When I was young I was taught that Hag Hamatzot was yet another name for Pesach. A close look at the Torah reveals that these are, in fact, two very different holidays.
The fourteenth day of the first month is Pesach. It is observed for but a single day by bringing an offering, and of the forty-nine times it is mentioned in Tanakh only once (!) is it actually called a holiday. Hag Hamatzot, by contrast, is a seven-day holiday marked by a first and last day on which labor is forbidden and on which we are commanded to eat Matzah and forbidden from consuming, or even possessing, hametz. This distinction is explicit in the first two core sections of the Torah which discuss the holidays – Vayikra 23 and Bemidbar Sinai 28, and implicit in the third, Devarim 16.
This distinction raises the obvious question – what is the nature of each of these calendar events and how are they related?
Let us begin with the most obvious, Pesach. Pesach is a day which revolves around the offering, in which we relive – each year – God’s saving of Bnei Yisrael on the fateful night in Egypt. Even more than that, a quick survey of Tanakh reveals that Pesach was a day of renewal of the covenant between God and Am Yisrael. The clearest formulation of this can be found in Divrei Hayamim II ch. 34-35, as Josiah renews the covenant between the people and God.
The king went up to the House of God, and all the Judeans, Jerusalemites, kohanim, Levites, and the entire nation – from the young to the aged – and he read to the ears all the words of the book of the covenant found in the House of God. The king stood on his stand and established the covenant before God … Josiah did the Pesach to God in Jerusalem, and they slaughtered the Pesach on the fourteenth day of the first month.
In a nutshell, Pesach is celebrated not as much as a commemoration of the events which happened in Egypt but as a reliving of those events. In Egypt, the Pesach was marked by an astonishing mutuality. The people sprinkled the blood of their lambs on the doorposts and lintels of their homes, and in doing so, essentially designated that they were prepared to become God’s partners. God, passing through Egypt to kill the firstborns, saw the signs of His partners and skipped over their homes. The annual reenactment of the lamb with its meal (albeit with some changes) was the equivalent of getting one’s national identity card renewed annually. Doing the Pesach marked one as a part of the nation standing in covenantal relationship with God.
That explains a number of anomalies regarding this practice. The punishment for the lack of participation in Pesach is karet, being cut off from the nation. This now seems natural, with one twist – karet is usually reserved for active deeds which demonstrate that one is unfit to be part of the nation. This is one of only two cases in which karet is decreed for inaction. The other is brit milah, which if not performed incurs the karet punishment. Not surprisingly, the mitzvoth of brit milah and Pesach and inextricably linked. Both are signs of the covenant and the uncircumcised male is not permitted to partake in the Pesach. Not surprisingly, one of Joshua’s first acts upon entering the land of Israel is to renew the covenant, circumcise the males, and bring the Pesach.
No wonder, then, that one year after the Exodus, when a group of men finds themselves ritually tamei and unable to perform the mitzvah, they petition Moshe. “Why should we be lessened by not being able to bring God’s offering in its proper time?” Nowhere else in the Torah do we find people distressed by the inability to perform a particular mitzvah, and amazingly, nowhere else in the Torah do we find God granting an opportunity to “make up” the mitzvah at a later date. Their distress emerges from their fear of being left out of the covenant, and the Divine allowance emerges from the importance of allowing people to remain within the covenant.
Given that Pesach is a day of sacrificial offering and eating (note that in Egypt it was different as it was missing many of the essential ritual elements of sacrifice), it follows that its schedule should follow the time concept prevalent in the mikdash. The mikdash day begins in the morning and ends in the evening, except with regards to the consumption of sacrifices, which is extended to at least the next morning (and never longer than two days). Pesach begins on the morning of the fourteenth and continues until the next morning.
Because of this unique feature, the night of the Pesach (which follows its day) overlaps with the fifteenth of the month, which is the beginning of the seven-day holiday of Hag Hamatzot. What is the nature of Hag Hamatzot? Egypt, amongst other things, was where baking bread from wheat was invented. Abraham served his guests matzot as did lot because that was the wheat staple they knew how to make. Egypt invented the leavening process allowing for bread to rise. Hag Hamatzot, then, is not about covenant with God or even about God taking us out of Egypt – it is the holiday commemorating our purging ourselves of Egyptian culture.
It is for this reason that the original Pesach in Egypt did not require ridding ourselves of hametz because that purging had not as yet happened. God commands that purging for future celebrations only. (Note: the instruction to eat the Pesach in Egypt together with matzah is unconnected to the later mitzvah to eat matzah and remove all hametz. It is a special function of all sacrifices – and of the mikdash in general – that hametz has no place there.) Thus the annual need to purge our homes of hametz is a regular reminder to ensure that we are free of the corrupting influence and culture of our Egyptian servitude.
If Pesach is the annual renewal of our covenantal identity cards, then Hag Hamatzot is the original Yom HaAtzmaut, the day of our national liberation. The marriage of those two, especially as they converge on the night of the seder, reveals much about both. Our covenant with God is not only personal; it is within the context of family and nation. It is the nation which renews its covenant with God, and the individual joins that covenant by renewing bonds with the nation. On the other hand, our national liberation and identity become meaningful only inasmuch as we view them as part of our ongoing covenantal relationship with God. God took us out of Egypt not because we were especially good, but because of a longstanding commitment He made to our patriarchs.
As we celebrate the seder we merge those two ideals – not only in memory of what was, but in the hope of being able to fulfill our own role within that covenant and the purpose of God choosing us to be His covenantal partners.