A major part of what makes the Seder evening so powerful is the way in which the symbolic mitzvot—reclining, dipping, drinking four cups of wine, eating the marror and the matzah—bring the Pesach story to life and how the story, in turn, gives depth and meaning to these mitzvot and rituals.
At the center of these mitzvot is the eating of matzah, which, aside from telling the story of Pesach, is the only Biblical mitzvah of the evening. However, there is a story to be told here as well, a story about how matzah came to be understood as a Biblical mitzvah independent of the korban Pesach.
The verses talk of two mitzvot regarding matzah: 1) to eat matzah and marror with the korban Pesach (Shemot 12:8) and 2) to eat matzah for all seven days of Pesach (Shemot 12:8, 13:7). One set of verses implicitly connects these two mitzvot:
You shall therefore sacrifice the Passover to the Lord your God, of the flock and the herd…. You shall eat no chametz with it; seven days shall you eat matzah with it, the bread of affliction; for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste (Devarim 16:2–3).
In these verses, the seven days of eating matzah is connected to the eating of matzah with the korban Pesach: “seven days you shall eat matzah with it,” i.e., with the korban Pesach. Mekhilta of Rabban Shimon ben Yochai (12:18) picks up on this double valence and states that this connection with the korban indicates that the mitzvah of matzah applies only on the night of the korban Pesach, while the framing of “seven days” indicates that it is a mitzvah independent of the korban Pesach. This, then, is the basis of our practice of eating matzah on the Seder night even though there is no korban Pesach.
The Mekhilta bases this practice on a snippet from another verse as well. According to the Mekhilta and the Gemara Pesachim, Shemot 12:18, “In the evening you shall eat matzah,” teaches that there is a separate mitzvah to eat matzah on the Seder night. This is clearly not the simple sense of the verse. The verse refers to eating matzah all seven days: “On the fourteenth of the month in the evening you shall eat matzah until the twenty-first of the month in the evening.” However, by focusing on a few words in the middle, Hazal established the independent identity of the mitzvah of matzah.
It is worth noting that there were those who disagreed, being of the opinion that matzah exists as a mitzvah only together with the korban Pesach. The Gemara (Pesachim 120a) quotes the opinion of Rav Acha bar Yaakov that matzah is only a rabbinic mitzvah in our time, since there is no korban Pesach.
Together with establishing the matzah as an independent mitzvah of the Seder night also came a transformation of the mitzvah of the seven days of eating matzah. This mitzvah, mentioned several times in the Torah, was understood by Hazal to be an option, not an obligation. Indeed, if there were a general obligation to eat matzah all seven days, there would be little need to have a separate mitzvah to eat it that night. Thus, Gemara (Pesachim 120a) quotes a braitta which establishes that there is no mitzvah to eat matzah all seven days and, then, that there is a mitzvah to eat it on the Seder night. We have thus fully collapsed the seven-day mitzvah into a mitzvah of the first night (It should be noted that Vilna Gaon ruled that while not obligated to do so, one fulfils the mitzvah of “seven days you shall eat matzah” by eating matzah at any time over Pesach).
This collapsing of the mitzvah of matzah into the first night is nothing less than the transformation of Chag haMatzot into Chag haPesach. The Torah clearly recognizes two periods: Pesach, the 14th of Nissan, the time of the brining of the korban Pesach (Bamidbar 33:3 and Tosafot Rosh Hashana (13a), s.v. di’akrivu), and Chag haMatzot, the seven day period from the 15th through the 21st of Nissan (Shemot 23:13, 34:10; and Vayikra 23:5–6, which juxtaposes the two). Now, according to the simple sense of the verses, Pesach is celebrated by the bringing of the korban Pesach, and Chag HaMatzot is celebrated by eating matzah all seven days. This exactly parallels Chag haSukkot, which is celebrated by sitting in a sukkah all seven days. Chag haMatzot should therefore have significance independent of the Seder night. But by focusing the mitzvah of matzah on the first night, the focus of the chag becomes the Seder night, and Chag haMatzot is transformed into Pesach.
In this way, too, the korban Pesach has been replaced by the mitzvah of matzah. Thus, whereas in the Torah the mitzvot of the night centered on the korban Pesach, for us the mitzvot of the night—and in particular the other mitzvah d’oraitta of sippur yitziyat mitzrayim, the telling of the story of the Exodus—center around the matzah. Take the statement of Rabban Gamliel in the Mishna (Pesachim 116b) that one who does not say “Pesach, matzah, and marror,” that is, one who does not connect the story to the mitzvot of Pesach, matzah, and marror, does not fulfill his or her obligation. This puts all the mitzvoton equal footing and implicitly highlights the korban Pesach, to which matzah and marror are attached. However, when we say this and explain the significance of these foods today, we do not lift up or even point to the shank bone lest one suspect we are bringing sacrifices outside the Temple (Pesachim 116b). The focus of the Hagaddah and the mitzvah of sippur yitziyat mitzrayim, then, naturally shifts to the mitzvahof matzah.
The Hagaddah’s connection to, and even dependency on, the mitzvah of matzah is expressed halakhically as well. The Gemara (Pesachim 116b) states that the mitzvah of sippur yitziyat mitzrayim is dependent on the mitzvah of matzah. If matzah is Biblical, so is the mitzvah of sippur yitziyat mitzrayim. And if matzah is rabbinic, then there is only a rabbinic mitzvah to say the Hagaddah. This is learned from the verse, “because of this,” “ba’avor zeh.” “‘This,’” says Rava, “means because of matzah and marror.” Any mention of the korban Pesach is notably absent. The mitzvah of the Hagaddah survives because we have connected it to the mitzvah of matzah rather than the mitzvah of the korban Pesach, or in other words, because matzah has taken the place of the korban Pesach. This is made clear in the passage in the Hagaddah (from the Mekhilta):
Perhaps from Rosh Chodesh? The verse teaches, “on that day” (Shemot 13:8). If “on that day,” perhaps from the day before? The verse teaches, “because of this.” “Because of this,” refers only to a time when matzah and marror are present before you.
Why might this mitzvah have begun “the day before”? Because it was the day of the bringing of the korban Pesach. And, indeed, one of the passages of the mitzvah of sippur yitziyat mitzrayim is explicitly connected to the bringing of the korban Pesach (Shemot 12:25–27). Nevertheless, we learn from this verse that the mitzvah of the Hagaddah is linked to the matzah and, thus, is still applicable today. Matzah is the focus, not the korban Pesach.
This focus on matzah and the connection of the Hagaddah to it is made complete by the statement of Shmuel:
Shmuel said: “‘Bread of affliction’” (Devarim 15:3), bread that one says many things over.” We taught similarly: “‘Bread of affliction,’ bread that one says many things over.” Another interpretation: “‘Bread of affliction’; it is written, ‘Poor person,’ what is the manner of a poor person? With a broken piece. Here, too, with a broken piece” (Pesachim 115b).
The matzah is the bread that we say many things over; it is the focal point of the Hagaddah. It is for this reason that we begin the Hagaddah with “ha lachma anya,” “this is the bread of affliction,” this is the bread over which the Hagaddah will be said. [Notice, too, the end of that passage: “yasei vi’yifasch,” “let him come and eat/celebrate the Pesach,” implicitly identifies the matzah with the korban Pesach.] And thus, at yachatz, we break the matzah right before magid, so this bread over which we say the Hagaddah will also be lechem ani, a poor person’s bread, a broken piece of bread.
In the absence of the korban Pesach, the mitzvah of matzah moved to the forefront. It was understood to be independent, and it took the place of the korban Pesach as the centerpiece of the Seder. The entire Hagaddah now revolves around the matzah, the lechem oni/lechem ani. In the absence of the korban Pesach, rather than shifting our attention to the seven days of Chag haMatzot, we have continued to focus our attention on the Seder night, and Chag haMatzot has been transformed into Chag haPesach.