Chag HaPesach or Chag HaMatzot?
Rabbi Dani Appel is the Director of Recruitment for the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Institutes
On which date does Pesach begin?
Most of us know the exact dates of the different Jewish holidays, and how long they last. However, the festival or chag celebrated in the Spring month of Nissan is an exception. Moreover, this particular festival, which is called Chag HaPesach, is essentially different from all the other festivals mentioned in the Torah: on this festival there is no prohibition on doing work; it is the shortest festival in the Jewish calendar; and unlike the other Jewish festivals, it does not begin at nightfall.
According to the verses of the Torah, Chag HaPesach is not a seven-day festival, nor does it begin on the 15th of Nissan. If so, when does it begin? And, what then, is the festival we mark on the 15th day of Nissan?
These are the words of the Torah:
“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at dusk, is Pesach unto the Lord. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Festival of the Matzot unto the Lord; seven days you shall eat matzot.” (Vayikra 23:5-6)
A close reading of these verses reveals that there are, in fact, two different festivals on the 15th of Nissan. The first is Chag HaPesach, which begins at around midday on the 14th day of Nissan and continues until midnight, the 15th of Nissan. On the eve of the 15th of Nissan, another festival begins concurrently and lasts for seven whole days. This festival is called Chag Hamatzot, the Festival of the Matzot.
What are these two holidays and what does each signify?
Chag HaPesach symbolizes the end of the bondage of Egypt. We are commanded to take none other than the god of Egypt – the lamb – only to slaughter it and then offer it as a sacrifice. These acts signify that we are no longer enslaved to Pharaoh and to Egypt. So much so, that we do not fear to slaughter the Egyptian god in broad daylight. Chag HaPesach took place in Egypt itself. The climax of the day was when Pharaoh lets the Israelites leave Egypt following The Plague of the Firstborn – makat bechorot. The Israelites leave in great haste – the Great Escape, if you will.
The Festival of the Matzot, on the other hand, is the festival of freedom. Chag HaMatzot marks the day we left Egypt with our heads held high. This time, it was not Pharaoh who was chasing us out; rather, it was our own exodus by choice. We were leaving to find a new path of life. Yesterday the bondage came to an end; today we are truly becoming free. “On this day you became a nation….” (Devarim 27:9)
The special mitzvah of Chag HaPesach is to sacrifice a lamb and eat the Pesach offering, while the special mitzvah of Chag HaMatzot is to eat matzah. As explained, the Pesach offering signifies our very last act before emerging from slavery to freedom; eating matzah (and drinking the four cups of wine) symbolizes our freedom.
Matzah is usually known as “the bread of affliction”, unleavened bread prepared in haste by the Israelites when leaving Egypt. But the first time we come across this mitzvah in the Torah, no mention is made of haste: “And you shall observe the matzot; for in this selfsame day have I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore, shall you observe this day throughout your generations by an ordinance forever” (Shemot 12:17). Although these verses precede the Exodus and focus on Chag HaPesach, matzah is mentioned nonetheless. It is only later in the Torah that we are told that the Israelites left in haste, and therefore took matzot with them because the dough had no time to rise.
It follows then that the matzah is not only a by-product of the hasty departure; rather, it appears to be a first-choice food, prepared intentionally before one sets out on a voyage. Unlike regular bread, which can easily spoil after a few days of trekking, unleavened bread, or matzah, which is not left to ferment and rise, can last for much longer. It is, in fact, a type of bread meant exactly for such a long journey.
Notwithstanding the above, the Torah still chooses to mention the haste in which the Exodus took place and the fact that the dough had no time to rise. So how do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory ideas? Perhaps on Pesach, the notion of matzah signifies the lack of chametz. In other words, when one leaves in haste, there is no time for things to turn into chametz. Thus, if one eats chametz, one is, in a sense, refuting the very notion of haste.
It follows then that there are two distinct explanations for the concept of chametz and matzah. On Chag HaPesach we may not eat chametz because of the haste in which the offering is brought; we are even commanded to put away any chametz from midday, Nissan 14th. However, there is no commandment to specifically eat matzah on the 14th (in fact, our Sages prohibited the eating of matzah on the day of the 14th). In contrast, on Chag HaMatzot, matzah is not just the absence of chametz, but becomes an active obligation, because it is reminiscent of the unleavened bread eaten on the Israelites’ long journey. Therefore, on Chag HaMatzot there is an obligation to eat matzah, and no other bread. In order to fulfill this commandment properly, the Torah also prohibits us from eating chametz.
Seder night is a unique night in many respects. First and foremost, it is the only night in the Jewish calendar on which we mark two different festivals and merge them into one – Chag HaPesach and Chag HaMatzot. However, we do not eat the matzah in haste; rather, we eat it in freedom. And why is this so? Because in so doing we interweave the underlying principles of both these festive days. On the one hand, we eat the Pesach offering, characterized by a myriad of laws which express haste; on the other hand, we eat it on a night exemplified by order and structure, and we eat the matzah on a full stomach, as free people.
Chag HaMatzot can only be celebrated in conjunction with Chag HaPesach. We cannot be free people if we are still enslaved to Egypt. Similarly, Chag HaPesach has no real meaning without Chag HaMatzot because what is the point of being set free if one is not truly liberated? The night of the 15th of Nissan symbolizes the convergence of these two ideas: we were not only set free from bondage, but we also became an independent nation. God not only freed us from slavery, but also made sure to gather us unto Him and turn us into a nation that is truly free.