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    Erev Pesach on Shabbat – a calendrical puzzle

    The Seder, a 19th century print from the Ukraine

    The Seder, a 19th century print from the Ukraine

    Pesach is exciting, colourful and demanding. No other festival imposes such obligations on the Jewish home. No other festival pries so much into every nook and cranny of the house. No wonder so many Jewish housewives – and their husbands – tend to fall asleep at the Seder table, after all the hectic effort that reaches fever pitch on Erev Pesach.

    This year it will be easier – but harder too, because Erev Pesach is Shabbat. Easier, since the first Seder follows a day of Shabbat rest; harder, because preparing for the Shabbat meals is unusually complicated.

    There is no obvious logic behind the coincidence of Shabbat and Erev Pesach. It last occurred in 2005, three years ago; the next time will be 2021, 13 years from now.

    Erev Pesach fell on Shabbat nine times in the 19th century (in 1825, 1832, 1849, 1852, 1856, 1876, 1883, 1896 and 1899). In the 20th century it happened eleven times (in 1903, 1910, 1923, 1927, 1930, 1950, 1954, 1974, 1977, 1981 and 1994). In the 21st century it occurs twelve times – in 2001, 2005, 2008, 2021, 2025, 2045, 2048, 2052, 2072, 2075, 2079 and 2099. The gaps between its occurrence can be as long as 20 years and as short as three years, and there does not seem to be any fixed periodicity.

    Today we grin and bear Erev Pesach on Shabbat; the Talmudic sages vigorously debated it. Once when 14 Nisan was due to be Shabbat, the religious leaders, the B’nei Betera, were not certain whether the Pesach sacrifice could override Shabbat and they asked the scholar Hillel what he knew what the halachah had to say.

    Hillel used midrashic reasoning to prove that the sacrifice could even be offered on Shabbat. The sages were not convinced until he said that he had a tradition to this effect from Shemaiah and Avtalion. Thereupon it was agreed that the sacrifice was permissible, and Hillel found himself appointed nasi (Patriarch).

    A romantic story, but not without its problems. Surely there must have been a precedent followed within living memory. In any case rabbinic ingenuity should have been able to arrange the calendar in such a way as to avoid the Erev Pesach and Shabbat coming together: after all the calendrical experts were able to ensure that Pesach itself would not begin on Monday or Wednesday, in order to prevent Yom Kippur falling on Friday or Sunday, or on Thursday, to avoid Hoshana Rabbah falling on Shabbat.

    It may have something to do with the difficult period of the Romans, when Jewish life suffered so much upheaval. Maybe the sages were too preoccupied to be able to plan far enough ahead to obviate problems with the calendar.

    Whatever the reason for the B’nei Betera’s perplexity, the episode did at least bring Hillel to the fore and enable him to make a seminal contribution to the rabbinic tradition.

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