzvah is not to remove chametz.  The mitzvah is to render one’s domain chametz-free. 



This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.  Let all that are hungry come and eat.  Let all that so require come and join in the Pesach offering.  Now, we are here.  Next year, may we be in the land of Israel.  Now, we are servants.  Next year, may we be free people.  (Haggadah of Pesach)

This short paragraph is recited prior to breaking the matzah at the opening of the Seder.  The paragraph contains a number of elements.  It describes the matzah as the bread eaten by our ancestors during the bondage.  It includes an invitation to others to join in our meal.  Finally, in closes with a confirmation of our conviction in the coming of the Messiah.  The Messiah will come and we will be a free people in the land of Israel.


Rabbaynu Saadia does not include this paragraph in his Haggadah.  He replaces it with a similar paragraph.  Rabbaynu Saadia's version contains two of the three elements.  It begins with an invitation to join in the Seder.  It concludes with the confirmation of our conviction in the coming of the Messiah.


In both versions we affirm our conviction in the Messianic era.  This conviction is one of the fundamental principles of Judaism.  However, why do we begin the Seder with this affirmation?


The Haggadah indicates that there is an close connection between the redemption from Egypt and the Messianic era.  The end of the Magid – the portion of the Haggadah that retells the story of the exodus – we recite the blessing of Ga'al Yisrael.  In this berahca we thank Hashem for redeeming us from Egypt.  We acknowledge that we now celebrate the Seder as a result of this redemption.  We then express our wish to soon be able to celebrate the festivals in the rebuilt holy Temple.


This blessing indicates that the celebration of Pesach is related to the Messianic era?  What is the relationship?


There are two basic possibilities.  The first is that the redemption from Egypt is incomplete.  We are in exile.  Our affirmation of the Messianic era is a request to the Almighty to hasten the Messiah's coming.  This explanation is consistent with the formulation of the blessing of Ga'al Yisrael.  We begin the blessing thanking Hashem for our redemption.  We than acknowledge that this redemption is incomplete.  We cannot serve the Almighty in the Bait HaMikdash.  We pray that Hashem will rebuild the Temple so we can serve Him more fully.


However, this interpretation does not explain the affirmation of the Messianic era at the opening of the Seder.  According to this first explanation, we mention the Messianic era only after recalling our redemption.  We are asking Hashem to complete the redemption.  It would not make sense to affirm our conviction in the Messianic era before we discuss the redemption from Egypt.


Therefore, an alternative explanation is needed.  It seems that the through introducing the Seder with an acknowledgement of the Messianic era we are identifying one of the objectives of the Seder.  The purpose of the Seder is not solely to recall our exodus from Egypt.  Retelling the story of our redemption serves another purpose.  We are obligated to fully accept that the Messiah will ultimately arrive.  How do we know that there is a basis for this conviction?  The redemption from Egypt provides the proof.  The Almighty rescued our ancestors from slavery.  He created a free nation from an oppressed people. If we accept the truth of these events, we have a firm basis for our conviction in a second redemption through the Messiah.


The order of the Seder expresses this theme.  We begin with an affirmation of the Messianic era.  We then discuss the basis for our conviction – the redemption from Egypt.  We close by articulating the connection.  Hashem redeemed us from Egypt.  Therefore, we can be sure that He will redeem us again.


This matzah that we eat – what does it represent?  It recalls that the dough of our fathers did not have sufficient time to rise before the King of all Kings – the Holy One Blessed be He –  appeared to them and redeemed them; as it is stated, "And they baked the dough that they brought out of Egypt into cakes of matzah.  Because it did not rise for the Egyptians chased them out.  And they could not delay.  And they also did not prepare provisions".  (Pesach Haggadah)

The Haggadah explains the symbolism of matzah.  The matzah recalls the haste of the exodus from Egypt.  The Egyptians were eager for Bnai Yisrael to leave Egypt.  They begged the Jews to leave as soon as possible.  The Jews did not have time to allow their dough to rise properly.  Therefore, the dough baked into unleavened cakes.


The Haggadah quotes a pasuk from the Torah that describes the haste of the departure from Egypt and the preparation of the matzah.    The passage does not refer to the matzah brought out from Egypt as loaves – lechem.  Instead, it calls the matzah "cakes" – ugot.  Rashbam explains that the term lechem is not applicable to these matzot.  The term lechem is only used to describe bread baked in an oven.  These matzot were not placed in an oven.  Instead, the dough was carried by Bnai Yisrael and baked by the heat of the sun.  In order to indicate that these matzot were not baked in an oven the term ugot is used.[6]


This raises an interesting question.  On Pesach, we are commanded to eat matzah.  Can one fulfill the commandment of eating matzah with sun-baked dough?  The Aruch HaShulchan maintains that this product is unfit for use as matzah.  He explains that it is difficult to sun-bake the dough before it leavens.  He ads that even were leavening avoided, the product would not be suitable for the mitzvah of matzah.  This is because matzah is a type of lechem.  Lechem is dough processed through the heat of an oven.[7]


Other authorities offer an alternative explanation of the term ugot.  Their explanation is based on a comment of Rashi in Tractate Taanit.  Rashi explains that the term ugah – the singular of ugot – means round.[8]  These authorities conclude that it is appropriate to use round matzot for the mitzvah of matzah.[9]


This interpretation is difficult to understand.  Why would the Chumash stress the shape of the matzot Bnai Yisrael baked when leaving Egypt?  Furthermore, why should we be required to imitate this characteristic of Bnai Yisrael's matzah?


A solution to these questions is provided by the pasuk quoted in the Haggadah.  The passage explains that the matzah symbolize the haste of the departure from Egypt.  Bnai Yisrael did not have the time to allow the dough to rise.  Therefore, it baked as unleavened cakes.  This haste also explains the round shape.  The dough was mixed, kneaded and flattened.  The resultant cake was round.  Any other form would have required shaping.   There was no time to form shaped loaves.  We can now understand the requirement to use round matzot for the mitzvah of matzah.  Our matzah must reflect the haste of the departure from Egypt.  The matzah is unleavened.  This captures the image of haste.  However, the round shape adds another reminder of the haste of the departure.

[1] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 14:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at, 16:10.

[3]   Rav Yosef Karo, Maggid Meysharim (Bar Lev, 1990), p 227.

[4] Mesechet Pesachim 9a.

[5] Mesechet Pesachim 9a.

[6] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Shemot 12:39.

[7] Rav Yechiel Michal HaLeyve Epstein, Aruch HaShulchan, Orech Chayim 461:5.

[8] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Taanit 23a.

[9] Rav Yitzchak Mirsky, Haggadat Hegyonai Halacha (Jerusalem, 5755), p 19, note 32.