Pesach Avoidance

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by R. Gil Student

I. Avoiding the Korban Pesach

We know from tax law the difference between avoidance and evasion. Tax avoidance involves structuring your finances to legally minimize your taxes. In contrast, tax evasion is refusing to pay taxes that you owe. Obviously, when it comes to mitzvos, evasion — refraining from fulfilling an obligation — is sinful. Is it possible or even proper to find a legal way to avoid bringing a korban Pesach, the special sacrifice brought on the afternoon before the first night of Pesach? The discussion about this question will take us to broader, more fundamental issues with surprising implications.

The Torah allows for an exemption from the korban Pesach for someone who is impure or on a distant journey (Num. 9:10). In such a case, you are exempt from bringing the sacrifice on the afternoon before Pesach but you still have to bring it a month later, for Pesach sheini. Someone who does not bring a korban Pesach and lacks the exemption of impurity or distance, receives a punishment of kareis, severance from the nation (ibid., 13).

One year in Mishnaic times, the first day of Pesach fell on Shabbos. There was a debate whether we are allowed to bring the korban chagigah on Shabbos. The majority believed we should not while Yehudah Ben Dortai believed we are obligated to do so. To avoid missing what he considered an obligation, Yehudah Ben Dortai and his son went up north for Pesach, to be sufficiently distant that they were exempt from bringing any sacrifice (Pesachim 70b). It seems from their actions that you are allowed to intentionally exempt yourself from the mitzvah (Pesach avoidance).

The Gemara (Pesachim 3b) tells the story of R. Yehudah Ben Beseira discussing with a gentile the latter’s plan to experience the korban Pesach in Jerusalem. While that story is interesting in itself, it seems clear that R. Yehudah Ben Beseira did not go to Jerusalem for the korban Pesach. How can that be? Tosafos (ad loc., s.v. me-alyah) suggest that either he was old and unable to travel, lived far away or did not own land in Israel. The last exemption is the subject of much discussion and debate. Setting that aside, it seems that R. Yehudah Ben Beseira was exempt from the korban Pesach and did not try to bring one. Even if his only exemption was living far from Jerusalem, he still did not travel in advance to be in Jerusalem for Pesach. Rav Yechezkel Landau (18th cen., Austria) says that explicitly: if you live far away from Jerusalem, you do not have to go there to bring a korban Pesach because you are exempt (Tzelach, ad loc.).

II. The Thirty Day Rule

Rav Yosef Babad (19th cen., Ukraine) struggles with this idea. Of course there is an obligation for every Jew throughout the world to go to Jerusalem to bring the korban Pesach in its proper time. If despite your efforts, you do not arrive in time or become impure, then you can bring the sacrifice a month later on Pesach sheini. However, he recognizes the validity of the contrary sources above and leaves them as an open question (Minchas Chinukh 5:13).

Rav Ya’akov Emden (18th cen., Germany) argues similarly. Is it really possible to say that only those who live within 15 Talmudic miles of the Temple in Jerusalem have to bring a korban Pesach on the afternoon before Pesach? Everyone else qualifies as far away and therefore is exempt. How can we not be required to put in a modest effort to get to Jerusalem for the holiday in order to bring the special sacrifice? Rather, he suggests, we have to prepare for the holiday thirty days in advance. We see a halakhah of thirty days of preparation appear in a variety of places. If you live more than a thirty day journey from Jerusalem, then you are exempt. The two Talmudic figures mentioned above must have been more than thirty days away from Jerusalem (She’eilas Ya’abetz 1:127).

However the Gemara (Sukkah 25a-b) seems to say that we only look at the time of the actual obligation and not weeks in advance. The Gemara derives from the laws of the Shema (Deut. 6:7) that someone involved in a mitzvah is exempt from another mitzvah. The Gemara challenges this because we can learn this same lesson from the exemption of someone impure from the korban Pesach. Because they were involved in the mitzvah of burying someone who died, they are exempt from the mitzvah of korban Pesach. The Gemara answers that we need both derivations. Korban Pesach is insufficient because we might think that you are only exempt if you are involved in the first mitzvah before the time arrives of the second mitzvah. They buried the deceased a week before the korban Pesach. And the derivation from Shema is insufficient because we might think that the exemption does not apply to a mitzvah so strict that failing to fulfill it is punished with kareis. It seems from this passage that there is no obligation even a week before Pesach, much less thirty days before. The obligation only begins on the afternoon before Pesach. Rav Yosef Engel (20th cen., Poland) explores at length whether the obligation for a mitzvah begins with the time to fulfill it or in advance (Lekach Tov, no. 11, sec. 3). In his eighth proof, he addresses this Gemara in Sukkah and distinguishes between the obligation to do a mitzvah and the time to fulfill it. The obligation begins thirty days in advance (like Rav Ya’akov Emden says) but the time to fulfill it is on the afternoon of Pesach eve (like the Gemara in Sukkah says).

III. An Astonishing Exemption

Rav Avraham Danzig (19th cen., Lithuania) notes that we are obligated to spend up to 20% of our net worth in order to fulfill a positive biblical obligation. He asks whether that means we are obligated to travel away from our homes in order to fulfill a mitzvah. For example, if there is no shofar in the city, do we have to spend Rosh Hashanah in another city in order to fulfill that mitzvah? He leaves this as an open question in his Chayei Adam (68:19). However, in his Nishmas Adam (ad loc.), he argues that we do not have to leave our hometown in order to fulfill a mitzvah. If there is no shofar, we make do without. He points to the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 34b) about someone who has to choose whether to go on Rosh Hashanah to a city where someone will blow shofar or a city where there will be a chazzan, to which city should he go? Why, asks Rav Danzig, aren’t all the people in the city with a chazzan obligated to go to the city with the shofar (or vice versa)? Rather, he says, the obligation only begins when the time to fulfill the mitzvah starts, which is on the holiday, not thirty days in advance. On the holiday, it is generally impossible to go to another city. Therefore, you do not have to leave your city in order to fulfill a mitzvah. The same applies to sukkah and the korban Pesach.

Rav Moshe Sternbuch (cont., Israel) writes with astonishment about this conclusion (Mo’adim U-Zemanim, vol. 1, no. 3). If you don’t have to prepare for a mitzvah, you can find yourself exempt from a wide variety of mitzvos. You can board an airplane at night without tefillin and then not wear them the entire trip. Don’t buy a lulav and then when Sukkos arrives, you are exempt from the mitzvah. Granted, this is a bit of an exaggeration. Once morning arrives, you are obligated to find a pair of tefillin, even if it costs you up to 20% of your assets. So check with your financial advisor before going on a trip without tefillin. And while you can’t buy a lulav on Yom Tov, you can walk around the city trying to borrow (in the proper fashion) someone else’s. But still, this entire approach seems implausible to Rav Sternbuch. The Gemara about Rosh Hashanah must have been discussing an exceptional circumstance, such as war. (Or see Yevamos 35a that many cases are theoretical and did not actually happen.)

Rather, Rav Sternbuch distinguishes between someone who is exempt from a mitzvah (patur) and someone who is unable to fulfill it (annus). You are obligated to avoid being annus by preparing in advance a shofar, lulav, tefillin, etc. You do not necessarily have to have your own but you have to ensure that you will be able to fulfill the mitzvah. You cannot place yourself in a state of inability to fulfill the mitzvah. In contrast, someone who is far away from Jerusalem is exempt from bringing the korban Pesach. You are allowed to place yourself in a situation of exemption (patur), just not a situation of inability (annus).

In summary, there seems to be a debate whether we are allowed to intentionally exempt ourselves from the korban Pesach or must travel for up to thirty days in order to bring it. With today’s technology, most places in the world are within a thirty day journey of Jerusalem. Of course, we should all strive to fulfill as many mitzvos in as best a way as possible. However, if there is no absolute obligation, we have more flexibility in planning our schedules and attending to unusual situations.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor 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, 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.

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