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There is a contradiction in the pesukim as to when makkas bechoros occurred. The pasuk in this week’s parshah says, “vayehi bachatzos halailah, v’Hashem hikah kol bechor b’eretz Mitzrayim… – and at chatzos of the night, Hashem hit every firstborn in the land of Mitzrayim…” (Shemos 12:29). This pasuk states that makkas bechoros occurred by night. The implication from the pasuk in Bamidbar 8:17 is that makkas bechoros occurred by day, for the pasuk says: “b’yom hakosi kol bechor… — on the day that I hit all of the firstborn…”
Maseches Semachos begins by posing this contradiction, and offers the following solution Reb Yochanan says that at chatzos of the night, Hashem delivered a lethal blow to all of the bechorim that would kill them; however, they did not actually die until the morning. Hashem made it that their souls remained in them until the morning, in order that the Bnei Yisrael could witness their death.
The Peirush Nachalas Yaakov (found on the bottom of Maseches Semachos) explains why the masechta begins with this medrash. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 39a says that a min (apikores) asked Rebbe Avahu the following question: Hashem is a kohen, as it says “veyikcho li terumah.” When Hashem buried Moshe Rabbeinu, in what did He immerse himself? Rebbe Avahu answered that He immersed himself in fire. Tosafos there asks why the min did not inquire as to how Hashem was able to become tamei by burying Moshe Rabbeinu. Tosafos answers that this did not bother the min because he knew that we are considered children of Hashem and that a kohen is permitted to bury his children.
According to Tosafos, Hashem would not be able to be metamei by killing someone, since even a kohen may only become tamei by burying his children, not by killing them. The Haggadah states that Hashem himself performed makkas bechoros. How then did Hashem himself kill the bechorim of Mitzrayim?
It is this question that the Maseches Semachos wishes to address when it brings down this medrash. The beginning of Maseches Semachos discusses the halachos regarding when one is dying but is still alive (goseis). Therefore, it began with a medrash that proves to us that during such a state, a person is not considered dead and thus not yet metamei. Since Hashem only delivered the blow that would kill the bechorim, He was not metamei to the bechorim since they were not yet dead.
On a side note, Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, is quoted as explaining the discrepancy between the berachah of “ga’al Yisrael” that we say after Shema of Shacharis and the same berachah that we say in Ma’ariv. In Shacharis we say “miMitzrayim g’altanu … kol bechoreihem haragta.” The mention of redeeming us from Mitzrayim precedes the mention of killing the bechorim. In Ma’ariv we say “hamakeh b’evraso kol bechorei Mitzrayim vayotzei es amo Yisrael mitocham lecheirus olam.” The mention of hitting the bechorim of Mitzrayim precedes that of our redemption from Mitzrayim. This is because, as Maseches Semachos stated that at chatzos of the night Hashem only delivered the blow that would eventually kill the bechorim, the bechorim did not actually die until the morning. So at night we mention the blow that was delivered to the bechorim before the redemption, which only took place the following morning. In Shacharis, which is recited in the morning, we mention the redemption from Mitzrayim before the death of the bechorim because the redemption preceded the actual death of the bechorim, which occurred during the day.
The Shivus Yaakov (1:17) asks the following question on the Maseches Semachos: Why did the Mishnah not simply answer the contradiction in the pasukim (whether makkas bechoros occurred at night or by day) by saying that if a bechor was born after chatzos, even in the morning, he would die as well? The Shivus Yaakov suggests that based on this question it is imperative that a bechor who was born after chatzos did not die. Based on this observation, he rules that if one has a son born to him on the night before Pesach – after chatzos – he does not have to fast for that bechor since had he been a Mitzri in Mitzrayim, he would not have been killed. Therefore, his father, who would generally have to fast on Erev Pesach for his bechor who is under bar mitzvah age, does not have to fast for his son.
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