The Matzah Contradiction

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Biblical inconsistencies can be either minor bothers or foundational difficulties, depending on your temperament and prior beliefs. I have found many times that my biggest questions are eventually resolved, although it often takes years. This strengthens my faith in the text and the eventual solvability of problems that arise.

I recently stumbled onto an elegant answer to one question that nagged me for years. I won’t pretend that this is the biggest biblical problem but it is one that I personally found troubling. The Torah states in Exodus (12:15) that we must eat matzah for seven days on Passover while in Deuteronomy (16:8) it says for six days. The Sages were certainly aware of this discrepancy and explained it by differentiating between the obligation on the first day and the remaining six (the eighth day is, of course, rabbinic). While this midrashic explanation addresses the difference, it somehow rubs me as inelegant, unsmooth, not peshat.

I recently saw that Ibn Ezra offers a simple explanation that neatly and convincingly resolves the contradiction. Looking at the Deuteronomy passage in context, it describes the observance of the holiday. The afternoon before Passover you slaughter the two sacrifices of the Passover and holiday (chagigah); that night and the following day you eat them; on the following morning (the first day of Chol Ha-Mo’ed) you return home; for the next six days (technically 5-1/2) you only eat matzah, i.e. no chametz.

This is a very simple and smooth reading. Looking around, I found that R. Sa’adia Gaon, Chizkuni, Abarbanel, Shadal and R. David Tzvi Hoffmann explain this verse similarly (and Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur quotes the Ibn Ezra).

I see three lessons here. The first is that I shouldn’t be lazy but should look for answers to questions. The road to knowledge comes from seeking answers, particularly the more interesting questions.

The second is that biblical contradictions may appear misleadingly simple but they are not. Commentary is an inspired art that can resolve many textual problems. However, once you misread a text you face tremendous difficulty in seeing it from a different perspective. The first textual impression gains an unfair advantage that you must overcome, sometimes by setting the issue aside for years until you are ready for a fresh look.

And the third is the necessity of patience. Insight often takes years to acquire. Only the childish demand the instant gratification of immediate answers. Sometimes you need to let a question simmer for a while until a proper answer decides it is ready to make an appearance. Commentary is an art whose inspiration cannot be invoked on demand. Instead you need faith — faith in the completeness and unity of the text and faith that a satisfactory interpretation will eventually surface.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

15 comments

  1. Alter’s note on Deut 16:8

    8. Six days shall you eat flatbread. One would have expected “seven.” Either it is implied that the seventh day, the day of assembly, is included in the injunction, or the number six assumes a count that begins after the first day, on which the Passover sacrifice is offered.

    [Fox is silent in his translation]

  2. IH, the sacrifice is offered on the 14th, which is the day *before* the first day. In fact, the Torah distinguishes the “Pesach”- 14th- from “Hag HaMatzot”, which is the 15th-21st. (Samaritans maintain this distinction to this day.) I think Alter gets the right idea, but his phrasing is incorrect.

    By the way, I never got back to you on Fox. I’ve never really gone through Alter, so I can’t say one is better than the other, but what you present seems to be pretty good. I do like Fox for all his quirkiness, though. As one reviewer once said, it’s just not quite English. 🙂

  3. And of course there is the additional drash about eating chadash starting the second day–7 days of yoshon, 6 for chadash.

    But it is unclear why you cite Exodus for 7 days, when it is also in Deut. 16:3; i.e, in the same paragraph as the 6 day verse. From context it seems clear that the pshat is either like Ibn Ezra or that the 1st night is counted with “pesach” as well as “chag hamatzot” since that is when the sacrifice is eaten, and the first verse, which is in the context of the sacrifice counts 7 and the 2nd which is talking about the subsequent holidiay is talking about the other six days that have no direct connection to the korban pesach.

  4. Nachum — reread the 3rd paragraph of Gil’s post.

    Fox was a nice chiddush (which is why I have it) until Alter came out. In 3 parshiyot, I will have completed a full cycle using Alter. It is not perfect, but as mentioned I have found using alongside the Hebrew with Mikraot G’dolot to be enriching. But, it is only for those interested in p’shat.

  5. Mike S: I just followed Rashi, who quoted Ex. 12:15, presumably because Deut. 16:3 uses the word “alav.”

  6. On a more recent parsha, Ibn Ezra brought a smile to my face. On Gen 24:63: “וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה, לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב” Rashi famously raises the midrash that Yitzchak went to the fields to pray (Mincha). Ibn Ezra looks at the words and comments: לשוח, ללכת בין השיחים.

  7. Yup. December 2. Time to start preparing for Passover. Can’t get enough of that holiday.

  8. “Yup. December 2. Time to start preparing for Passover. Can’t get enough of that holiday.”

    You do know that the Pesach lady fingers and cookies have already been baked are ready to be served in 5 months? 🙂

    Well, if X-Mas advertising can start in July, why can’t we start now?

  9. Reb Gil, just to add to your point, I can’t count how many times I have heard a Rov or Darshan speak and tell the audience that he has had a kashe for many years and finally has a terutz. I think that speaks highly of the makshan that he has had a question that has bothered him for many years, has kept it in the back of his mind, and waits and tries to find an answer, rather than asking, not finding an instant answer, and then let it go. I hear this kind of thing from great talmidei chachomim all the time.

  10. Yasher koach for raising the evident peshat of the verses in parshat Re’ei. Actually, the peshat was already given by one of the Tana’im (‘sisha min hechadash’). In fact, the gemara states that this opinion (six more days of eating matzah) is the best argument against the sectarians who insist that Shavuot must fall on a Sunday (‘..macharat hashabbat’ in parshat Emor then refers to the day following the first mo’ed (15th of Nisan) rather than Sunday). The question is then, do you follow your own understanding of the torah by insuring that matzah is to be eaten all the days of Pesach (at least as a kiyum mitzvah), or do you follow the rabbinic prescription that it is optional except for the seder night?

  11. The question is then, do you follow your own understanding of the torah by insuring that matzah is to be eaten all the days of Pesach (at least as a kiyum mitzvah), or do you follow the rabbinic prescription that it is optional except for the seder night?

    The Vilna Gaon held that on the other nights it is a kiyum ha mitzvah. And I think he followed the “rabbinic” tradition.

  12. “on the other nights” in the prior post does not mean only the nights, it means the rest of Pesach.

  13. IH, Rashbam also says that Yitzchak was looking over the business.

  14. Nachum — thanks, I missed that. No linguistic link like Ibn Ezra (or, to be fair, Rashi et al.), but maybe he is (silently) linking אילנות to שיחים with לָשׂוּחַ.

  15. I find the content of this post most puzzling. Did I read your post correctly, that this question or contradiction is the one aspect in this Chapter that troubled you? Only one, when in fact the 8 verses in Deut. 16:1-8 constitute one of the most challenging of passages with respect to reading Chumash text literally and attempting to understand the inconsistencies and other textual oddities or maculations.

    In this short passage there are half a dozen other contradictions. While, I am aware that the Meforshim offer reconciliations, some are not very compelling. Also, a further oddity is that in the review of the mitzvah of Pesach and Chag Hamatzot as recorded here, Moishe omits a full complement of sub-mitzvoth and related laws (morror, hagaddah, first-born, dress code, circumcision requirement, blood ritual, etc.) The real question to be asked is first, why does Moishe create these contradictions and further, why does he omit all these important aspects of the mitzvot?

    To me, the simple and most convincing answer is obvious.

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