Second Passover

The initiative for the Pesach Sheni reform came from the ritually impure and from distant travelers, and not from the LORD.

By Dina Berman Maykon and Tamar Gan-Zvi Bick

In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 9, we read that the Israelites observed a certain mitzvah while they stayed in the desert. God orders Moses, who passes on the order to the people, and the people obey and perform the Passover rites at a particular time, as it is ordained. So far, there is nothing unusual in this description, but later on something strange takes place. The following verse tells of something unique. After a brief description of the sacrificing of the Passover lamb (and one can only imagine the festivities that took place while this mitzvah was performed by those who actually left Egypt with Moses), some Israelites turn to Moses with an unexpected plea:


"But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the Passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those men said to them: 'Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the LORD's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?"


The people who were ritually impure at the time of the observance of the Passover rituals, and therefore could not take part in the mitzvahs of Passover, approach Moses and Aaron and call out "why should we be excluded?" Let's think for a moment about their claim: On a superficial level they have no case. After all, these people were prevented from carrying out the mitzvah because of their bad luck, or perhaps their own bad planning or negligence. They were not targeted or injured personally, it was simply bad timing that prevented them from fulfilling this specific mitzvah. They should be satisfied that no punishment is due them because of it. But these people feel that being prevented from performing the mitzvah harms them by excluding them from the community, and they demand to be included and to sacrifice the Passover lamb.


Moses, the greatest of sages, is lost for words, and his response is that he needs to receive instruction from the LORD about what must be done. The answer he gets is revolutionary:


"Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to the LORD, they shall offer it in the second month, on the Fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs; and they shall not leave any of it till morning. They shall not break a bone of it. They shall offer it in strict accordance with the law of the Passover sacrifice".


The LORD's answer is that there exists a "second chance" for the mitzvah of the Passover sacrifice. People who couldn't sacrifice the Passover lamb in time (because of impurity related to death or physical inability to reach the site of sacrifice) should celebrate Passover on the Fourteenth of Iyar, and the LORD explicitly states that their Passover (Pesach Sheni) should be identical to the regular one, including matzoth and bitter herbs and all the special laws relating to Passover. This is one of the strangest cases ever described in the Bible. On what is a completely ordinary day for almost all of the people of Israel, a certain group of people celebrate the Passover. On this day, as evening falls, they come to the temple dressed in their best, sacrifice the Passover lamb and eat it, matzoth and all. For these people this Passover is the real Passover, regardless of the fact that it is an ordinary day for the rest of the Jewish people.


Let us take note that the initiative does not come from the LORD, nor from Moses. The possibility for a second Passover arises only because of the demand of the ritually impure. That is the essence of this day: the LORD could have ordained it from the beginning, but he waited for the insistence of those people who refused to accept their fate, and fought for their place.


What can be learned from this extraordinary mitzvah? As we read the story of Pesach Sheni we discover that consideration towards a minority is a Divine virtue, one that humans must learn from, as part of "You shall follow His ways". For what we have here is a situation in which the majority of the Israelites sacrifice the Passover lamb at its ordained time, while a minority is prevented from observing this mitzvah. Our guess is, that if it were up to humans to solve this problem, they would just shrug their shoulders and claim that it's not their problem that ritually impure people cannot sacrifice as prescribed: the writ of the LORD is perfectly clear and there is nothing to be done. Only the LORD himself could come up with this solution, of allowing the minority the place and the possibility to be part of the whole - for the sacrifice of the Passover lamb together with the covenant of the circumcision, signifies inclusion in the Jewish people - and all this without diminishing anything from the original directive.


The second thing we can learn from Pesach Sheni is that some things must start at the bottom. The initiative for the Pesach Sheni reform came from the ritually impure and from distant travelers, and not from the LORD. In Hassidut, the month of Iyar is viewed as the month in which redemption will come from the people while the month of Nissan is that in which redemption came from the LORD. In our time, on the same month of Iyar, we have been blessed to celebrate the beginning of the Jewish people's emancipation in their own country. It is very fitting that Yom HaAtzma'ut (Independence Day) is celebrated in Iyar along with Pesach Sheni, as another example of a groundswell demand that resulted in action.


The revolutionary aspect of the Divine solution to the problem of the celebration of Passover by the ritually impure should not be taken lightly. It is a mitzvah whose timing is crucial since it symbolizes a historical event, the exodus from Egypt which took place on Nissan the Fourteenth, not Iyar the Fourteenth! As we can see, after the LORD ordains Pesach Sheni he also warns: "But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the Passover sacrifice, that soul shall be cut off from his kin; for he did not present the LORD's offering at its set time, that man shall bear his guilt." The creation of a solution for the minority does not open a way for abrogating the original directive for the majority. If there is no justifiable reason for not celebrating the Passover at its proper time, the punishment for not sacrificing the Passover lamb is excommunication, a rare and severe punishment for the contravention of a mitzvah that exits for only one other mitzvah - circumcision.


In the past few years some of us have been crying out "Why should we be excluded?". Religious gay men and women and aging single women would like to build Jewish homes, and take part in the mitzvah of procreation and to be, in the most basic sense, a part of the fabric of the nation; agunot would like to remarry within the strictures of Jewish law, and find a halachic solution to their problem; women would like to participate in mitzvot such as Torah study, and to be full participants in their communities and synagogues. These cries, like the cries of the ritually impure men, stem from a sincere and truthful desire to obey the laws of the Torah, out of a deep understanding of the meaning of belonging to the Jewish people, but without the ability to find their own place in the current tapestry of mitzvoth.


The response of Rabbis and religious leaders to these problems was that there are no existing halachic solutions: a Jewish home must be comprised of a male and a female; the normative family is the basis of Jewish existence; there is no option to change even some of the divorce laws for fear of a "wrongful divorce" and similar problems; there is no place in the halachic framework for the full integration of women in the public sphere of religious life. Pesach Sheni teaches us that creative solutions must be found, special and unique solutions of the kind that challenges even the most basic of assumptions. Pesach Sheni teaches us that there are parts of the Torah that the LORD requires us to write ourselves, that arise from the demands of the people, and that some halachot are written only in answer to a true and honest plea for inclusion within the nation and in the framework of the law.


However, Pesach Sheni teaches us that not every change is the start of a slippery slope. It teaches us that a solution can be found for a minority without changing anything relating to the majority. The Fourteenth of Iyar is only for those who are ritually impure or on the road, and is a regular day for everyone else - and the mitzvah of Passover is not diminished because of the innovation of Pesach Sheni. In the same way, halachic and intellectual solutions can - and should - be found for the current cries of "Why should we be excluded?" that will allow minorities to coexist, at the deepest level, with the rest of the Jewish people, without harming the halachic norm that governs the majority.


The Fourteenth of Iyar, Pesach Sheni, is not celebrated today. Beyond the symbolic gesture of not saying Tachanun, the penitential prayer recited daily, the day is not marked. This is why we suggest turning the Fourteenth of Iyar into the day of religious tolerance. A day that will remind us all of the necessity of halachic solutions to real problems, to consider the difficulties of minorities, and to make a commitment towards the "other", whoever that may be. On this day we will remember that there are still things to correct that will never be initiated from the top. On this day we can remember that it is both possible and imperative to stretch boundaries, so as to create a holiday on an otherwise ordinary day, one that enables all of the Jewish people to participate in the world of the Torah. On the Fourteenth of Iyar we shall recall the lesson that is taught, not by sage nor by messenger, but from the LORD Himself. On a date that is but a few days after the day of celebration of our political emancipation, let us celebrate the day of halachic responsibility - the day of religious tolerance.