Exemption & Exclusion: Reflecting on Pesach Sheni


My birthday falls on the 14th of Iyar, also known as Pesach Sheni.

As it approaches each year I consider its significance. I am intrigued by a festival that is no longer observed and that even in the time when it was operative, would have only been celebrated by a limited number of people.

Our Pesach Seder today is largely focused on the Haggadah. In the time of the Bet HaMikdash, however, the key ritual was the Korban Pesach (Paschal Lamb). Ritual purity was required of every individual in order to partake in the sacrificial lamb, which nowadays is symbolized by the afikoman.

Anyone finding themselves unable to get to the mikveh before the 14th of Nissan would be unable to take eat the Korban Pesach and be exempt from this mitzvah.

When Moshe gives instruction on how Pesach should be observed and commemorated after the Exodus, a number of individuals who are ritually impure on erev Pesach approach Moshe in protest:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵמָּה, אֵלָיו, אֲנַחְנוּ טְמֵאִים, לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם; לָמָּה נִגָּרַע, לְבִלְתִּי הַקְרִיב אֶתקָרְבַּן הבְּמֹעֲדוֹ, בְּתוֹךְ, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

“We are impure through contact with a dead body,”they say, “Why should we miss out, and not bring the offering of the LORD in its appointed season among the Children of Israel?” (Bamidbar 9:7)

Their words לָמָּה נִגָּרַע – literally “why should we be diminished?” – convey their dismay at being left out of an important feature of the Pesach celebration. While their sentiments are understandable, why protest about this particular ritual? After all, they are being initiated into a religion focused in large part on Temple rituals all of which require ritual purity. It is inevitable that at any given time a number of people will be unable to take part in some ritual, as impurity is an unavoidable part of the everyday,  built into lifecycle moments of birth, menstruation, seminal emission and death.

Their expression is echoed later on in sefer Bamidbar by Tzlofchad’s daughters, who approach Moshe when the Land of Israel is being apportioned to each male head of family, asking:

לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁםאָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ, כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן; תְּנָהלָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ

Why should the name of our father be diminished from among his family, because he had no son?” (Bamidbar 27:4)

I want to suggest that the words לָמָּה נִגָּרַע speak of an attitude towards religious ritual that sees it as something beyond the obligation to adhere to a set of laws and traditions. While the individuals in question are technically exempt from taking part, they are sorely aware that they nonetheless are missing out on an experience fundamental to their core identity.

The men and women who challenged Moshe understood that circumstances exempted them on that particular occasion, but felt that they themselves would be diminished if they did not take part.  While on both occasions  their challenges took Moshe by surprise, God’s answer validates their feeling and provides an alternative opportunity for being counted. Tzlofchad’s daughters acquire their father’s land and those impure on the eve of Pesach can partake of the Korban Pesach a month later on the 14th of Iyar, known as Pesach Sheni.

Nowadays Pesach Sheni is a symbolic date on our calendar, but we can imbue it with contemporary significance by lending it to the ongoing debate around the inclusion of women in rituals from which they have traditionally been exempt. The debate, comprised of numerous elements, both halakhic and hashkafic, would be richer if it included the sociological role of belonging that many of these rituals invoke.

It may well be that in strict halakhic terms a woman is exempt from a particular ritual, but as Pesach Sheini informs us, exemption often comes at a cost.

In the case of women and ritual, the cost can be alienation and disconnection from the sacred community.

The important question then is, can we afford to bear this cost?

This reflection is dedicated to the memory of Belda Lindenbaum, a dear friend and mentor whose challenge (on my birthday) resulted in my founding JOFA UK and enrolling to study for semikha at Yeshivat Maharat.

Dina Brawer is a third year semikha student at Yeshivat Maharat in New York. She founded JOFA UK and together with her husband has recently launched Mishkan: The Community Beyond Borders.

All posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.