The Paradox of Pesach Sheni
A Fixed Lunar-Calendrical Commemoration:
After explaining to Moses how the Israelites should perform the Passover ritual in order to avoid being killed during the plague of the firstborn, YHWH ends with:
שמות יב:יד וְהָיָה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַי־הוָה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תְּחָגֻּהוּ.
Exod 12:14 This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to YHWH throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time.
Moses then passes the message along to the elders of Israel, expanding on this point:
שמות יב:כד וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְחָק לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ עַד עוֹלָם. יב:כה וְהָיָה כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן יְ־הוָה לָכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת.
Exod 12:24 You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. 12:25 And when you enter the land that YHWH will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite.
When a year passes, and the date of the original Passover in Egypt arrives, God tells Moses to command the Israelites to inaugurate the annual paschal sacrificial offering in the wilderness, emphasizing its proper date and timing:
במדבר ט:א וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְמִדְבַּר סִינַי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן לֵאמֹר. ט:ב וְיַעֲשׂוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַפָּסַח בְּמוֹעֲדוֹ. ט:ג בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה בֵּין הָעֲרְבַּיִם תַּעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ בְּמוֹעֲדוֹ כְּכָל חֻקֹּתָיו וּכְכָל מִשְׁפָּטָיו תַּעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ.
Num 9:1 YHWH spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, in the first month: 9:2 Let the Israelite people offer the paschal sacrifice at its set time: 9:3 you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, at its set time; you shall offer it in accordance with all its rules and rites.
Moses relays this message, and the people celebrate the Passover. Here too the proper date is emphasized:
במדבר ט:ד וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַעֲשֹׂת הַפָּסַח. ט:ה וַיַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת הַפֶּסַח בָּרִאשׁוֹן בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת מֹשֶׁה כֵּן עָשׂוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 9:4 Moses instructed the Israelites to offer the paschal sacrifice; 9:5 and they offered the paschal sacrifice in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai. Just as YHWH had commanded Moses, so the Israelites did.
The emphasis on the festival’s date highlights its function as commemorating a specific event, the exodus from Egypt, which transpired on a specific date.
Agricultural and Historical Festivals
Historical commemoration, to be performatively meaningful, needs to hold the commemoration not at some vague time period, but on the same proper day or date of every year, however determined. The centrality of this aspect of Passover is clear when compared with the two other annual pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot and Shavuʿot.
In most places in the Torah, Sukkot celebrates the ingathering of the final agricultural product of Israel in the autumn (e.g., grapes and olives). Sukkot’s historical significance, however, is mentioned in only one passage in the Torah:
ויקרא כג:מב בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. כג:מג לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם...
Lev 23:42 You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, 23:43 in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…
While Sukkot does have a specific date in this chapter, starting on the 15th of seventh month (v. 34), the passage about the historical meaning of the practice does not associate the dwelling in booths to this specific date the way the Passover passages do. Note also the explicit designation of the subject as “all citizens of Israel,” as if to exclude non-citizens.
For Shavuot, no commemorative element is suggested until post-biblical times. In fact, Leviticus 23, which assigns dates to all the other biblical festivals, doesn’t even assign Shavuot an exact date. We are merely told that it will take place fifty days after the wave offering for the first cut of grain (an event which is also not given a date; Lev 23:11, 15).
This may be because the date was a “moving target,” since some years the first cut would need to be earlier or later, depending on meteorological vicissitudes (e.g., an early or late spring) and the “floating” nature of a lunar annual calendar of 354 days in a solar year of 365 days. As a result, in a mainly agricultural society, in any given year, agricultural pilgrimage festivals would be celebrated “early” or “late” depending on when the crops ripened.
Passover too has a seasonal element connecting it with the spring (Deut 16:1). Moreover, its “partner” festival, Matzot, one of the three pilgrimages festivals, also meant to be celebrated in the spring (Exod 13:4, 23:15, 34:18), is likely connected to the end of the barley harvest or beginning of the wheat harvest. In order to ensure that Passover would always be celebrated in the spring, the Israelite lunar calendar could be intercalated to stay synchronized with the solar year, with its cycle of climactic and agricultural seasons.
What could not be countenanced, however, once the commemorative aspect became dominant, was Passover being celebrated earlier or later than the date associated with the exodus story. This, I would argue, explains the repeated emphasis in Numbers 9:1–5 on conducting the Passover sacrifice on its proper date, the evening of the 14th of Nisan. It is a warning against those who might wish to alter the date to suit current seasonal conditions, as was likely done for Shavuot.
A Make-up Passover?
Notwithstanding these multiple emphases on “set time,” and the calendrical line of command going from God to the people by way of Moses, in Numbers 9 a group of Israelites petition Moses and Aaron to allow for an exception:
במדבר ט:ו וַיְהִי אֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לַעֲשֹׂת הַפֶּסַח בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיִּקְרְבוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וְלִפְנֵי אַהֲרֹן בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא. ט:ז וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵמָּה אֵלָיו אֲנַחְנוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם לָמָּה נִגָּרַע לְבִלְתִּי הַקְרִב אֶת קָרְבַּן יְ־הוָה בְּמֹעֲדוֹ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 9:6 But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the paschal sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, 9:7 those men said to them, “Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting YHWH's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?”
Given the point made above about Passover commemorating a specific event in time, and the strong emphasis on the date in the previous passage, we would have thought that Moses’ answer would be no. Imagine celebrating Thanksgiving, the commemoration of a “historical” event (even if fictitious) of the arrival of the pilgrims on the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, a month “late,” on the fourth Thursday of December.
And yet, Moses does not respond immediately with a no, but agrees to bring the question directly to God:
במדבר ט:ח וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֹשֶׁה עִמְדוּ וְאֶשְׁמְעָה מַה יְצַוֶּה יְ־הוָה לָכֶם.
Num 9:8 Moses said to them, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions YHWH gives about you.”
Moses’ agreement implies that he sees multiple options and that the original divine revelation at Mt. Sinai has a lacuna of sorts, which requires an ad hoc inquiry and decision. This new decision will then establish a precedent for an amendment, as it were, to the law.
God’s Affirmative Response
God responds to the petition affirmatively, and even adds a second acceptable circumstance, that of someone on a “long journey,” who cannot make it home by the 14th of Nissan:
במדבר ט:ט וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ט:י דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יִהְיֶה טָמֵא לָנֶפֶשׁ אוֹ בְדֶרֶךְ רְחֹקָה לָכֶם אוֹ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַי־הוָה. ט:יא בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ עַל מַצּוֹת וּמְרֹרִים יֹאכְלֻהוּ. ט:יב לֹא יַשְׁאִירוּ מִמֶּנּוּ עַד בֹּקֶר וְעֶצֶם לֹא יִשְׁבְּרוּ בוֹ כְּכָל חֻקַּת הַפֶּסַח יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ. ט:יג וְהָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הוּא טָהוֹר וּבְדֶרֶךְ לֹא הָיָה וְחָדַל לַעֲשׂוֹת הַפֶּסַח וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ כִּי קָרְבַּן יְ־הוָה לֹא הִקְרִיב בְּמֹעֲדוֹ חֶטְאוֹ יִשָּׂא הָאִישׁ הַהוּא.
Num 9:9 And YHWH spoke to Moses, saying: 9:10 Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a paschal sacrifice to YHWH 9:11 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, 9:12 and they shall not leave any of it over until morning. They shall not break a bone of it. They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the paschal sacrifice. 9:13 But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the paschal sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present YHWH’s offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt.
Although followed up with a warning against any who miss offering the paschal sacrifice at the proper time for insufficient cause, God’s overall response is affirmative. The rules about how to eat the paschal sacrifice, which are laid out in Exodus 12 (vv. 8–10, 46) are repeated here, to emphasize that the make-up version must be treated like the real thing.
Given the firm and reiterated strictures of the surrounding narrative to observe the paschal sacrifice at its “set time,” this is a remarkable divine accommodation to a seemingly spontaneous human appeal. The Bible provides no other examples for make-up festivals celebrated by people who could not celebrate on time through no fault of their own.
One (partial) exception is in the story of Chanukah, as told by the Second Book of Maccabees, in which the original eight-day rededication of the Temple, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, is understood as a one-time delayed celebration of Sukkot, due to the ritually defiled state of the Temple altar, referred to as “the festival of booths in the month of Kislev” (2 Macc. 1:9). Yet, for Passover, we find the possibility of postponement not only here, but also in the book of Chronicles:
דברי הימים ל:א וַיִּשְׁלַח יְחִזְקִיָּהוּ עַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וִיהוּדָה וְגַם אִגְּרוֹת כָּתַב עַל אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה לָבוֹא לְבֵית יְ־הוָה בִּירוּשָׁלִָם לַעֲשׂוֹת פֶּסַח לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. ל:ב וַיִּוָּעַץ הַמֶּלֶךְ וְשָׂרָיו וְכָל הַקָּהָל בִּירוּשָׁלִָם לַעֲשׂוֹת הַפֶּסַח בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי… ל:יג וַיֵּאָסְפוּ יְרוּשָׁלִַם עַם רָב לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת חַג הַמַּצּוֹת בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי קָהָל לָרֹב מְאֹד… ל:טו וַיִּשְׁחֲטוּ הַפֶּסַח בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי…
2 Chr 30:1 Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah; he also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh to come to the house of YHWH in Jerusalem to keep the Passover for YHWH God of Israel. 30:2 The king and his officers and the congregation in Jerusalem had agreed to keep the Passover in the second month…. 30:13 A great crowd assembled at Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the second month, a very great congregation…. 30:15 They slaughtered the paschal sacrifice on the fourteenth of the second month….
Finding it impossible to organize a Passover festival for the people on time, Hezekiah (without divine authorization) has the people gather on the 14th of the next month, i.e., Pesach Sheni (the second Passover)—and according to the continuation of the chapter, it is a grand success. Why does Passover of all festivals receive this exceptional treatment?
The Covenantal Aspect of Passover
The uniqueness of Pesach Sheni undoubtedly is the result of the singular covenantal-historical importance of Passover to Israelite identity, both personal and collective. The Passover sacrifice, by commemorating the exodus from Egypt, has national covenantal significance far exceeding the rites of the other central festivals. God, after all, self-identifies as the one who “brought you out of the land of Egypt” (e.g., Exod 20:2).
Failure to offer the paschal sacrifice results in the sanction of karet (Num 9:13), extirpation, untimely death. In this respect, Passover overlaps with the rite of circumcision, a connection made explicit in Exodus (as we shall see shortly).
Why Include the Resident Stranger (Ger) Here (Again)?
The centrality of the paschal sacrifice also helps us understand the final verse in God’s command here:
במדבר ט:יד וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּכֶם גֵּר וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַי־הוָה כְּחֻקַּת הַפֶּסַח וּכְמִשְׁפָּטוֹ כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה חֻקָּה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְלַגֵּר וּלְאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ.
Num 9:14 And when a stranger who resides with you would offer a paschal sacrifice to YHWH, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the paschal sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.
In the Torah, the term ger refers to more than one thing, but in this context (priestly legislation) it refers to non-Israelites who live as part of the Israelite community. Like the description of how to properly eat the paschal sacrifice in vv. 11–13, the law here about the ger repeats what we are told in Exodus 12:
שמות יב:מח וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַי־הֹוָה הִמּוֹל לוֹ כָל זָכָר וְאָז יִקְרַב לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ וְהָיָה כְּאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ וְכָל עָרֵל לֹא יֹאכַל בּוֹ. יב:מט תּוֹרָה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָאֶזְרָח וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם.
Exod 12:48 If a ger who dwells with you would offer the paschal sacrifice to YHWH, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall then be as a citizen of the country. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. 12:49 There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.
As might be expected, commentators who assume that the Torah does not say things that are redundant have offered a variety of explanations for why this law is repeated here. For example, some of the rules and practices for the paschal sacrifice in Exodus 12 might have been for a one-time פסח מצרים (“Passover in Egypt”) and that they should not be presumed to have continued throughout פסח דורות (“Passover of the generations”), unless explicitly stated. Such is indeed the case, according to the rabbis, for the painting of blood on the doorposts.
Whatever the reason, the inclusion of the ger in the Pesach Sheni law highlights the significance of Passover to the identity of Israelites as a nation, more so than any other Jewish festival. If gerim (pl. of ger) are really going to be part of Israel, then they must be permitted to partake in the core identity ritual of the people.
The repetition of including the ger then could be a response to reluctance in some quarters to include the ger in the celebration of an event which was not experienced by his (or her) biological ancestors. Returning to Moses’ speech to the elders in Exodus 12 (the beginning of which is quoted above):
שמות יב:כו וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם. יב:כז וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח הוּא לַי־הוָה אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנָגְפּוֹ אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל...
Exod 12:26 And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite?” 12:27 you shall say, “It is the paschal sacrifice to YHWH, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.”
Can gerim really make this statement to their children? This is a question some ancient Israelites and Judahites may have asked. Perhaps, in order to counter such an understandable prejudice against gerim as not “belonging,” the argument for their inclusion is made repeatedly in the Torah, and emphasized twice with respect to Passover.
One Law for the Citizen and the Ger Alike
At the same time, the text emphasizes the inverse point: when bringing the paschal sacrifice, the ger must adhere to the same legal standards applied to the native-born (Israelite) citizen. In Exodus, this focused on the requirement that the ger be circumcised in order to participate in Passover, while in Numbers it is about the need to keep to the detailed instructions for the proper preparation and consumption of the paschal sacrifice.
In other words, it is as much (if not more) about shared responsibility as individual rights. Of course, the idea of equal rights and obligations for the ger might be true for many areas of ritual and law, but the principle is articulated and emphasized here (Num 9:14 and Exod 12:29; but cf. Lev 24:22 and Num 15:15-16) with respect to Passover per se.
The Paradox of Pesach
Passover, the most national of the annual pilgrimage festivals, contains some inherent paradoxes. Its status as a historical commemoration required that the fixed date be set in stone, yet at the same time, its centrality to Israelite identity pushed Torah law to devise a make-up date for people who could not perform the ritual on time, even though this ostensibly weakens its parahistorical claims. Similarly, while the offering is meant to commemorate what Israel’s ancestors did when they were in Egypt, its centrality again forced the law to invite participation of the ger, who lives among the Israelites, even though it is not their ancestors who were freed from Egypt.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
June 9, 2020
August 20, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Steven Fraade is Mark Taper Professor of the History of Judaism at Yale University. He holds a Ph.D. in “Post-Biblical Studies” from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Oriental Studies. Among his many books are Enosh and His Generation: Pre-Israelite Hero and History in Post-Biblical Interpretation, From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy, and Legal Fictions: Law and Narrative in the Discursive Worlds of Ancient Jewish Sectarians and Sages.
Essays on Related Topics: