Of betrothal and matzah

There is a famous statement in the Talmud Pesachim, that compares the eating of matzah prior to the time of the Seder to having illicit sexual relations with one’s betrothed in her father’s home.  Most commentators understand this odd statement to mean that in both instances, had the person waited a bit more the same act would have been a great mitzvah (eating matzah with a zestful appetite for it, or consummating his marriage).  Rather than perform the act in a consecrated way, he profaned it and rendered it mundane and prust.

Rabbi Jacob Moelin, the Maharil, takes a far dimmer view of our protagonist who eats matzah prematurely.  He says the comparison is a real one and that one who eats matzah before the Seder is comparable to a man who has illicit sexual relations with a niddah; a severe sin.  He says the reason for the comparison is due to the facts that both the physical consummation of a marriage and eating matzah are preceded by seven blessings.

The Maharil’s approach seems odd, to be sure.  Why does he make so much of this issue?  While indeed there is a Talmudic tradition that the first bite of matzah ought to be taken with anticipation and gusto.  But if one neglects to do so or if one eats matzah early, he certainly does not deserve the karet that accompanies congress with a niddah.  Why does he link the two in this fashion?

In truth the Maharil’s view goes to the heart of the Seder and what we seek to accomplish with the ritual.  Remember the point of the Seder is to bring us to the emotional state of mind that we view ourselves as having actually left Egypt.  This is no mere retelling of ancient history; nor is it play acting.  It is an act of empathic connection with the event of the exodus itself.  The Machzor Vitry, a relatively early Ashkenazic work records various technical reasons, based upon the injunction to eat the matzah at night, which mandated that the matzah for the Seder be baked right before the Seder if possible, but no earlier than on the 14th of Nissan after mid day.  Eating matzah at the Seder baked too early in the day, was deemed a non-act according to Rashi, and those who followed him.  The mitzvah is not fulfilled with such matzah.  Indeed the Maharil, some three centuries later, still expresses a preference for baking the matzah for the Seder just prior to commencing the Seder.  And while this requirement is grounded in no small amount Halachik exegesis, it hardly appears coincidental that baking the matzot in close proximity to the Seder mimics what the Hagadah tells us occurred when B’nei Yisrael left Egypt.  Baking matzah early, and certainly eating it early, defeats the entire point of the Seder exercise.

On the marriage side of the equation, Biblically, the uniting of a couple into “one flesh” is the end of a process that begins with the man leaving his home, taking his wife into his, and they together continuing G-d’s creation. To take the steps out of order, to join physically, while the bride is in her father’s house, like eating matza baked too early is a non-act.  More than that, it defeats the notion of imitatio Dei inherent in marriage.

Both the eating of matzah and the consummation of marriage are preceded by seven blessings; blessings that build the momentum to the final act of the mitzvah.  And both scenarios need their careful choreography to accomplish their unique goals; one to bind us closer to He who redeemed us, the other to allow us to follow in His creative work.  Hence the Maharil’s strong condemnation.  A kosher’n Pesach to one and all.

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney from Rockland County, New York, recently made Aliyah to Rehovot. He's also an avocational chazzan.
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