removing leaven – preparing for the redemption
It is widely known that in Judaism there are actually two New Years. The first month; Tishre, and the seventh month: Nisan. I
What is not as widely known is that there is a similar calendrical dialectic regarding when The Deliverance will arrive in the time to come.
According to Rabbi Eliezer ‘In Nisan they were delivered’, as Scripture recounts. [but] ‘In Tishri they will be delivered in time to come’. This is learnt from the two occurrences of the word ‘horn’. It is written in one place, Blow the horn on the new moon, and it is written in another place, In that day a great horn shall be blown.
‘R. Joshua says, In Nisan they were delivered, [and] in Nisan they will be delivered in the time to come’. Whence do we know this? — Scripture calls [the Passover] ‘a night of watchings’, [which means], a night which has been continuously watched for from the six days of the creation. (Rosh HaShana 11b). II
Given the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah (the Tishre New Year), it is no surprise that preparations begin a month before at the beginning of Elul with the daily Selichot prayers and blowing of the ‘horn’. The days of preparation and repentance culminate on Yom Kippur when the Shofar horn is blown one final time and the judgment has been sealed and the gates closed – Neilah. All in all, there is a 40 day period between the beginning of Elul wherein the Jewish People prepare for the Day of Judgment, and according to Rabbi Eliezer for deliverance.
What is surprising is that there is not a similar 40 day period preceding Passover.
There seem to be artifacts for such a long preparation period in the four special Sabbaths (Shekalim, Zachor, Parah and HaChodesh) which create a roughly 40 day preparation period to Passover. III But where is the sense of angst and spiritual growth, the repentance and increased sense of expectation and spiritual frenzy that one would expect to lead up to deliverance and that one finds in the Tishre parallel?
It’s not as if the Bible does not allude to such preparation. There are probably more references to the removing leaven than there are to any other aspect of the holiday.
3 Thou shalt eat no leavened bread (חָמֵץ) on it; seven days shalt thou eat unleavened (מַצּוֹת) bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for in haste didst thou come forth out of the land of Egypt; that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life.
4 And there shall be no leaven (שְׂאֹר) seen with thee in all they borders seven days; … (Deuteronomy 16: 1 – 4)
לֹא-תֹאכַל עָלָיו חָמֵץ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל-עָלָיו מַצּוֹת לֶחֶם עֹנִי: כִּי בְחִפָּזוֹן, יָצָאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת-יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ.
וְלֹא-יֵרָאֶה לְךָ שְׂאֹר בְּכָל-גְּבֻלְךָ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; וְלֹא-יָלִין מִן-הַבָּשָׂר, אֲשֶׁר תִּזְבַּח בָּעֶרֶב בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן–לַבֹּקֶר.
I would argue, that as a result of Christianity monopolizing the Passover deliverance narrative, Judaism dialed down both the preparations and build-up to Passover as well as the inherent messianistic overtones of the holiday. (see my previous post: the gospel geniza and Daniel Boyarin’s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity) IV
What was lost or at least de-emphasized from Judaism was the connection between removing leaven and cleaning one’s soul in preparation for redemption.
The New Testament mentions “the leaven of malice and wickedness”
Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened [bread] of sincerity and truth. [Corinthians 5:8]
This view is shared by the ancients:
“Leaven itself comes from corruption, and corrupts the dough with which it is mixed . . . and in general, fermentation seems to be a kind of putrefaction” (Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 109). Plutarch records that the Roman high priest (Flamen Dialis) was forbidden even to touch leaven (ibid.). To be sure, all of the above-cited references stem from late antiquity (Christian, rabbinic, and Hellenistic sources), but they undoubtedly reflect an older and universal regard of leaven as the arch-symbol of fermentation:’ deterioration, and death and, hence, taboo on the altar of blessing and life. [pp 188-9 Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary Anchor Bible, Vol. 3, Jacob Milgrom]
Listen to what (Pre-Christian) Philo of Alexandria (representing the Jewish Hellenistics) wrote:
Leaven is forbidden because of the rising which it produces. Here again we have a symbol of the truth, that none as he approaches the altar should be uplifted or puffed up by arrogance; rather gazing on the greatness of God, let him gain a perception of the weakness which belongs to the creature, even though he may be superior to others in prosperity; and having been thus led to the reasonable conclusion, let him reduce the overweening exaltation of his pride by laying low that pestilent enemy, conceit. …. For naked you came into the world, worthy sir, and naked will you again depart, and the span of time between your birth and death is a loan to you from God. During this span what can be meet for you to do but to study fellow-feeling and goodwill and equity and humanity and what else belongs to virtue, and to cast away the inequitable, unrighteous and unforgiving viciousness which turns man, naturally the most civilized of creatures, into a wild and ferocious animal! (Philo,The Special Laws, Book I, 293-295 quoted in The Passover Anthology, Philip Goodman).
It is surprising that the symbolism of the purging of leaven as a metaphor for introspection and repentance seems not to appear in the Haggada directly itself and is relegated (if at all) to the commentaries as meta-interpretation. In fact, the removal, nullification and prohibition to own leaven is not mentioned during the Seder service at all… surprising since at least half of the effort in preparing a seder goes into making the home hametz-free! (“On all other nights we eat Hametz and matzo .. on this night we eat only matzoh” does not count.. since the emphasis is on commandment of eating matzoh, not clearing and nullifying hametz.)
If we enlarge our search for spring spiritual cleaning, beyond Christianity, we should note that Persians at the outset of the Iranian Norouz, (the Persian new year, which falls on the first day [Rosh Hodesh) of spring) continue the practice of “khooneh tekouni” which literally means “shaking the house”? Everything in the house is thoroughly cleaned, from the drapes to the furniture.
Back to the Christian geniza, we should note that Lent comes from the word length.. as in the longer days of spring. Instead of Ash Wednesday, the Eastern Church celebrates Clean Monday, otherwise known as Ash Monday. According to Wikipidia:
The common term for this day, “Clean Monday”, refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods. It is sometimes called “Ash Monday,” by analogy with Ash Wednesday (the day when the Western Churches begin Lent). …. Liturgically, Clean Monday—and thus Lent itself—begins on the preceding (Sunday) night, at a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which culminates with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, at which all present will bow down before one another and ask forgiveness. In this way, the faithful begin Lent with a clean conscience, with forgiveness, and with renewed Christian love. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to Confession during this week, and to clean the house thoroughly.
The fact that so many other competing religions, especially Christianity, retained the spring-purification rites may explain why it’s symbolism became muted in Judaism.
But the New Testament preserves another sense of leaven, namely the polemical – vindictive tool of calling one’s enemy leaven.
“the leaven of the Pharisees,” which is “hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1; d. Mark 8:15).
It would seem that in Judaism, the inward-looking cleaning of sin in preparation for redemption was de-emphasized, just as the outward-looking cleaning of one’s enemies was emphasized.
“Sovereign of the Universe, it is well known to You that it is our will to do Your will. Who prevents us from doing so? The leavening agent in the dough (the evil inclination within us) and our subservience to the nations. May it be Your will to save us from these so that we can return to fulfilling Your commandments wholeheartedly.” Prayer of Rabbi Alexandrai (quoted by Milgrom ibid).
See also the kabalistic kavanah recited before the bedikat HaChametz (searching for the Leaven):
May it be Your will, Lord, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, that just as I remove the chametz from my house and from my possession, so shall You remove all the extraneous forces. Remove the spirit of impurity from the earth, remove our evil inclination from us, and grant us a heart of flesh to serve You in truth. Make all the sitra achara, all the kelipot, and all wickedness be consumed in smoke, and remove the dominion of evil (Memshelet Zadon – Christians [?]) from the earth. Remove with a spirit of destruction and a spirit of judgment all that distress the Shechina, just as You destroyed Egypt and its idols in those days, at this time. Amen, Selah.
As long as Christianity and Judaism were in conflict, I can understand why the month long spiritual cleaning was relegated to the day before the holiday and does not appear in the Hagaddah. I can also understand the institutionalization of “a comprehensive religious ideology that sees vengeance as a central component in its messianic doctrine. (Yuval p. 123).
With the Christian embrace of Lent and Holy Week and the heightened levels of expectation, spiritual frenzy and expectations of rapture approaching their Pascha (Easter), we Jews de-emphasized our own versions of these same expectations for Passover. We did this for philosophical but also practical reasons. The Easter period was historically a dangerous one for the Jewish minority.
It seems to me that the only part of cleaning the leaven to survive in our Hagaddah was in the “Pour out your Wrath on the nations”.
Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge You, and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of Your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord.
This is actually a high-point of the Seder dinner; when we open the door to welcome Elijah and before we drink the Fourth Cup which is traditionally the cup of redemption. At this pivotal moment we beseech God to clean the world of our external enemies (leaven).
Now that the competition is over, it is time to replace the “pour out your wrath” and it’s emphasis on external polemics and vengeance, with a reference to the internal cleansing that must precede redemption.
In fact, a “Rabbi Shimon ben Yitzhak wrote a poem cursing the “evil impulse” that was stylistically similar to the curse against the Gentiles. This liturgical poem continues alphabetically; the verbs used to curse later on are “sweep him away, hurl him, compel him, banish him, sacrifice him” (see A. M. Haberman quoted in Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages by Isræl Jacob Yuval. Pp 123-4) (ed note.. I am looking for this piyut)
As long as we’re re-introducing and re-emphasising the internal removal of leaven, let’s note that most haggadot, don’t start with kiddush, but rather retain the home ceremony of searching for the leaven… even though the search and nullification of leaven takes place before the onset of the holiday and holiday service.
The message is clear: The nullification of the leaven/decay is critical for the freedom that is to follow. Let’s use this text and a revised, internalized “pour out thy wrath” to discuss how we need to prepare for redemption, in whatever form we envision it…. by removing the leaven from our hearts, including the outdated religious ideology of redemption through polemic and vindication.
I Tishre, the first month in the Fall and Nisan the seventh month in the Spring. Tishre, because the world was created in Tishre and Nisan because the Jewish people were created in Nisan and because the Bible in Exodus 12:2 says so “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.”
II See also Megillah 6b: Where Rabbi Gamaliel argues that in a leap year, Purim is celebrated on the 2nd Adar: “R. Simon b. Gamaliel again reasoned: Just as in most years [we think of] Adar as adjoining Nisan, so here [we keep the precepts] in the Adar which adjoins Nisan. …. The reason of R. Simon b. Gamaliel is that more weight is to be attached to bringing one period of redemption close to another.” Purim and Passover are times of future redemption.
III Or if one counts from Purim, a roughly 40 day period between Purim and the end of Nissan (which marks the end of when the deliverance will come).
IV In an ironic use of replacement theology, the Rabbis elevated an agricultural holiday (Shavuot) into a holiday of revelation (of the Torah) and similarly modified the 49 day Omer period between Passover and Shavuot, into a new period of purification and preparation.
end note –
Just as the Kol Nidre nullification of vows prior to the onset of Yom Kippur is forever connected to the service to follow, so too, the Kol Hamirah is critical to the seder to follow. Both nullification (Bitul) formulas are legal in form and in the Aramaic vernacular. Both are combined with an invitation for others to participate, and both are intrinsic to the holiness of the coming day. The ironic difference is that Kol Nidre is famous and Kol Hamirah is not… but that the nullification of Hametz is of biblical origin (and requires a blessing) while Kol Nidre is of unknown origin. Most unfortunatley, Kol Nidre has a soulful tune and Kol Hamira has none….