Friday, May 8, 2009

Pesach Sheni – A Bittersweet Holiday of Second Chances

Pesach Sheni, smothered in this month of Ziv by Yom haZikaron, Yom haAtzmaut, Lag ba’Omer and Yom Yerushalayim, attracts very little attention.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) doesn’t mention it;
it doesn’t override the mourning of the 33 Omer days;
it has no special recitations (although we do omit tachanun)…
it’s a definite also-ran.

What's it all about?

The story of Pesach Sheni begins in Bamidbar 9, at the start of the Jews’s second year in the desert, when some of them cannot bring the korban pesach because they are tamei (ritually unacceptable) due to contact with corpses. These people don’t want to miss out on bringing the korban pesach, and Gd informs Moshe that they will not be cheated of the opportunity; they will only need to wait a month, and bring the korban on the 14th of Iyyar.

The gemara provides various details of this celebration – who was qualified, what if one skipped it, etc. But one interesting note comes in the Haggadah, with stealth mention of Pesach Sheni.

Before eating the Korech Matzah/Marror sandwich, we note Hillel’s consumption of such a sandwich in the Beit haMikdash. We say: “This is a memorial to the beit hamikdash, practicing as Hillel did. So Hillel did when the beit hamikdash stood: He bound together the korban pesach, matzah and marror and ate them together, to fulfill the Torah’s instruction, ‘They shall eat it [korban pesach] with matzah and marror.’”

But that is the wrong biblical sentence; that sentence comes from Pesach Sheni, the makeup korban [Bamidbar 9:11]! The mitzvah of eating the korban pesach on Pesach itself, on the night when we read the Haggadah, is worded differently [Shmot 12:8], ‘Fire-roasted with matzah, upon marror they shall eat it!’

First, there are halachic differences between pesukim in terms of how we view the mitzvah of eating matzah and marror [as part of the korban pesach mitzvah or not]. And second, why would the Haggadah bring a sentence from Pesach Sheni at all, even if there were no significant difference?

One popular answer is that by reciting this passage in the Haggadah, we express the hope that even if we cannot eat the korban pesach on Pesach itself, the beit hamikdash may be rebuilt by Pesach Sheni, and we may be able to eat the korban pesach on that date.

There are reasons to challenge this answer, but I think of it anyway every year, for bitter and sweet aspects, on Pesach Sheni.

Bitter: Gd-willing, I will momentarily go home for lunch and eat matzah, and I’ll dig up some horseradish from the garden. (It’s only fair to use horseradish on pesach sheni, since I use romaine at the seder for marror.) And, once again, I’ll remember that the opportunity has been missed for another year.

Sweet: But this is still a holiday, also-ran or not. It’s still a chance to remember a day when hundreds, perhaps thousands, were given another opportunity to celebrate Pesach. It’s good to remember – as we read the Haggadah, and then again a month later today – that often, even when we lose one opportunity, Gd gives second chances.


  1. I am a fan of this holiday because it represents a triumph of human enthusiasm in the service of God. The people who demanded a chance from Moshe Rabbeinu to bring the Korban Pesach merited a whole Mitzvah to be added by God in their honor.

    I see the same spirit in people who actively seek out opportunities to do Mitzvot that they'd otherwise miss, including people who make Aliya (especially those who did so before the modern yishuv and state got going), people who raise donkeys in order to do Pidyon Peter Chamor, the people who searched for the chilazon and now manufacture techeilet, the Temple Institute, the new "Sanhedrin," etc. I hope that we merit to see God rewarding all such efforts in kind, with increasing opportunities for all of us to fulfill the entire set of Mitzvot.

  2. Agreed, although not necessarily regarding the new Sanhedrin. But, yes, Pesach Sheni teaches us to value this initiative!

  3. FTR, I wasn't necessarily endorsing the new Sanhedrin as such; I was just noting its Peash Sheini spirit.