“One who eats Matzah on Erev Pesach is as though he cohabited with his betrothed in his father in law’s home”. [Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:1)]. While not cited by the Bavli, this quote is cited, or closely paraphrased, by many early halachic authorities (See for example Tur Orach Chaim 471). Indeed over the centuries this ambiguous ruling has been the subject of extensive discussion and debate.
In this brief essay I seek to address but two of the many obvious issues raised by this shocking statement. Firstly, why is one who eats matzah on Erev Pesach likened to an individual who is intimate with his affianced in the home of his father in law? Ordinarily, halachic rulings are presented in standard formulaic fashion. We are instructed in straightforward form about matters declared either prohibited (assur) or permitted (muttar), etc. What is meant by this evocative simile? Secondly, what kind of matzah is the Gemara referring to in this vague ruling? Is all matzah outlawed on the eve of Pesach? Or, is this restriction limited perhaps to only the variety necessary for seder consumption, i.e. shmura matzah?
With regards the second question there exists a dispute. Some (including The Meiri and Tosfos Rid in their respective commentaries to Pesachim 99b, amongst others) insist that only matzah suitable to fulfill the mitzvah on the night of Pesach may not be eaten on Erev Pesach. The Tashbetz (3:260) and Maharam Challavah (to Pesachim 49a) are part of a group who expand the ruling of the Yerushalmi and apply it even to matzah not classified as shmura.
To appreciate the Gemara’s comparison of eating matzah on Erev Pesach to a man engaging in intimate relations in his father in law’s home it is instructive to understand the presumed prohibition of the latter. The Gemara (Yevamos 69b; a similar text with some significant textual differences appears in Kallah Rabbasi 1:16) states the ruling forbidding amorous interactions between a man and his not-yet wife and then records a disagreement between Rav and Shmuel. Rav claims in such a circumstance the child of such a union is a mamzer (illegitimate) and Shmuel maintains the child is a shtuki (an individual whose paternal heritage is deemed unknown).
Both of these opinions are difficult to understand, for if the husband had a marital relationship with his fiancée (as is clearly stated) then it is known he is the father and the child is neither a mamzer, nor a shtuki! The novel teaching of the Gemara is that, contrary to what may seem intuitive, not only is an intimate relationship by an engaged couple before marriage immoral; it has a negative impact on the standing of their child.
Similarly, one might reasonably presume that the decision to eat matzah on Erev Pesach should have no bearing on the actual performance of the mitzvah later on in the evening. No one suggests lighting candles prior to the start of Shabbos or Yom Tov has any adverse halachic impact on the performance of the mitzvah in its proper time. Why is the halacha any different with regards eating matzah on Erev Pesach?
The Gemara’s comparison to a man living together with his future wife in his father in law’s home is not merely for the purpose of reporting a law; it is to tell us about the nature of the law. In the case of the engaged couple their decision to perform an act prior to its permitted time is illegal, so too in the instance of matzah consumption on Erev Pesach. We might be tempted to conclude it is of no consequence. In halachic reality even though the actual act of eating matzah on Pesach night is done in strict accordance with the halacha and all of its attendant details, still the eating of matzah before nightfall of that evening is not allowed.
The Teshuvos HaGeonim in its commentary to the Gemara in Yevamos explains Rav’s reasoning; when a woman gets betrothed she becomes prohibited to all men before marriage; hence, any child she bears from a union after her betrothal, but before her marriage, is assumed illegitimate. The Nimukei Yosef to Yevamaos (Rif 23a) claims Rav rules such a child is a mamzer because while we presume all acts of cohabitation after marriage occur between legally wedded husband and wife, the same assumption does not apply to an engaged couple. In the former instance any child born from the relationship is presumed theirs, in the latter the child is labeled a mamzer.
The Teshuvos Hageonim’s explanation of Rav’s opinion aligns with the view that on Erev Pesach ALL matzah should not be consumed, because just as betrothal creates a circumstance wherein all relationships are outlawed, so too on Erev Pesach no matzah of any kind may be consumed for the obligation to eat matzah at night disallows any type of matzah to be eaten on the eve preceding the Seder. The position permitting non shmura matzah to be eaten on Erev Pesach is consistent with the approach of the Nimukei Yosef, who explains Rav’s stringent ruling to stem from the fact that this man romantically involved himself with the woman he is destined to marry before the approved time. Similarly, those who posit matzah which is not shmura may be eaten on Erev Pesach explain their leniency in a likeminded way. Only the matzah which one must eat on the night of Pesach, i.e.shmura matzah, is prohibited on Erev Pesach.
Rabbi Avraham Shmidman, a musmach of RIETS and past editor in chief of Beis Yitzchok and co-editor of Zichron HaRav, served as spiritual leader of Knesseth Israel Congregation in Birmingham, Alabama for nine years before assuming his current post ten years ago as rabbi of Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd Pennsylvania.