More than 2,000 years ago, the 14th of Nissan—the day on which we are commanded to bring the Passover offering—happened to fall out on Shabbat. The leaders of the Jewish people at the time, the Sons of Betayra, could not decide whether or not the offering should be brought on Shabbat.

The Talmud relates that Hillel, alone amongst the sages, knew the answer to the question. Hillel quoted the verse from the portion of Behaalotecha, “The children of Israel shall make the Passover sacrifice in its appointed time,”1 and taught that the offering should be brought at its appointed time, even if the appointed time is Shabbat.

The Talmud continues to relate that because he knew the answer, the Sons of Betayra resigned from their post as leaders, and “immediately set him (Hillel) at their head and appointed him leader over them.”2

Why was this question so important? Why would the leadership depend on clarifying this law?

The Dichotomy

The Passover offering, discussed in this week’s Torah portion, is an anomaly, as it does not fit comfortably into any of the categories of offerings.

There are two categories of sacrificial offerings in the Torah: communal and personal offerings. Communal offerings, such as the daily offerings and the Shabbat and holiday offerings, were offered at specific times on behalf of the entire community.

Personal offerings did not have a specified time to be offered, and were brought by individuals on their own behalf. Personal offerings included thanksgiving offerings and sin offerings.

Only communal offerings are sacrificed on Shabbat. The question the Sons of Betayra grappled with was, “Which aspect of the Passover offering is the dominant one? If the personal aspect is dominant, then we should not offer it on Shabbat; if the communal aspect is the dominant one, then we should.”

On one hand, the Passover offering had to be offered at a specific time, the afternoon of the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nissan; having a specific time is a feature of the public offering. On the other hand, every individual was commanded to join a group, and partake in offering and then consuming the Passover offering. This makes it similar to the personal offering, which could not be offered on Shabbat.

Balancing Individual and Communal

G‑d commanded us to offer the Passover offering when we were leaving Egypt and becoming a nation. Thus, the Passover offering suggests how we are to define ourselves as a nation.

In general, there are nations whose systems of government emphasize the wellbeing of the collective, even at the expense of the individual citizen. There are other systems of government that emphasize the rights of the individual, even if the individual’s right will encroach on the wellbeing of the group.

The Passover offering teaches us that the Jew must view him or herself as both a member of the collective and as an individual. On the one hand, the Jew cannot be concerned only with his or her own needs. Every individual must view himself as a vital organ in the body of the Jewish people, and is responsible for the material and spiritual wellbeing of every Jew. On the other hand, the Jew cannot look around and say, “I am just part of a collective, and as an individual, I am not important.”

The Passover offering teaches us that embedded in our Jewish DNA is both an individual and collective characteristic: “Yes, I am a member of the collective, a part of a greater entity, yet, at the same time, I am an individual with qualities, responsibilities and rights, imbued by G‑d with a unique personality, unique gifts and a unique mission.”

The question that Hillel answered was not just a specific, technical question about the Passover offering. This was a fundamental question regarding the underlying philosophy of Jewish laws: Is the communal or personal aspect dominant? Hillel taught that although we are both individuals and part of the larger community, the communal aspect is the dominant one.

Hillel recognized that balancing both elements is the secret to not only leading a wholesome life, but to the very survival of the Jewish nation. That is why he proclaimed, in Ethics of the Fathers:

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”3