A Mitzvah all Seven Days
The Gemara (Pesachim 120a) teaches that, in contrast to the first night of Pesach where there is a mitzvah and obligation to eat matzah, during the rest of Pesach consuming matzah is optional. As the Gemara (citing a baraisa) states: “Just as on the seventh day [eating matza] is not obligatory, so too on the first six days [eating matzah] is not obligatory.”
The simple reading of the Gemara indicates that there is no mitzvah to eat matzah during the seven days of Pesach, and the mitzvah applies to the first night alone. One may just as well eat potatoes.
However, the Vilna Gaon famously teaches (as cited in Maaseh Rav 185) that the mitzvah of consuming matzah applies all seven days of Pesach: “Eating matzah all seven days is a mitzvah, and it is only referred to as not obligatory in comparison to the first night [of Pesach] on which there is an obligation [to eat matzah]. The mitzvah [to eat matzah all seven days] is from the Torah.”
Thus, in the competition between potatoes and matzah, many prefer matzah, for one thereby fulfills a mitzvah according to the Gaon.
In the paragraphs below we will discuss eating matzah during all seven days of Pesach which, as noted, is a mitzvah according to the Vilna Gaon. What is the nature of this non-obligatory mitzvah? Should one seek to eat as much matzah as possible during the seven days of Pesach? If there is a mitzvah, why is a berachah not recited upon eating matzah during all seven days of Pesach?
These questions, and more, are addressed below.
The most striking thing about the teaching of the Vilna Gaon is that the mitzvah of eating matzah for all seven days of Yom Tov is an optional mitzvah. There is no obligation to eat mitzvah for all seven days; performing the mitzvah is optional.
The concept of an optional mitzvah appears puzzling at first glance. Mitzvos are commandments; we are obligated to do them and our reward comes from the fact that we heed Hashem’s directive. What then is the meaning of an optional mitzvah?
This objection is raised by Rabbi Avraham Shapiro (Minchas Avraham Vol. 1, no.44), and its resolution will be the key to understanding the intention of the Vilna Gaon in saying that there is a mitzvah to eat matzah for all seven days.
Source for Wearing Tefillin
The Vilna Gaon mentions a source for the halachah from the laws of wearing tefillin on Chol ha’Moed.
Tefillin are not worn on Shabbos because Shabbos is an “os” (a sign) and there is, therefore, no need for the additional “os” of tefillin. The question of wearing tefillin on Chol ha’Moed hinges on the definition of “os,” which can refer to the prohibition of labor but might also refer to special mitzvos of the day.
Tosafos is of the opinion that although labor is not prohibited on the days of Chol ha’Moed in the same sense as it is on Shabbos and Yom Tov, the days of Chol ha-Moed nonetheless possess an “os,” and tefillin are, therefore, not worn.
In one place, Tosafos (Menachos 36b) writes that the “os” of Pesach is the prohibition against eating chametz. According to this, there is no source for a mitzvah of eating matzah throughout the festival. However, in another place (Mo’ed Katan 19a) Tosafos writes that the “os” of Pesach is the mitzvah of eating matzah.
Based on this it appears that the mitzvah of matzah indeed applies for all seven days, for otherwise it would not be considered an “os” on all seven days.
Berachah over Sukkah and Matzah
Several Rishonim discuss reciting a berachah when eating matzah all seven days of Pesach. The primary source cited is the statement of the Baal Ha-Maor (Pesachim 26b):
“Some ask why we don’t make a berachah on eating matzah during the seven days of Pesach, just as we make a berachah on sitting in the Sukkah all seven days of Sukkos. […] The answer is that a person can go through the rest of the days of Pesach without eating matzah and be sustained on other food, whereas it is impossible not to sleep for all seven days of Sukkos, and one is required to sleep in the Sukkah and spend time in the Sukkah.”
Other Rishonim, including the Ittur (Aseres Hadibros, Hilchos Matzah U’Maror 135a), the Rashba(Vol. 3, no. 287) and the Orchos Chaim (Hilchos Leil Pesach no. 29) make a distinction between the mitzvah of Sukkah which applies all seven days, and the mitzvah of matzah which is only obligatory on the first day. During Pesach (aside from the first night) there is only a prohibition against eating chametz, upon which no berachah is recited.
The Magen Avraham (639) thus explains: “The reason there is no berachah on eating matzah all seven days is because there is no mitzvah to eat it, but rather one does not violate the prohibition of eating chametz, which is not the case with Sukkah.”
Several Rishonim point out that the simple reading of the pesukim certainly indicates that there is a mitzvah of eating matzah all seven days (see Ibn Ezra, Shemos 12:15). Just as the verse instructs us to “dwell in the Sukkah for seven days” (Vayikra 23:42), so it commands us to “eat matzah for seven days” (Devarim 16:3).
In spite of the derashah made by Chazal, it is apparently this simple reading of the verses that led the Baal Ha-Maor to offer his alternative solution.
The Vilna Gaon understood that if there is a mitzvah to dwell in the Sukkah throughout the festival then there is likewise a mitzvah to eat matzah all seven days. The Mishnah Berurah, who mentions the ruling of the Gaon twice (639:24; 475:25) explains that the Gaon therefore fulfilled the “simple reading of the verse.”
In the same sense, the Avnei Nezer (Orach Chaim no. 377) writes that according to the Baal HaMaor eating matzah all seven days of Pesach constitutes a mitzvah (albeit not an obligatory one). Thus, it appears that the Vilna Gaon is following the opinion of several Rishonim but others disagree.
Eating Matzah and Avoiding Chametz
The Gemara (Pesachim 28b) discusses the prohibition against deriving benefit from chametz that one possessed over Pesach, after Pesach. Rabbi Yehuda is of the opinion that this is a Biblical prohibition. However, Rabbi Shimon assumes that the prohibition is only rabbinic in nature. The Gemara cites Rabbi Shimon’s argument:
“Rabbi Shimon said [to Rabbi Yehuda]: Can you say this? Does it not already say in the Torah “do not eat chametz, for seven days eat matzah,” and if so, what is the meaning of “do not eat chametz” – when there is a mitzvah to eat matzah there is a prohibition to eat chametz, and when there is no mitzvah to eat matzah there is no prohibition to eat chametz.”
Rabbi Shimon thus states that the prohibition against eating chametz goes together with a positive mitzvah to eat matzah, which appears to support the Vilna Gaon’s position. The Penei Yehoshua points out that this cannot be a fully obligatory mitzvah, for the obligation to eat matzah applies on the first night of Pesach alone. Yet, because the Torah states that one must eat matzah for seven days, it is fittingly called a “mitzvah.”
The parallel drawn by the Gemara between eating matzah and avoiding chametz indicates the nature of the mitzvah of eating matzah all seven days: We are charged with changing our diet from chametz to matzah – meaning from a chametz-based diet to a matzah-based diet, changing to matzah for chametz.
Changing Diet for Pesach
The concept of eating matzah on Pesach can thus be brought closer to the concept of dwelling in the Sukkah on Sukkos (the similarity of the verses has already been noted above). Just like we are obligated on Sukkos to transfer our domicile from the house to the Sukkah, so on Pesach we are obligated to change our basic diet from chametz to matzah.
In the case of Sukkos, a positive instruction to live in the Sukkah is sufficient; living in the Sukkah means that we won’t be living at home. For Pesach, however, the positive instruction to eat matzah is not sufficient, for it is possible to eat both matzah and chametz during the same period. The Torah therefore has to instruct us both to eat matzah and to refrain from chametz: The dual instruction defines the Pesach diet as a diet of matzah instead of chametz.
We can also understand that even according to the Vilna Gaon, there is no reason to eat specifically shmura matzah for all seven days of Pesach. The halachah of shmura matzah relates specifically to the obligation of the first night, and is not relevant to not eating chametz. Indeed, the Chayei Adam (128) notes that the Gra used to eat shmura matzah all seven days (see also Maaseh Rav 186), but only to ensure that it was free of any trace of chametz.
In spite of this, the Netziv (Meishiv Davar Vol. 2 no. 77) writes that based on the Vilna Gaon’s understanding a person should be careful to eat shmura matzah for the duration of Pesach. He apparently understood that the mitzvah of matzah all seven days is an extension of the mitzvah to eat on the first night, and not merely the “other side of the coin” to the prohibition against chametz.
Berachah According to the GR”A
In the matter of reciting a berachah according to the Vilna Gaon, the Chasam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 191) writes that even according to the Chizkuni (who, similar to the Vilna Gaon, writes that a mitzvah applies all seven days), no berachah is recited over eating matzah during the seven days of Pesach (see at length Sedei Chemed, Vol. 8, Chametz U’matzah 14, 10).
This can be understood by the fact that a person can go through all seven days without giving his change of diet any positive expression – one can simply avoid chametz and eat vegetables. Therefore, beyond the obligatory matzah of the first night (which heralds the change that will last seven days), there is no positive expression of the mitzvah, and no berachah is recited.
In contrast, as the Baal Ha-Maor explains, the changing of domiciles for seven days of Sukkos must have a positive expression, for one cannot go seven days without sleeping. Therefore, a berachah is recited over this positive expression of the mitzvah.
A Mitzvah Without Reward?
Does a person receive special reward for eating matzah during the festival of Pesach? The Chizkuni (Shemos 12:18) writes that although eating matzah all seven days fulfills the instruction of the verse, one does not receive any special reward for doing so: There is no reward for this optional mitzvah.
The rationale behind this unusual formulation is as we have explained: The idea of eating matzah for seven days is that our diet must change from a chametz diet to a non-chametz diet. Eating matzah gives a concrete expression to this change, but there is no obligation to make this concrete expression (beyond the first night of Pesach), and there is therefore no special reward for doing so.
We can also understand how this mitzvah differs from all other mitzvos in its optional nature. Like the instruction of Sukkah to change our domicile, the mitzvah of matzah instructs us to change our diet. This change is defined by the staple of the human diet, which is bread: Our bread changes from chametz to matzah. Yet, there is no guarantee that this change must receive a positive expression, because a person can go for seven days without eating a bread meal.
Yet, it is also reported that the Vilna Gaon was careful to eat an extra meal of matzah on the last day of Yom Tov, and he apparently maintained that it is good to give the mitzvah the concrete expression of eating matzah, thereby demonstrating our love for the mitzvah and our longing for the coming redemption.
Wishing all readers a Chag Kasher Ve-Same’ach.
 There are some other mitzvos that appear to be optional, the most prominent of them the mitzvah of Shechitah: There is never an actual obligation to ritually slaughter an animal, and the mitzvah is only a method to enable the consumption of kosher meat. For this reason there is actually a dispute among Rishonim concerning whether Shechitah is a Torah mitzvah; we will not expound on this matter in this article.