It's Not Quite That Simple

For the week ending 9 January 2016 / 28 Tevet 5776

Cooking for Friends, Day after Day

by Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Greenblatt
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New York City is awash with preparations for Pesach. Here, there and everywhere, people are busily cleaning their houses, removing every trace of bread and other chametz (leavened products) from their homes, cars and places of business. The ovens in all the matza bakeries are burning throughout the night, baking big batches of the celebratory crispy crackers, and arrangements for the two Sedarim (night-time Pesach meals) are being made. Monica is particularly excited, as she is hosting her friends for the “second Seder” — and she loves being the hostess.

The first Seder is at Rachel’s house. All the friends have a splendid time eating their matza (and other festive delights), reading the Haggada and singing Pesach songs. No doubt the four cups of wine didn’t hurt. After eating the afikoman, the final piece of matza for the evening, the friends return home to their respective homes, satisfied with the night’s proceedings. The first Seder was a rip-roaring success. Monica also enjoyed herself, but her competitive nature also had her worried. Would her meal live up to Rachel’s? When she arrived home she opened the fridge and surveyed the offerings she had prepared. “It’s just not enough,” she thought to herself, “I’m going to have to make another few dishes!”

Monica knows that while cooking on Shabbat is not allowed in Jewish law — it is a productive, creative activity which is forbidden on Shabbat by the Torah — on festivals cooking is perfectly okay as long as it’s for the purpose of the festival. She also knows that one can’t cook (or make other preparations) on a festival for a following weekday. The whole idea of being able to cook on a festival is that cooked food is a vital part of adding to the joyous atmosphere of the festival.

So, being as the second Seder needs to be as joyous as the first (and more so, if our zealous hostess has anything to do with it!), Monica surmises that she can cook on the first day of Pesach for the second day. Importantly, one may only cook from an existing flame, since producing fire is not allowed even on Yom Tov (transferring fire is also okay). Luckily, she has a candle burning. Just as she is about to transfer the fire to the gas oven, she has a thought, "I'm not 100% certain and therefore I must ask the Rabbi of the shul for a ruling." It was late already, so she waited for the following morning.

When she went to shul the following morning she approached the Rabbi after davening and asked him if she could cook more food that day for the second night’s Seder. The Rabbi opened the Shulchan Aruch — the authoritative book of Jewish law — and, much to her chagrin, cited the following:

“It is forbidden to bake or to cook or to slaughter (an animal) on a festival for the next day, even if (that day) is Shabbat or a festival.” (Orach Chaim 503:1)

Even though it is very hard for her to hold herself back, being a G-d-fearing Jew, she holds back. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that she had more than enough food already, and the second Seder was a rousing triumph for our holy hostess. But let’s return to the Shulchan Aruch. Why should it be forbidden to prepare on day one of a festival for day two? The whole reason, we explained, is because cooking on a festival for a weekday was forbidden was because only cooking for festival-related joy is permitted! But day two also needs to be joyous!

The answer lies in understanding why it is that we have two days of Pesach, or of any festival for that matter (apart from Rosh Hashana, perhaps, but that’s a discussion for another time.) The Torah mandates one day of Pesach; meaning just one Seder. In Israel, to this day, there is just one day. One Seder. In days of yore, the day of Pesach would be determined by the Sages in Jerusalem according to when the new moon was — and there were two potential days it could be. Originally, a message was transmitted to Jews outside of Israel by a series of bonfires, but when this system was sabotaged it was necessary to institute a decree to keep both potential days. Nowadays, even though the day of Pesach is pre-calculated, the original decree to keep two days remained and we lack the technical means to repeal this ancient decree, and so we continue to keep two days outside of Israel.

Armed with this knowledge, we can understand why preparing from day one to day two of a festival is not allowed. Only one of the two days is the “real” Pesach, and if it’s the first day, and the second day is “really” not a festival, then it would turn out that cooking on day one for day two is really the same as cooking on a festival for a weekday, which is not allowed!

One last twist, however. It’s a shame that Monica was in a hurry when she asked the Rabbi her question, and didn’t have a chance to learn from him what is written a little further in the Shulchan Aruch. Because it goes on to discuss a way around the problem. As long as a person is cooking for day one, it is allowable to cook extra food, for two reasons: 1) perhaps he will need the food for some unexpected guests; or 2) having extra food in the pot may improve the food cooking for day one itself! So if Monica could cook something to eat on day one, let’s say for lunch, she could cook a little extra for the second Seder at the same time. There are a few other provisos, but it’s perfectly possible to do.

A little knowledge is good. But it can also be a dangerous thing. Knowing just a little is liable to lead someone up the garden path. But the more a person learns, knows and understands, the more he is able to determine the correct response to any situation. And until then, when you’re not sure, you can always turn to your local Orthodox Rabbi for his advice.

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