By Stevie Green, 29 May 2021
Imagine if you can a societal upheaval. An international event that kills many thousands and terrifies millions more. A cataclysm of biblical proportions that threatens our very ability to gather together for Passover as we were accustomed to. Hard as it is for us to imagine, such was the circumstance approximately 2,750 years ago.
The 2nd Book of Chronicles, chapter 30, tells this story about King יְחִזְקִיָּ֜הוּ / Hezekiah.
The king and his officers and the congregation in Jerusalem had agreed to keep the Passover in the second month, for at the time, they were unable to keep it, for not enough priests had sanctified themselves, nor had the people assembled in Jerusalem.
The book of Chronicles presents this lack of preparedness as the result of the abandonment of social norms, religious values, and basic decency during the previous political administration. Again, hard for us to imagine today. However, some modern scholars doubt the chronology as presented. Dr. David Glatt-Gilad of Ben-Gurion University writes:
The Chronicler’s dating of Hezekiah’s cultic reforms and Passover celebration to the very beginning of his reign reflects a literary-theological convention aimed at highlighting the king’s dedication to the cult, and most likely does not preserve the event’s actual chronological setting.
Rather, he argues, Hezekiah’s purpose was to reunite the people after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian Empire around the year 720 BCE.
In this week’s parasha, we read about a somewhat similar circumstance.
But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day [they go to Moses, Moses goes to G-d, G-d answers] When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the LORD, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, [skip a bit] They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the passover sacrifice.
Both our Rabbinic interpretive tradition and contemporary academic bible scholars are unsure of how these stories are related. At first glance, the text of chronicles “for not enough priests had sanctified themselves, nor had the people assembled in Jerusalem” seems to correspond to being “defiled” or “on a journey”. Unfortunately, the similarities basically end there and the differences are significant.
- Most obviously, Pesach Sheni seems to be a supplement to pesach rishon, for the people who need it only, not a postponement for everybody.
- More importantly, Pesach Sheni is a 2nd chance specifically for the Korban Pesach, the offering on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan, not the week-long Chag HaMatzos that begins a few hours later at sundown of the 15th and which we still observe today. However, the story in chronicles explicitly includes both.
- Pesach Sheni is supposed to follow “all the laws of the Passover”, but Hezekiah allows those who are still unpure to eat from it – which seems to be the exact opposite of the basic purpose of pesach sheni.
- The book of Chronicles sometimes refers to Hezekiah as acting כְּמִשְׁפָּטָם כְּתוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה “like the laws of the Torah of Moses”. In this case however, it is described as בְּלֹא כַכָּתוּב “not as it is written”. In other words, the Chronicler seems to think of this event as a justified and necessary response to the time of need, what later rabbis would call בִּשׁעַת הַדְחָק , rather than a fulfilment of an existing law.
Recognizing these differences, the Mishna Pesachim 4:9 describes Hezekiah’s decree as עיבר ניסן בניסן, “he added another Nisan when it was already Nisan” – ie. He established a leap year somewhat retroactively and thus pushed off the holiday one month – thus straining the definition of “in the 2nd month”. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 12b records the mishna’s opinion as the majority, but also gives voice to the suggestion that it was in fact Pesach Sheni.
Academics see no need to justify the delay beyond what the text of Chronicles tells us, “G-d heard Hezekiah’s prayer and healed the people” ie. G-d approved. For critical biblical scholars, the Torah was something of a work in progress while Hezekiah reigned, and the book of Chronicles is unreliable having been written centuries later. Therefore, it is not clear what historically occurred or how it influenced or was influenced by any written texts that became part of the Chumash. What is clear, is that Hezekiah was reaching out to the population of the Northern Kingdom, either in anticipation of or in response to the Assyrian invasion. The text continues:
The couriers went out with the letters from the king and his officers through all Israel and Judah, by order of the king, proclaiming, “O you Israelites! Return to the LORD God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and He will return to the remnant of you who escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria.
And they go on to tell the people that G-d will reverse their misfortunes – concluding:
“The LORD your God is gracious and merciful; He will not turn His face from you if you return to Him.”
The text then tells us which tribes “laughed at and mocked” the couriers and from which tribes “some of the people came to Jerusalem”
Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in “The Bible Unearthed” describe the period immediately after the destruction of the North as “a sudden coming of age” for Judah. They write:
“The royal citadel in Jerusalem was transformed in a single generation from the seat of a rather insignificant royal dynasty into the political and religious nerve center of a regional power – both because of dramatic internal developments and because thousands of refugees from the conquered kingdom of Israel fled to the south.”
They go on to estimate that the population of Jerusalem rose from about one thousand to about 15,000 inhabitants. And that the total population of Judah grew from a few tens of thousands to 120,000. While other estimates may be more modest, it seems sensible that Hezekiah was highly motivated to reach out to and accommodate the northerners.
What is also clear is that Hezekiah is the hero to the Chronicler. In the following chapter, we read:
He acted in a way that was good, upright, and faithful before the LORD his God. Every work he undertook in the service of the House of God or in the Teaching and the Commandment, to worship his God, he did with all his heart; and he prospered.
Scholars date the writing of the book of Chronicles to sometime after the return from exile, probably during the early 4th century BCE. The community that had returned from Babylonian exile was “too frum”, to put it mildly, for the local Jews – and was in power. We also know that sometime later, there was a parting of ways between the Samaritans and the Jews. So the book of Chronicles was likely written between those events. The politics of that period are impossible to know in detail, but no doubt it was a time of great division.
Dr. David Glatt-Gilad writes: The Chronicler’s positive depiction of Hezekiah’s outreach to the northerners, even at the expense of setting aside strict adherence to Torah law, would reflect the premium that the Chronicler put on communal unity and cooperation as a bulwark for preventing any possible split in the community. Sadly, the Chronicler’s ideal vision did not come to pass, as the Samaritan split-off … was only the first of many Jewish sects that were to characterize later Second Temple Judaism.
Today, we as a minyan and as part of the larger Jewish world are grappling with what kinds of accommodations to make for our community members who can’t or don’t feel comfortable to attend in person, and also those who don’t feel comfortable with some of the proposed technological intrusions into our sacred spaces. Personally, my gut tells me that, at least on a national level, that the advocates for change, though they seem to come from a distance, are in fact powerful and may wind up causing schism like the returnees from Babylonia did with their authority. I prefer the model of pesach sheni as described in the parasha, in which space is made for those who can’t attend normally, but not at the expense of the normal. But I’m not going to leave you with my opinions. I’d like to leave you with a Talmudic teaching based on another episode from today’s parasha.
the Sages taught: There was an incident where one student descended before the ark in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer, and he was excessively prolonging his prayer. His students said to him: How long-winded he is. He said to them: Is he prolonging more than Moses our teacher did? As it is written: “And I prostrated myself before the Lord for the forty days and forty nights” (Deuteronomy 9:25).
There was again an incident where one student descended before the ark in the presence Rabbi Eliezer and he was excessively abbreviating his prayer. His students said to him: How brief is his prayer. He said to them: Is he abbreviating more than Moses our teacher? As it is written, “God, please, heal, please, her” (Numbers 12:13).
Hard for us to believe, but people used to complain about davening.
Seriously though, it is frighteningly easy to be kvetchy and judgmental. If we are to avoid schism, we much choose to resist that tendency.