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Absolute Beginners

Why do we need a long Talmud tractate about Passover, a holiday we already know well?

Dovid Bashevkin
March 22, 2021
Center for Jewish History/Flickr
Passover Seder table, Ahawah Children’s Home, BerlinCenter for Jewish History/Flickr
Center for Jewish History/Flickr
Passover Seder table, Ahawah Children’s Home, BerlinCenter for Jewish History/Flickr

Passover is a holiday known for its questions, so to the four iconic ones let me add one more: Why Moses?

Why are Moses and the Exodus so central to our holidays and rituals, seemingly skipping over all of the foundational biblical personalities—the Patriarchs and Matriarchs—found prior. Surely their lives merit some commemoration. But none—not Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, or Rachel—has a holiday commemorating their life or story. Not even, to use a term I hate, a “minor” holiday.

The reason is as simple as it is poetic: The Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, impressive as they might have been, were individuals. Moses, on the other hand, was there to transform us from a collection of disparate humans to one coherent family. The Exodus matters so much because it’s the moment of the Jewish people’s birth, and to help us understand it, the Talmud gives us Tractate Pesachim.

Right off the bat, Pesachim, unlike most of the Talmud’s other tractates, has a high bar to clear: Most of us know little about agricultural proceedings, say, or intricate legal affairs, or any of the other topics the Talmud discusses at length, but all of us know quite a bit about Passover. What could the book teach us that years of observing Zayde tell the story of Pharaoh and the sea splitting can’t?

As it turns out, a lot.

The star of Passover is the Passover Seder but at center stage of Tractate Pesachim is the korban Pesach, the pascal lamb sacrifice. Most of us know it in passing—it’s why we’re commanded to place a shank bone on our Seder plate. But what does it really mean?

The Talmud helps us make sense of it. There are many references to sacrificial offerings in our prayers, but korban Pesach, we learn, is the only sacrifice we preserve through ritual—again, that shank bone, as well as the afikoman. To what does this sacrifice deserve such ritual adulation? It’s because our sacrifices normally fall into two categories: sacrifices brought by individuals (such as a chatas for a sin) and sacrifices that are on behalf of the community, known as a korban tzibur. Korban Pesach seems to be neither: Unlike a typical communal sacrifice, everyone has an obligation to partake of the korban Pesach. But unlike most individual sacrifices, the korban Pesach is deliberately meant to be eaten as a group—some even prohibit eating it alone. Rav Yitzchak Hutner explains this dichotomy in his classic work Pachad Yitzchak: Whereas all other communal sacrifices are designated as such because they are brought by a community, korban Pesach is considered a communal sacrifice because through it we become a community. If brit milah is the ritual passageway for becoming an individual Jew, korban Pesach is the ritual that fashions us into a Jewish nation. In page after page of intricate discussion, Tractate Pesachim makes that point beautifully clear, explaining, in great detail, how Passover is the moment of our collective birth.

But Tractate Pesachim—or, for that matter, Pesach itself—wouldn’t be of much interest if it were merely about beginnings: If Tractate Pesachim teaches us anything it is that beginnings don’t end, they endure.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook captures this idea beautifully:

Leaving Egypt was the type of event that only superficially to the untrained eye appears as something that happened one time in the past … but in truth, through internal recognition we arrive at the understanding that the very act of leaving Egypt was a feat that never ceased.

That’s why so many Jewish rituals are zecher l’yitzias mitzrayim, in remembrance of leaving Egypt. A child is born with all of the potential and possibilities contained throughout the rest of their lives. So too, when we left Egypt it was as if we were born. And everything stems from the beginning.

And our beginnings, our infancy, our childhoods, endure. Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) spent much of his career as a pediatrician and psychoanalyst examining the enduring nature of beginnings. Expanding upon Freud’s theory, with perhaps a tad less cynicism, Winnicott believed that behind every delinquent, each dictator, and every anxiety-plagued adult resided a child with a broken beginning. “Tell me what you fear,” he wrote, “and I will tell you what has happened to you.” For Winnicott, beginnings don’t end, but remain dormant just beneath our conscious surface shaping all of the contours and textures of our later relationships. As he writes in his aptly titled collection Home Is Where We Start From:

I would like to feel that as a result of what I have to say, you may be able to see a little more clearly that in every case that comes your way there was a beginning and at the beginning there was an illness, and the boy or girl became a deprived child. In other words, there is a sense in what once happened, although by the time that each individual comes into your care the sense has usually become lost.

Our beginnings, however inaccessible, however distant, however faint, still persist. I am reminded of this any time I feel some measure of inadequacy at work and in my mind’s eye it feels like I missed my childhood carpool. The language we use to interpret the rest of our lives is first learned as a child. And this is why Tractate Pesachim begins by using the word light to describe the nighttime. The Mishna didn’t forget about the word “night,” rather, the Talmud explains, “it chose a positive euphemism.” We don’t just learn to say please and thank you as children, we learn how the language through which we process our anger, express our frustration, and articulate our difficulties for the rest of our lives. Show me an adult who instinctively angrily curses their way through any inconvenience and I’ll show you a former child who never learned how to use language properly—how to find daytime even during the night.

A nation, like a child, is born with all of the potential for greatness, a potential that is never lost or dimmed. That’s why, the Talmud explains, in each and every generation all of us must view ourselves as though we personally had left Egypt. It’s a crucial reminder that while individuals are born and live and die, the Jewish nation is constantly reconstituting itself, beginning anew in each generation, always constantly beginning, always full of fresh hope and possibility. It’s why so much of the Seder is focused on children; indeed, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch seems to translate the very word Pesach as baby steps, reminding us that we are always just a few good questions away from awakening our national childhood.

Which brings us back to the very beginning of Tractate Pesachim: its title. As opposed to Tractate Sukkah, or Tractate Yoma, or Tractate Shabbos, Tractate Pesachim is written in the plural, meaning literally “two Passovers.” Why two?

Unlike most every other holiday there are in fact two Passovers—Pesach Rishon, which we celebrate each year on the 15th of Nisan, and Pesach Sheini, the biblical holiday created for those who were ritually impure during the first Pesach. We don’t have a makeup date for any other Jewish holiday. No Hanukkah sheini (I wish), no Yom Kippur sheini (thank God)—just Pesach Sheini. Because Pesach is the beginning of the Jewish people, it is the grand day that we reconstitute our nation, and rededicate ourselves to its principles. And on a yom tov that ritualizes our capacity to reach out, touch, and reshape our lingering beginnings, we look around at our annual Passover Seder, with all of its familiar faces and rituals, and realize that this too can be a beginning. Pesach along with its counterpart Pesach Sheini remind us that our childhood is not lost, but with enough careful prodding and attention it can reemerge like our formative feelings of care, love, and dependency always do. For therein lies the magic of Pesach’s beginning. When the beginning is not a lost artifact and buried relic of the past but ever-present, ever-unfolding, and ever-emerging it becomes possible to reach just beneath the surface and start a new beginning.

Winnicott never wrote an autobiography, but his later writings were collected by his wife into a volume titled Not Less Than Everything, which derives, like much of Winnicott’s ideas, from that not-so-great friend of the Jews, T.S. Eliot. Immediately following this line in the poem “Little Gidding,” Eliot writes:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning
The end is where we start from.

And this, my friends, is what I learned from Tractate Pesachim. How to squint just enough and rediscover a beginning, no matter how buried it has become. How even an aged grandfather has a childhood just beneath the surface. And the very moment we learn of the very possibility of even encountering our beginning, we also discover how to recreate our beginnings. We learn to begin again.

הדרך עלך מסכת פסחים והדרן עלן

We shall return to you, Tractate Pesachim, and you shall return to us.

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.