Shiur #25: Aggadot of Pesachim I: The Light and the Dark

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch
The ten chapters of tractate Pesachim of the Babylonian Talmud analyze both the holiday of Passover (Pesach) and the Pesach offering (korban pesach). Over the course of the next few shiurim, we will discuss some of the aggadot in this tractate, their content and their context. Beyond a literary analysis of each aggada, we will address an additional role filled by the aggadot in this tractate.
As the Rishonim already note,[1] the division between the two main topics of Pesachim is obvious and unambiguous: chapters 5-9 focus on the Pesach offering, while chapters 1-4 and chapter 10 focus on the holiday of Pesach. In fact, the first few chapters, colloquially referred to as Pesach Rishon (First Passover), may themselves be subdivided, as the lion’s share of the first three chapters are about chametz: the search for leaven, the destruction of it, the definition of it, and all the relevant times.[2]
However, secondary topics are raised by the main issues, for literary or other reasons, such as the issue of incinerating defiled meat or oil in chapter 1 (mishna 6) and the topics of maror and korban pesach in chapter 2 (mishnayot 6, 8). This is not the forum to delve into the reasons for the inclusion of each of these topics in its respective chapter. However, it is clear that these topics are in fact ancillary, if only because we see that the Mishna, after considering each of them, returns to the central issue of chametz.[3] The entire unit concludes with a mishna addressing the destruction of chametz (3:7). As for the remaining Pesach chapters, chapter 4 deals with the unique status of the 14th of Nissan, Erev Pesach, while chapter 10 details that evening, the seder night.
This shiur will consider the first segment, namely chapters 1-3, which may be viewed as one thematic unit dealing with chametz, as we will specify below. There are a number of literary phenomena in the mishnayot of these chapters that create the unitary content of this segment, contributing to the impression of this segment as an independent literary unit.
Upon delving into these chapters in the Babylonian Talmud, we find that the redactors of the tractate also give literary expression to the unity of this segment by interweaving aggadic elements at the beginning and end of this unit. We will examine these aggadic elements: the introductory passage (2a-3a), which examines the first word of the tractate, “or,” which literally means light; and the aggada at the end of chapter 3 (50a), which concludes the unit. After we consider each of the aggadot, we will demonstrate that they were not integrated merely as literary embellishment. Rather, these two aggadot share themes and descriptive elements, together creating a literary framework for this unit that carries philosophical significance relevant to the content of the chapters.
The existence of such literary frameworks for thematic units in the Babylonian Talmud is not unique to this segment of Tractate Pesachim. R. Dr. A. Walfish points to a similar phenomenon in Tractate Rosh Hashana, and I believe that one may point to this is in additional places as well. One notable example is somewhat similar to the example in our present discussion: chapters 3-4 in Tractate Sukka, which focus on the laws of the four species. At each end, there are discussions citing the first chapter of Malakhi, a phenomenon that does not seem to be coincidental. Another example of an aggadic literary framework for a chapter is discussed in my earlier series of shiurim on the aggadot of Tractate Yoma.[4]
The Unit in Tannaitic Sources
As noted above, the first three chapters of Tractate Pesachim share a common halakhic topic, dealing with chametz in all of its dimensions. If we take a bird’s-eye view of the unit, we discover something intriguing fact about this structure: The initial discussion centers on searching for and destroying chametz (ch. 1 and the first mishna of ch.2),[5] and destroying it is also the final topic (3:5-7).
In between, other issues of chametz are discussed (as well as a number of other incidental topics), the main discussion being the definition of chametz and the various states of its creation (2:4-5; 3:1-5). The fact that the unit opens and closes with discussions of destroying chametz makes the entire unit more cohesive.
Aside from the context, these mishnayot also share a literary phenomenon, which ties the chapters together and contributes to seeing them as one literary framework.
  1. The Similarity in the Conclusions of the Framing Chapters (1 and 3)
The conclusion of chapter 1 is composed of a pair of mishnayot that share a topic: Mishna 6 deals with incinerating the flesh and oil of offerings that have become defiled, while mishna 7 deals with incinerating chametz (of teruma) at various levels of defilement. Indeed, since mishna 6 is not related to the laws of chametz, it seems to be part of the same unit as mishna 7, which talks about incinerating leaven.
Both offerings to the Temple and teruma, the sacred part of the crop given to the priests, must be eaten in a state of ritual purity; if the food becomes defiled by contact with something that is ritually impure, it must be incinerated. However, there are different levels of defilement: a corpse creates the highest level of defilement, while one who has already immersed in a mikveh but is waiting for sunset to complete the period of purification, conveys a much lower level of defilement.
R. Chanina, Deputy of the Priests, said: During all of the days of the priests, they never refrained from burning the flesh [of offerings] that had been defiled by a secondary source of defilement with flesh that had been defiled by a primary source of defilement, even though they add defilement to its defilement.
R. Akiva added and said: During [all] the days of the priests, they did not refrain from lighting oil that had been rendered defiled by a day-immerser in a lamp that had been made defiled by one who had been defiled by [contact with] a corpse, even though they add defilement to its defilement.
R. Meir said: From their words we learn that we may burn undefiled teruma together with defiled teruma on Pesach.
R. Yosei said: That is not a [proper] analogy.
R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua agree that each is burned separately. Concerning what do they disagree? With respect to [teruma whose defilement is] doubtful and [teruma that has definitely been] defiled, R. Eliezer says: Each is burnt separately. But R. Yehoshua rules: Both together.
In the conclusion of chapter 3, we encounter a similar phenomenon. Here as well, the closing is composed of a pair of mishnayot. One of these mishnayot deals with matters of chametz; the other is formulated in a very similar manner, but it has nothing to do with the topic of the chapter, but rather with the issue of incinerating the flesh of offerings.[6] Mishna 7 deals with the case of chametz that has been forgotten in one’s home – what is to be done to destroy it and under what circumstances. Mishna 8 concludes the chapter using a similar formation to deal with the issue of incinerating the flesh of offerings. Here as well, the mishna dealing with incinerating the flesh of the offerings is not tied to the topic of the chapter in terms of content, and it is only cited incidentally due to the mishna which discusses incinerating chametz. It appears that these two mishnayot come from a common source.
One who is on his way to slaughter his Pesach offering or to circumcise his son or to dine at a betrothal feast at the house of his father-in-law, and he remembers that he has chametz at home: if he is able to go back, remove [it], and [then] return to his religious duty, he must go back and remove [it]; but if not, he annuls it in his heart.
[If he is on his way] to save from an invasion or from a river or from brigands or from a fire or from a collapse [of a building], he annuls it in his heart. [But if] to rest for pleasure, he must return immediately.
Similarly, one who went out of Jerusalem and remembered that he had the flesh of offerings with him: If he has passed Scopus, he burns it where he is; but if not, he returns and burns it in front of the Temple with the wood of the [altar] pile.
And for what [quantity] must they return? R. Meir says: For both, when there is as much as an egg. R. Yehuda says: For both, when there is as much as an olive. But the Sages say: [With regard to] flesh of meat offerings, when there is as much as an olive; [with regard to] chametz, when there is as much as an egg.
It is also worth noting that the question of destroying or incinerating chametz arises in another mishna, the first in chapter 2: “R. Yehuda says: The only way to destroy leaven is to incinerate it.” This connection enhances the cohesiveness of the unit as a whole
  1. The Mishna Preceding the Conclusion
It is not only the pair of mishnayot concluding chapters 1 and 3 that are parallel in formulation and content; the immediately preceding mishnayot in those chapters are also quite similar.
R. Yehuda further said: Two unfit loaves of thanksgiving used to lie on the roof of the [Temple] portico. As long as they lay [there], all the people would eat [chametz]. When one was removed, they would keep it in suspense, neither eating nor burning [it]. When both were removed, all the people began to burn [their chametz]. Rabban Gamliel says: [Chametz of] chullin may be eaten the whole of the four [hours] and [chametz of] teruma the whole of the five [hours]; and we burn [them] at the beginning of the sixth [hour]. (1:5)
If the fourteenth [of Nissan] falls on Shabbat, they remove everything before Shabbat, according to R. Meir. The Sages say: At its [usual] time. R. Elazar bar Tzadok says: [Chametz of] teruma before Shabbat, and [chametz of] chullin at its [usual] time. (3:6)
Both mishnayot distinguish between chametz of chullin (i.e. produce that has no inherent sanctity) and chametz of teruma in terms of the times for destruction. In 1:5, Rabban Gamliel rules that chametz of chullin may be eaten until the end of the fourth hour, while chametz of teruma may be eaten until the end of the fifth hour, while in 3:6, R. Elazar bar Tzadok determines that if the fourteenth of Nissan is on Shabbat, chametz of teruma is destroyed before Shabbat, but chametz of chullin at the regular time.[7]
This parallel may be added to previous one, creating a meaningful connection between the two chapters that bookend the unit. In fact, even in this context there is a connection in the chapter in the middle, as the fourth mishna in chapter 2 deals with eating chametz of teruma on Pesach.
We may add a connection between the opening and closing of the unit by way of an additional Tannaitic source. The very first line of the unit instructs us to search for chametz by candlelight. The reason is not stated in the mishna, but the Tosefta (1:1) explains:
For searching by candle is far better. Even though there is no proof, there is an allusion (Tzefanya 1:12): “And it shall be at that time that I will search Jerusalem by candles…”
If we assume that this idea was well-known, at least among Tanna’im of the last generation,[8] there is a literary link between the broader Tannaitic context of 1:1 (as expanded by the Tosefta) and the final mishna of the unit, 3:8, which talks about one who has just departed Jerusalem. The capital is mentioned only two more times throughout the tractate, one of which (7:3) is incidental, “For we do not redeem the second tithe within Jerusalem.” This is remarkable considering the fact that this tractate deals intensively with the Pesach offering, which must be brought and eaten within the city limits of Jerusalem.
All of this indicates that the first three chapters of Tractate Pesachim constitute one thematic unit, delineated both in terms of content and literary structure. In terms of content, these are the chapters focusing on the definition and destruction of chametz; in terms of literary structure, R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi indicates the boundaries of this unit by presenting many parallels between chapter 1, which opens it, and chapter 3, which concludes it. Below, we will consider what the redactors of the Babylonian Talmud decided to present at the bookends of this unit.
The Aggada of Or (Light): The Introduction to Tractate Pesachim in the Babylonian Talmud[9]
The first mishna of Pesachim states:
At light (or) of the fourteenth, we search for leaven by candlelight (or ha-ner).
Only two mishnayot later, it becomes quite clear that the time period referred to is the evening of the fourteenth of Nisan:
R. Yehuda says: We search at the fourteenth’s light, as well as on the morning of the fourteenth and at the hour of destruction.
Nevertheless, the gemara opens by asking what or means in this context, citing two views offered by two Amora’im:
What is or? R. Huna says: It is gleaming (naghei), while R. Yehuda says: It is gloaming (leilei). Presumably, the one who says gleaming means it literally, and the one who says gloaming means it literally...
The sugya first considers the possibility that we have two diametrically opposed views, the first being that the light refered to is that of dawn, the latter that it is dusk. This motivates the Gemara to cite a series of verses, followed by a series of Tannaitic sources. Finally, the initial presumption of a diametrically opposed Amoraic view is rejected:
The fact is that both R. Huna and R. Yehuda are alike, agreeing that or is evening, and there is no controversy; each master [speaks] in accordance with his locality. In R. Huna's town they called it gleaming, while in R. Yehuda's town it is called gloaming.
It has already been noted that this conclusion of the Gemara means that the parade of proof-texts preceding it was unnecessary. Rabbeinu Chananel (s.v. bodekin) and other Rishonim[10] note that in order to resolve the doubt, one Tannaitic proof-text would have sufficed to conclusively demonstrate that or as used in the first mishna is a reference to evening, summarizing with the unambiguous: “We hear it from here.”[11]
Indeed, this is something of a foregone conclusion. The Aramaic terms used by each Amora, naghei and leilei respectively, are synonymous, two words referring to the same time, the evening of the fourteenth of Nisan; at most, we might say that they refer to two parts of the nighttime.[12]
Naturally, this means that the lengthy series of proof-texts is essentially an aggadic passage, which E.S. Rosenthal describes as “nothing more than a literary construction,”[13] a sugya created for literary reasons that are not an integral part of the halakhic clarification that stands at its base. This is reasonable based on the decisive way in which the Gemara accepts the proofs that or is night and rejects most of the others.
Moreover, the independent status of this aggadic segment becomes much stronger in light of the literary design, which is composed of a dual structure with reverse symmetry.[14] Each part, the biblical and the Tannaitic, contains seven proofs.[15] In the biblical part, the first three and the last three proofs indicate that or is day, while the middle one indicates that or is night; in the Tannaitic proofs, this order is reversed, as the first and last three proofs indicate that or is night, while the middle one indicates that or is morning. Midrashically speaking, the structure utilized is the form of a biblical Menora, with a central stem and three branches on each side — an interesting idea for a sugya dealing with light. It appears that the redactors of tractate decided to open the unit discussing the destruction of chametz with aggada, presenting the reader with a mediation on matters of light and darkness, night and day.
The decision to open Tractate Pesachim in general (and the topic of chametz in particular) with an aggadic section dealing with the matter of light and darkness requires an explanation of the nature of the connection between the motif of light and darkness and the holiday of Pesach. Analysis of the biblical narrative of the Exodus and the aggadic exegesis of Chazal points to the centrality of the motif of light and darkness in this narrative. This motif is undeniable in the Plague of Darkness, of course, but is in fact present in all of the final three plagues.
The process of “darkening” begins with the Plague of Locusts:
The locust came up over the entire land of Egypt… It covered the surface of the entire land, and the land became dark… (Shemot 10:14-15)
This indicates that as the Exodus draws nigh, the motif of the descent of darkness upon Egypt becomes more and more unambiguous. Even the final plague, the Slaying of the Firstborn, is tied to this trend; it happens at midnight, and metaphorically we may say that God illuminates that night with the light of the redemption. Indeed, the Midrash uses the metaphor of light and dark to analyze the Slaying of the Firstborn:
R. Abun says in the name of R. Yehuda ben Pazi: Bitya daughter of Pharaoh was a firstborn. Then why was she saved? Because Moshe prayed for her, as it says, “She perceives that her trade is good; her candle goes not out by night” (Mishlei 31:18). It is spelled leil, much like it is written, “It is a night of protection (leil shimurim) by the Lord” (Shemot 12:40). (Pesiketa De-Rav Kahana, s.v. va-yehi ba-chatzi ha-laila 7, ed. Mandelbaum, p. 129)[16]
The separation between Egypt and Israel, which characterizes the plagues, is expressed in the Plague of Darkness as separating between light and dark.
The motif of light and dark exists in the final victory over Egypt as well, at the Splitting of the Yam Suf:
Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. (Shemot 14:19-20)
The connection of light and dark to the Exodus is not explicitly mentioned in this introductory aggada, but among the proof-texts cited in the sugya is the prototypical division between light and dark, from the first day of Creation. The third verse cited among the biblical proof-texts is the fifth verse in the Torah:
This was challenged: “And God called the light (or) ‘day’” — this indicates that or refers to daytime.
This connection between the light of Creation and the motif of darkness and light in the Exodus is already found in an Amoraic midrash that precedes the Babylonian Talmud:
R. Shimon says…: “And there was light”—this refers to the Book of Exodus, in which Israel leaves Egypt, from the gloom to the light. (Bereishit Rabba 3, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 21)
This idea appears even more explicitly in another midrash, cited in Yalkut Shimoni (Bereishit, ch. 17):
The Holy One, Blessed be He, consulted the angels. He said to them: “I seek to create a world.”
They asked Him: “Why?”
He said to them: “For the sake of one nation named Israel.”
They said to Him: “What is their nature?”
He said to them: “Just as I separated between the light and the dark, so was it in Egypt (Shemot 10:23): ‘And for all the Israelites, there was light where they lived.’”
Indeed, an allusion to the Exodus exists in the first verse cited by the Gemara:
At morning light, the men were sent off with their donkeys. (Bereishit 44:3)
This verse is taken from the passage of Yosef and his brothers, which is in effect the beginning of the descent to Egypt, which eventually leads to the subjugation of their offspring there. Penei Yehoshua notes that below, we find a chain of derivation establishing that the search for leaven must be by candlelight, using this very story:
How do we know this? Said R. Chisda: By deriving “finding” from “finding”…: Here it is written, “Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses” (Shemot 12:19), while elsewhere it is written (Bereishit 44:12), “And he searched, and began at the eldest, and left at the youngest; and the cup was found [in Binyamin's sack].” (Pesachim 7b)
This is how the Gemara derives the use of candles to search for chametz.[17]
The abovementioned sources lead us to summarize and say that the distinction between light and darkness and the transition from darkness to light exist in both Tanakh and the literature of Chazal[18] as definite indicators of a connection to the Exodus.
It is quite reasonable to conclude that the intentional presentation of an aggadic sugya with literary design, highlighting the distinction between light and dark at the opening of Tractate Pesachim, is based on the deep connection of the motif of light and dark to the redemption from Egypt (which is even alluded to, as mentioned, in some of the proof-texts that the sugya cites).
Beyond the general connection between the motif of light and dark on the one hand and the Exodus and the holiday of Pesach on the other, the mitzva of searching for chametz, the inaugural topic of the tractate, becomes associated with this motif. The law of the mishna is that the search is to take place on the evening preceding Pesach, by candlelight. Shedding light, amidst the dark of night, upon the corners of the house by candle has a strong connection, on the symbolic plane, to the illumination of the actual and metaphorical night in Egypt by God through the Exodus, as we have seen above.
In the next shiur, we will turn to the aggada at the end of chapter 3 and see how it connects to the aggada at the beginning of chapter 1.
Translated by Yoseif Bloch

[1] See e.g. Meiri’s introduction to the tractate, where he indicates that this division dates back to the Geonic period; nevertheless, in his general preface to the Babylonian Talmud, he treats this split as being of a later origin. See S.Y. Friedman’s foreword, Tosefta Atikta (Ramat Gan, 2003), p. 12, n. 5.
[2] Mishna 1:1-4; 2:1-3, 7-8; 3:1-2, 5-7.
[3] 1:7, 2:7, 3:1.
[4]Available in the archives of the Virtual Beit Midrash. Since so many examples accumulate, it may be appropriate to view this phenomenon as an integral part of the methods of the Babylonian Talmud’s redactors, used in aggadic units in order to indicate the boundaries of the thematic units, expressing ideas and views simultaneously about the laws and discussions found therein.
[5] It appears that the third mishna of chapter 2 is also part of the discussion of destroying chametz: “Leaven upon which a building has collapsed is considered as if it is destroyed.”
[6] The order is inverted from that of chapter 1, but the parallel is clear.
[7] Outside of the first three chapters, teruma is mentioned in only one other place in Pesachim (7:3), while chullin is mentioned in the tractate only in these two parallel mishnayot.
[8] This also appears in Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 12:17, ed. Epstein-Melamed, p. 22.
[9] The analysis and commentary below concerning the opening sugya of the tractate are mainly based on material I heard directly from R. Dr. Yehuda Brandes.
[10] See below, n. 12.
[11] See also E.S. Rosenthal, “Kama Dugma’ot Boletot Le-Yichuda shel Masoret Nusach Ito,” printed as an introduction to MS Valmadonna of Pesachim, The Pesahim Codex: Babylonian Talmud: the facsimile of the ca. 1447-1452 Provence manuscript (London: Valmadonna Trust Library, 1984), pp. 7-17, esp. p. 12.
[12] Indeed, which part of the night is referenced by each is the matter of some debate. M. Sokoloff, in his Babylonian Aramaic Dictionary (“Naga,” pp. 728-729), argues that this is the end of the night, the first gleams of daybreak. Epstein, on the other hand (Mevo’ot Le-Sifrut Ha-Amora’im [Jerusalem, 1962], pp. 150-151) writes that naghei refers to “the day’s beginning, which includes the preceding evening,” which would mean that the dispute among the Amora’im is to whether the search for chametz is to be at the very beginning of the night or later within it. (See also Dov Herman, “Le-Toledoteha shel Bedikat Chametz Le-Or Ha-Ner,” Sinai 106 [1990], pp. 53-54, as well as the footnotes there.) Also see Rosenthal, “Kama Dugma’ot,” pp. 15-16.
Even the Rishonim argue about how to explain this dispute. Rashi (2a, s.v. Hakhi) explains naghei as the end of the night, as dawn begins to break, which would mean that the argument is whether the search is supposed to take place during the first part of the night or the last. Ra’avad, on the other hand (glosses on Ba’al Ha-Ma’or, Rif 1a) explains that R. Huna’s view is that the search must take place before nightfall, while the twilight is still gleaming.
[13] Ibid. p. 12. See Rosenthal’s hypothesis concerning the stages of the crafting of the sugya and the motivations for the creation of this literary construction. In this article, we will deal with one of these motivations, an explanation that associates this sugya with an ideological statement about the holiday of Pesach.
[14] As Rosenthal states, ibid. pp. 8-11. See Beit Ya’akov al Ha-Torah, Sefer Ha-Zmanim (Jerusalem: 1997), pp. 152-153, who precedes Rosenthal in this view.
[15] In the printed Vilna edition, the Tannaitic section features eight proof-texts. However, Rosenthal (ibid. pp. 12-13) determines based on analysis of the manuscripts that the proof cited by Mar Zutra is external and not part of the calculation. It appears that Beit Ya’akov, who does not address this question at all, does not count the final proof, the fifteenth, which is direct and convincing evidence, as it explicitly parallels our mishna, using leilei in the place of or, as R. David Bonfils and Maharam Chalava note in their commentaries ad loc.
[16] Cf. Y. Fraenkel, Darkhei Ha-Aggada Ve-Hamidrash (Givatayim, 1991), p. 217 and n. 113.
[17] Every one of the proofs in the Gemara, along with its contribution to the development of the idea of light and darkness, deserves an extensive discussion, but this not the proper forum for it.
[18] Other sources from Chazal point to the same connection, but this is not the forum to delve into this topic.