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Passover- The Fast of the Firstborn on Ereb Pesah

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Today's Halacha:

The Shulhan Aruch records the custom of "Ta’anit Bechorot," the fast observed by firstborns – whether they are the firstborn of their mother or their father – on Ereb Pesah. This fast commemorates the events of Makat Bechorot, the plague of the firstborn that God brought upon Egypt on the night of the Exodus, and from which the Israelite firstborn were saved. Our custom is that only firstborn males observe this fast.

Since this fast is not required according to strict Halacha, and is observed only by force of custom, coupled with the fact that Ereb Pesah is usually a very busy day as people complete their preparations for Pesah, the Sages treated this fast more leniently than other fasts. That is, if a firstborn attends a "Se’udat Misva" (a meal that constitutes a Misva) of any kind, then he is exempt from fasting. Examples of "Se’udat Misva" include a Berit Mila, a Pidyon Haben and a Bar Misva on the day of a boy’s thirteenth birthday. It has become common for every community to have somebody who completed a Masechet (Talmudic tractate) make a Siyum celebration on Ereb Pesah, so that all firstborns in the community can attend the celebration and thereby be exempted from fasting. It must be noted that the individual had to have actually studied the Masechet; the meal is not considered a "Se’udat Misva" if he just read the words without understanding the material. Furthermore, a firstborn is not exempted from the fast unless he listens to the individual as he reads and explains the final sentences of the Masechet. He must attend the reading of the final sentences and understand what is taught. Some have the misconception that the cake served at the Siyum has a special status (and they call it "Magic Cake"), whereby one simply needs to eat some cake and is then absolved from the fast. This is not true. The exemption applies only to those who participate in the completion of the Masechet that was studied.

Completing one of the six Sedarim of Mishna, with the commentary of Rabbenu Ovadia of Bartenura, also warrants a "Se’udat Misva" celebration, and this celebration absolves firstborns from Ta’anit Bechorot like the completion of a Masechet.

A firstborn who does not attend a "Se’udat Misva" must fast throughout the day, until the Seder. Firstborns must therefore see to it that they attend a Siyum or some other "Se’udat Misva."

Firstborns who are ill or otherwise frail are not required to fast, even if they do not attend a "Se’udat Misva."

It is customary for those who have a firstborn son to bring the child to the synagogue for the Siyum celebration on Ereb Pesah once he is old enough to attend, even though he is below the age of Bar Misva. If it is too difficult for the child to come to the synagogue then he is not required to do so, but it is customary in such a case for the father to attend the Siyum on his son’s behalf.

The work Sha’areh Ora suggests an insightful explanation for why the miracle of the firstborn in Egypt is commemorated specifically through fasting. Instinctively, we might have figured that this miracle should be celebrated through some kind of festivity, rather than through a fast. The Sha’areh Ora explained that when Moshe announced that God would deliver a plague upon the firstborn in Egypt, the firstborns among Beneh Yisrael were, in all likelihood, very frightened. The Sages teach that Beneh Yisrael worshipped idols during the period of bondage in Egypt, and thus the firstborns among Beneh Yisrael did not have merits with which to escape this plague. Therefore, on the day before the plague, the firstborns observed a day of fasting and repentance in the hope of earning God’s compassion and escaping the plague that God would bring upon the Egyptian firstborns that night.

Firstborns observe a fast on Ereb Pesah as part of our efforts to reenact and relive the experiences of our ancestors in Egypt. On Pesah, we are required to not simply speak about the events of the Exodus, but to reenact it, as the Haggadah states, "A person must see himself as though he personally left Egypt." The custom therefore developed for the firstborns to fast on Ereb Pesah, just as the firstborns among Beneh Yisrael fasted the day before the Exodus from Egypt.

Summary: Male firstborns – of either their mother or their father – must fast on Ereb Pesah, though it is customary for firstborns to exempt themselves from this fast by attending a Siyum celebration on the morning of Ereb Pesah. The firstborn must personally attend the Siyum, and listen to and understand the final sentences of the Masechet. Furthermore, the individual making the Siyum must have actually studied the Masechet. It is customary for fathers of male firstborns below the age of Bar Misva to either bring the firstborn son to the Siyum, or to attend the Siyum in the child’s stead.