The Light of Passover
When speaking about the ritual of searching for hametz on the night before the first seder, the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan, the first Mishnah of the Tractate of Pesahim plays with imagery of light:
“Light of the fourteenth—we search for leaven with the light of a candle.”
“.אור לארבעה השר בודקים את החמץ לאור הנר”
The word light is used twice in one short sentence, yet does not mean the same thing in both instances. Indeed, the Gemara tells us that the two uses reflect opposite meanings. As the Rabbis of the Talmud understand it, “light of the fourteenth” does not refer to the literal meaning of these words. Instead, light refers not to the light of day, but the darkness of evening. Consequently, the Mishnah is teaching us that the ritual of the search for hametz should be performed in the darkness of the night before Passover. The second use of the term light, however, does in fact refer to light, as the Mishnah instructs us to search for hametz by the light of a candle.
Of course, this presents us with the obvious question: Why did the Rabbis use the word light when they intended darkness? The Hebrew word leila (לילה) would certainly have worked. Why did the Rabbis not say what they meant?
Maimonides, in his commentary to the Mishnah, suggests a compelling explanation for this unusual use of the word light: he suggests the Rabbis were guided by literary concerns. That is to say, it would have been less aesthetically pleasing to begin the tractate on the holiday of Passover with the word night. Darkness intimates an absence, while light (illumination) allows for the appreciation of abundance.
Truth be told, using a word that is the opposite of what one intends is not unknown in both biblical and rabbinic Hebrew. When Jezebel plants false witnesses against Naboth, she tells them to accuse Naboth of having “reviled God and king.” The word used in I Kings 21:10 for reviled is beirakhta (blessed)—the opposite of what the intended meaning is.
Similarly, we find an example where the Rabbis of the Talmud use the word bless when they really mean curse (Bava Metzi’a 59b). When the Rabbis tell the famous story of the excommunication of Rabbi Eliezer after his disagreement with the Sages regarding the “oven of Akhnai,” they “bless” him (barkhuhu). In the context of this story, however, the word really means that the Sages excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer.
What is certain is that the use of the word light for darkness in our Mishnah focuses the reader’s attention on both light and darkness in a way that would not have been accomplished without the use of euphemism. Why might the authors of our Mishnah want to emphasize these themes?
There is a Hasidic commentary to our Mishnah that frames an idea that I find particularly compelling for my own spiritual work over the Passover holiday. This text comes from a commentary on the Haggadah authored by Rabbi Yaakov Leiner (1828–1878), the son of Rabbi Mordechai Leiner of Izbitz (the author of the Mei Ha-Shiloach).
Why does the Talmudic Tractate of Pesachim begin with the word “light?”
It is because with the holiday of Passover, God—may God’s name be exalted—shines light and illuminates our vision so that a person will know his or her place and purpose and will see with clarity the root of their own shortcomings. For in truth, all the blessings that God has blessed the people Israel with have already been given to them . . . And the inability to see this is caused solely by “the darkness” and “the hiddenness” whereby the human being does not see God’s light—may it be exalted! It is because of this that one’s ultimate place and purpose and reason for being remain hidden from them. This alienation from one’s truest self creates anguish. And the inability to perceive our personal challenges inhibits our ability to heal them. Consequently, we jump from activity to activity in search of spiritual fulfillment. If we were only more whole we would not experience anguish because we would experience joy and faith that God would help us heal our personal shortcomings . . .
It is the holiday of Passover where God shines light so that human beings may understand their place and purpose and realize the source of their own shortcomings.
And with this knowledge there is great joy. It is for this reason that the Talmudic Tractate of Pesachim begins with the word “light,” since the Holy One shines light in order to allow our eyes to see that the Holy One has already given us all our blessings! Our inability to see this has been a result of the “leaven” and “dough” that serves as an impediment for the light to shine forth. (Sefer Ha-Zemanim, translated by David Hoffman)
This gorgeous text makes at least two extraordinary claims: (1) every human being has a purpose, a reason for her own individual existence in a particular place and at a certain time in history; and (2) God—in an act of abundant love—has already given each of us the blessings to become the people we need to be. Indeed, in a continued act of love and grace, God shines God’s light in order to allow us to see and heal our personal shortcomings and to emerge as the human beings God needs us to be. It is the “dough” and the “leavening” that inhibit our ability to see the larger purpose of our existence. These constitute the things that each of us needs to separate ourselves from in order to feel more connected to ourselves and to those whom we love. To be more “whole,” we need to remove those things that keep us from being more alive. The “darkness”—the shadow created by the “leavening”—keeps us from seeing that the seeds of our own becoming are already present in our lives. Human pain is not a result of being flawed.
The inability to see and honestly confront our flaws keeps us exiled from our ultimate selves. True joy—wholeness—flows from the awareness that, despite the fact that we are flawed creatures, God is close and wishes to help us see our place and purpose in Creation. This is the meaning of faith. Rabbi Leiner proposes that the Rabbis of the Mishnah used the strange language of “the light of the fourteenth” to describe the evening when we search by candlelight for the leavened bread in our homes in order to draw attention to God’s love. In this Hasidic formulation, Pesah is a holiday not only about the Nation’s emergence from slavery into freedom, but one that promises a move toward personal redemption, from darkness to illuminated perception.
All my blessings for a yom tov open to accept God’s redemptive light.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.