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Nocturnal Hallel and Legumes: A Tale of Two Passover Customs

April 1, 2015

A week ago already, I had scheduled to release this post today, and then overnight, Rabbi Yair Hoffman beat me to the punch with a very nice article about Hallel on the first night of Passover. He also, interestingly, penned a response to Rabbi Bar Hayim’s latest article that claims that the practice of avoiding qitniyoth on Passover came from the Karaites. Neither introduces new points to the debate, which you can read in full here, but I have already written a response to one of the points Rabbi Hoffman made. Rabbi Bar Hayim wrote that:

Does the custom of not consuming qitniyoth during Passover perhaps derive from a Qaraite interpretation of Hamess? This possibility cannot be discounted – a number of customs and halakhic interpretations made their way into normative Judaism during the late Geonic period, the heyday of Qaraitism, a fact attested to by no less an authority than Maimonides. This curious custom may simply be a further example of sectarian influences. Such an explanation does indeed fit the documented facts.

To which Rabbi Hoffman wrote:

This citation of Maimonides is misleading. In no way does Maimonides imply in these Halachos that normative Judaism was affected by Karaite law. The Rambam was discussing the influence of the Tzaddukim – not the Karaites. The distinction is not insignificant. Why is this the case? Because, as any student of Karaite history knows, there were no Karaites in France in the middle ages. Karaites, to be sure, were found in numerous places, but their inroad into Europe came through the Crimean Peninsula. They entered what is now Turkey, Lithuania, and Russia, but they were not in France.

(I would also spell it with a Q, but the K spelling seems to be far more accepted in English.)

However, it is Rabbi Hoffman who is mistaken. Much like I wrote last week about how Maimonides uses his own terminology that is different from ours, e.g., how in Maimonides’s eyes, what we call matza and matza ashira are actually both matza and what we call issur muqtzeh on the Sabbath is actually issur tiltul, and muqtzeh is only something that exists on Yom Tov, so too, when Maimonides says Sadducees, he is speaking very generally. Maimonides, in his commentary to the Mishna, Avoth 1:3, says that the ones whom the sages of the Mishna called Sadducees (Tz’duqqim in Hebrew) and Boethusians were those whom Maimonides called Egyptian and Palestinian Karaites in his day. That is, according to Maimonides (and apparently other rishonim) it did not matter which sect they were. As long as a group advocated for the old Sadducee anti-oral-law ideas, they were Sadducees. Thus, when Maimonides claims that there has been an unfortunate Sadducee influence on Jewish practice, he may very well be including Karaite influence. If I am not mistaken, this is also a point made in the Guide to the Perplexed. Maimonides would probably lump other modern-day groups with the Sadducees, much like Rabbi Bar Hayim categorizes them all in his writings as “sectarians.”

Maimonides also writes in Laws of Repentance 3:8:

There are three individuals who are considered as one “who denies the Torah… one who denies the Torah’s interpretation, the oral law, or disputes [the authority of] its spokesmen as did Tzadok and Boethus.

That is, in Maimonides’s opinion, any Jewish group that denies the Oral interpretation, be they Karaites or Reformers, are just like the Sadducees, the followers of Tzadok.

The practice of reciting Hallel in the synagogue as part of the evening service the first night(s) of Passover is, from a historical perspective, similar to the practice of avoiding eating qitniyoth (no proper translation available), except for the fact that it was much easier for Israelis of Ashkenazi descent to jettison their age-old practice of not reciting the Hallel on Seder Night than it was for them to begin eating rice and beans on that night.

The Talmud assumes that there is an obligation to recite the Hallel on the night of Passover; ideally this should be done as part of the ritual of eating the Paschal lamb. The Mishna records how in Temple times the Hallel was sung after eating the meat of the sacrifice, and often in ad-hoc groups on the rooftops. The Yerushalmi records how later, the practice developed for the assembled to recite the Hallel in the synagogue. This was to help those who, for whatever reason, were not able properly to recite the Hallel at home as part of the Seder. This practice was always known, and persisted in various times and places, but not among the Ashkenazim.

Now, the argument that whether a minhag should be observed/kept or not depends on background (if you’re Ashkenazi do this, Sephardi do that) has already been disproven; it is not the standard the Rema or the Beth Yosef would use. (This fallacy becomes most acute come election season here in Israel. It is no coincidence that those who most strongly espouse this quasi-halachic mode also espouse a similar idea with regard to electoral politics. Sephardim should vote Shas, and Ashkenazim should vote UTJ, as though the constituencies of those parties should actually disagree on matters of public and national policy.) Rather, each custom should be evaluated based on its time and place. It made sense to read Hallel the first night of Passover when and where the Beth Yosef lived, but it did not for centuries where the Ashkenazim were. When Ashkenazim came to a place where everyone did one way, they adopted that way. But for some reason, they are not allowed to do the same with qitniyoth.

Here’s the objection: Qitnityoh are prohibited, whereas reciting the night Hallel is a nice practice that can not hurt. One can not just practice a permissibility where there once was a prohibition.

Refutation: Even assuming qitniyoth is a full-fledged prohibition, which it is not, choosing to say Hallel when there was no previous custom to do so also involves violating prohibitions, like the one against saying unnecessary blessings, and the prohibition against saying the Hallel in vain.

Objection 2: That’s the minhag as it is now! We say Hallel, so there must be a good reason.

Refutation: And what happened when the practice was first introduced? Where were the traditionalists then? Why is it that it is both forbidden to introduce new practices and abrogate old ones, but we see that many customs have been spontaneously generated while others have gone extinct?

This is the part of the debate that actually interests me the most. I can understand the conservative approach of upholding practices, but I can not fathom how it is they choose what to stick up for. Why is the conservative zeal selectively invoked?

Or, one could plead that the naysayers keep quiet for about ten years, and allow the permissibility of qitniyoth to become the widespread practice. Then, it will be “the minhag” and kosher, just like unfortunately, many people think that eating large quantities of matza is also “the minhag” although it is also of recent origin. 

What was so different about Jewish society in the Holy Land in the 19th century that allowed that generation to be able to determine which practices fit and which did not? Today, the general feeling is much more conservative. 


From → halacha

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