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The Prohibition of Work on Erev Pesach

  • Rav Yair Kahn


The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur



The Prohibition of Work on Erev Pesach


By Rav Yair Kahn



The gemara at the beginning of Pesachim has a lengthy discussion attempting to interpret the term "or." Inter alia, the gemara (2b) quotes a beraita regarding the prohibition of work on Erev Pesach:


"From what time is work prohibited on the fourteenth (Erev Pesach)? R. Eliezer ben Yaakov says: From the time of 'or;' R. Yehuda says: From sunrise."


Rashi explains that this argument relates to the custom not to work on Erev Pesach before noon. Rashi's position is based on the mishna at the beginning of the fourth chapter, which mentions alternate customs allowing or prohibiting work on Erev Pesach before noon. From noon on, everyone agrees that work is prohibited. Our beraita, which refers to work before noon, must therefore, according to Rashi, relate to the custom, not the prohibition.


Tosafot (s.v. Me-ematai) counter that there can be no halakhic argument regarding the custom. After all, one could simply go and check the accepted practice of the people (see also Tosafot 55a s.v. Amar). Therefore, Tosafot explain that the beraita is consistent with the opinion that work is prohibited on Erev Pesach even before noon. Accordingly, the argument in our beraita parallels the debate of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel in the mishna (55a).


The argument of Tosafot seems compelling. However, a glance at the source of the beraita (Tosefta 3:12-13) seems to indicate that the argument of the Tannaim relates to the custom, as claimed by Rashi. We will attempt to explain Rashi based on an analysis of the nature of the issur melakha (prohibition against labor) on Erev Pesach after noon, and the expansion of this prohibition in the form of the custom not to work before noon. Furthermore, we will try to explain the dispute between R. Eliezer ben Yaakov and R. Yehuda regarding the exact time from which work is prohibited.




The beraita in question revolves around the issur melakha before noon. From midday on, it is accepted halakha that work is prohibited. The Yerushalmi (4:1) bases this prohibition on the Korban Pesach (the paschal offering), claiming that it is improper to go to work while your korban is being sacrificed. According to Tosafot, this injunction is from the Torah. The Ritva disagrees, claiming that it is of rabbinic origin.


The Rishonim also disagree about the nature of this prohibition. A simple reading of the Yerushalmi indicates that the problem is one of impropriety. One should be totally involved and committed when bringing a korban; therefore, it is improper to continue one's daily routine while remaining totally oblivious to the korban.


The Rash Mi-Sens (or Mi-Shantz), however, based on a beraita (see Ta'anit 12a), claims that the day on which one brings a korban is considered a personal holiday. Consequently, melakha is prohibited. It is reasonable to suggest that a prohibition based on impropriety is rabbinic in nature, while the status of holiday is of biblical origin.


The Rambam (Hilkhot Yom Tov 8:17-18) rules that the prohibition of work on Erev Pesach is "mi-divrei sofrim" - a term which usually refers to rabbinic law. However, when an individual brings a korban, the Rambam (Hilkhot Kelei Ha-mikdash 6:10) feels that refraining from work is only customary.


It is clear that the prohibition of labor on Erev Pesach is not merely an application of the general category of when an individual brings a korban (in which case the prohibition is only a custom). Therefore, it is difficult to base this prohibition on the impropriety of working while sacrificing, since this is a general problem. If, however, the prohibition results from the special status of the day during which one brings a korban, we can suggest that Erev Pesach is granted that special status mi-divrei sofrim, as all of Klal Yisrael are obligated to bring personal korbanot. The custom not to work when bringing an individual korban is an extension of the special status granted to Erev Pesach.


Since the prohibition of melakha is based on the Korban Pesach, the Rishonim debate whether the prohibition applies today, when we do not bring a Korban Pesach. The Ba'al Ha-ma'or is of the opinion that it does not apply. Most Rishonim argue that the prohibition is, nevertheless, in force. However, they differ regarding the explanation. Some Rishonim claim that the reason for the prohibition applies somewhat even today. The Ramban, for instance, explains that the prohibition of work allows us better to prepare for the seder.


Other Rishonim admit that the reason for the prohibition no longer applies. Nevertheless, the prohibition remains intact, since it was never officially uprooted (see Ra'avad). Along these lines, the Sefer Ha-mikhtam elaborates that the status of Erev Pesach as a holiday was never nullified, and therefore it remains a holiday even today.


The Ramban's explanation is consonant with the approach which prohibits melakha because it takes one's mind off the sacrifice. This technical problem exists today as well, since we are obligated to prepare for the seder. The Sefer Ha-mikhtam, however, is consistent with the opinion that the issur melakha is inherent, based on Erev Pesach's status as a holiday.


We have noted two basic approaches regarding the prohibition of work on Erev Pesach after midday. According to one approach, the work is a disruptive element which disturbs the proper sacrifice of the korban and/or the preparations for Pesach. The second approach perceives Erev Pesach as a holiday, and the issur melakha is a direct outgrowth of this status.




As we noted previously, there are those who prohibit melakha on Erev Pesach even before noon. If issur melakha is based on the disruptive quality of work, this prohibition can certainly be applied before noon as well. After all, many preparations are necessary for the seder, and work even before noon is potentially disruptive. However, the holiday status of Erev Pesach (which is connected to the Korban Pesach) is in all probability limited to the afternoon, when the sacrifice was brought.


Remarkably, the Yerushalmi (4:6) applies the holiday status of Erev Pesach to the entire day. Relating to the mishna which prohibits work from the beginning of the day, the Yerushalmi comments: "a DAY of Pesach for God." Accordingly, the entire day is considered a holiday, due to the Korban Pesach brought that day. This possibility can be supported by an unbiased reading of the Torah, which refers to Erev Pesach as "the holiday of Pesach," but calls the next seven days "the holiday of matzot." (See Shemot 12, Vayikra 23:5-6, Bamidbar 28:16-17.)


In summary, the two basic approaches used to explain the prohibition of work after midday, can also be applied to understand those opinions which prohibit work before noon. One approach views work as a disruption of the arrangements necessary for Pesach. The alternative considers the entire day on which the Korban Pesach is brought as a holiday.


Based on the above, we can explain the argument pertaining to the point at which the issur melakha begins. If the issur melakha is an expression of the holy status of the day, then we would expect the prohibition to begin at the beginning of the day: either at the beginning of the previous evening (Beit Shammai), or at the break of dawn (R. Eliezer ben Yaakov). If, on the other hand, we are concerned with the distraction engendered by work, then it is sufficient to prohibit work from sunrise, when people normally begin their work day, as held by Beit Hillel and R. Yehuda (see Tosafot 2b s.v. Rebbi).




Before proceeding, it is important to note that these are the two basic approaches to issur melakha in a more general sense. There are clear-cut examples where the issur melakha is a basic characteristic of a holiday. This is certhe case regarding Shabbat or Yom Tov. Similarly, we find cases where we refrain from work because of the disruptive element involved. The issur melakha of a mourner, for instance, is meant to prevent him from being distracted.


Regarding Chol Ha-mo'ed, we find a similar argument. The Yerushalmi (Mo'ed Katan 2:3) seems to indicate that melakha is prohibited in order that one should be free to spend Chol Ha-mo'ed involved in the study of Torah. However, there are Rishonim (see Ramban Mo'ed Katan) who claim that work is forbidden by Torah law because it is a holiday. It is instructive to note that the level of issur melakha on Erev Pesach is compared to Chol Ha-mo'ed (see Pesachim 55b, Mo'ed Katan 13a).




Let us now return to the opinion of Rashi. Tosafot argue that there can be no halakhic debate concerning customary practice. It is sufficient, according to their opinion, to go and verify the actual practice of the people. In other words, Tosafot feel that custom is totally a function of common practice and is divorced from halakhic categories. We can understand Rashi if we accept that custom can be controlled by halakhic frameworks. If, for instance, the custom not to work was based on the people accepting and relating to Erev Pesach as a holiday, then the custom not to work must begin at the beginning of the day (i.e. the break of dawn), or on the previous evening (see R. David 2b s.v. Me-ematai). If, on the other hand, the issur melakha is due to the distraction involved, then the exact point of the prohibition is not clearly defined. Nevertheless, sunrise, the beginning of the workday, is reasonable.


These two approaches to custom (minhag) are very significant. However, an discussion of them will take us far beyond the scope of this shiur.




We traced the prohibition of work on Erev Pesach through its various stages. We began with the basic halakha - after noon - which is possibly of biblical origin. We continued with those opinions which prohibited melakha even before noon, and concluded with the custom not to work before noon. At each stage we found two basic approaches to the issur melakha. One approach viewed work as disrupting the preparations and acts a Jew is expected to perform on Erev Pesach. The alternate approach perceived Erev Pesach to a certain extent as an independent holiday, which consequently includes a prohibition of work.


These two understandings reflect two basic approaches to Erev Pesach:





  1. It is an independent holiday connected to the Korban Pesach.
  2. 2. It is a day set aside to prepare for Pesach.

These two approaches are important in general, and should be kept in mind when learning the sugya dealing with the prohibitions of chametz on Erev Pesach (5a).




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