Korban Pesah, Passover Today, and Community
This year our special essay for Pesah—originally intended for Shabbat Hagadol, but delayed due to various exigencies—will be devoted to a seemingly “old-fashioned” subject: Korban Pesah, the Paschal offering that our ancestors brought to the Temple and ate in its courtyards in olden times. Its slaughtering on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan (Erev Pesah) served as a kind of prelude to the seven-day festival proper. Indeed, the commonly used Hebrew name for the holiday, Pesah, refers to this offering, albeit in prayers, Kiddush, etc., the day is referred to by the term used in the Torah itself: Hag ha-Matzot, “the festival of unleavened bread.”
In what follows we shall discuss several of the essential halakhot that shaped this mitzvah; reflect on echoes of each of these aspects of Korban Pesah on today’s Passover observance; and speculate on the religious significance of each. The Seder itself is patterned after the ancient meal, at whose center stands the Korban Pesah, and at the same time is filled with expressions of yearning for the rebuilding of the Temple and its renewal. To elaborate: following the Destruction of the Temple, the Sages, and the Jewish people generally, needed to somehow assimilate the new reality and enable Jewish life to somehow go on. The reactions oscillated between two responses. On the one hand, to reshape the festival by emphasizing other aspects: i.e., the Haggadah—the transformation of the festival meal into a lengthy symposium or study session on the events of the Exodus. The mitzvah to tell one’s children about the Exodus, only alluded to in passing in a few brief sentences in the Torah, assumes major dimensions in Hazal and the Midrash. Indeed, the first part of the Haggadah, prior to the verse-by-verse midrashic exposition of one of the capsule accounts of the Exodus found in the Torah (Deut 26:5-8, the vidduy bikkurim)—i.e., Avadim Hayinu, the story of the Sages in B’nai Berak who discussed the Exodus all night long, the midrash of the four sons, etc.—are all ways of explaining why we narrate the story on this night altogether. (Perhaps some other year we will analyze this section in more detail). The other response was to perpetuate the memory of what was done when the Temple stood: by mentioning the Korban Pesah throughout the Seder; by lending the matzah a standing parallel to that of the Pesah itself, through korekh, afikoman; and by hymns of longing for the rebuilding of the Torah towards the end of the Seder, such as Adir Hu.
In this respect, it is interesting to draw a comparison between Passover is similar to Yom Kippur. Both festivals are occasions when there were unusually dramatic and central rituals performed in the Temple; the yearning for the restoration of the Temple, and the remembrance of what was done in ancient times, play a central role in both; and key celebrations of both days—the Passover Seder and Ne’ilah of Yom Kippur—end with the cry, “Next year in Jerusalem.” (To this, one might add that this year, as in every Hebrew leap year, the parashah read on the Shabbat immediately before Pesah is Aharei Mot, in which we read in Leviticus 16 the account of the Yom Kippur atonement ritual, thereby creating, so-to-speak, an inner connection between the two days.) Moreover, just as the focus of Pesah shifted from the Paschal sacrifice to the narrating of the story of the Exodus, so did the emphasis of Yom Kippur move from the atonement ritual performed by the High Priest to teshuvah, to the inner work of repentance and personal change, as opposed to kaparah, atonement through sacrifice. But here too, there are constant references in the liturgy to the Temple service, both through the choice of Torah reading and in the detailed recounting thereof in Seder Avodah recited in Musaf.
It was not for naught that Rav Soloveitchik, at a pre-Pesah shiur given in Boston in 1974, observed:
In my experience—that is, in my experiential, not intellectual, memory—two nights stand out as endowed with unique qualities, exalted in holiness and shining with singular beauty. These nights are the night of the Seder and the night of Kol Nidrei. As a child l was fascinated by these two nights because they conjured a feeling of majesty. ... I used to experience a strange peaceful stillness. ... Paradoxically, these emotions and experiences, however naive and childish, have always been the fountainhead of my religious life....
A striking passage from Rambam illustrates the centrality of the Pesah offering even in our latter-day celebration of the day. In Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah, Rambam offers a systematic presentation of the various mitzvot relating to the prohibition of hametz, its elimination from the home, and related matters; then, in Chapters 6 and 7, he presents the two positive mitzvot associated with Seder night—eating matzot, and retelling the story of the Exodus—in conceptual terms. Then, in Chapter 8, he reiterates this material in chronological sequence, under the heading “The order of performing those mitzvot on the night of the fifteenth is as follows…” After going through the first part of the Haggadah, he turns to the washing of hands before the meal, and the blessings over eating matzah and marror, and then continues:
7. Thereafter he recites the blessing, “Blessed are You … who has sanctified us with His commandments and command us to eat the sacrifice:; and one eats the flesh of the Haggigah offering of the 14th day; and then one recites the blessing, “Blessed are You… who has commanded us to eat the Paschal offering,” and one eats of the body of the Pesah….
8. And in this era, when there is no sacrifice, after blessing Ha-Motzi he goes back and blesses “[who has commanded us] concerning the eating of matzah,” and one dips the matzah in haroset and eats of it. And one blesses “concerning the eating of marror,” amd he dips the bitter herbs in haroset and eats… And this is a Rabbinic commandment. And then he combines matzah and marror, and eats them without a blessing, in memory of the Temple.
What is striking about this passage is that it is as if Maimonides has momentarily forgotten that the Temple has been in ruins for over a millennium and that there has been no Korban Pesah for that entire period, and describes in precise detail the procedure t be followed when one does in fact partake of the Pesah—and only thereafter the laws in effect “at this time.”
1. The Pesah is Eaten Within a Havurah
In a passage (Mishnah Zevahim, Ch. 5) recited by some people every day near the beginning of the Morning service, we read אין הפסח נאכל אלא למנויו—“the Passover may only be by those numbered upon it.” This refers to a halakhah unique to Korban Pesah: the participation of every Jew in the Pesah offering is done by forming with others a group known as a havuraht: a group of people who decide to purchase, slaughter and eat their Pesah together. What is important is that the connection among this particular group of people, and the setting aside of the specific offering to be made—that is, the particular sheep or goat to be used—must be done prior to its slaughtering. While in theory a single individual may offer his own Pesah and eat it himself, this is strongly discouraged by the halakhah—not only because it is virtually impossible for one person to eat an entire animal at one sitting, and there would be a large portion of it going to waste, but because it somehow goes against the nature of Pesah. The halakhah contains numerous detail stipulating what to do if a person is not numbered with such a group or, vice versa, if one who is not included within the initial group partakes in eating it.
Most offering made in the Temple are either public offerings, made on behalf of the entire Jewish people—such as the regular daily offerings (temidin) or the additional offerings for Shabbat and festive days (musafin)—or, alternatively, private offerings brought by an individual or family. These may be part of the festal celebration of the three pilgrimage festivals (haggigah, zevah shelamaim); one prescribed in connection with various life or bodily events, such as childbirth, certain kinds of ritual impurity, the end of a Nazirite’s term of oath (hatat, asham, olah); or an act of thankfulness to God for salvational events (todah, neder, nedavah).
The Pesah is a kind of hybrid: a cross between public and private. Interestingly, in the Talmudic sugya proving that Pesah overrides Shabbat when the date of its offering falls on Shabbat (b. Pesahim 66a), the very first argument offered by Hillel is by way of analogy to the Tamid: “Are there not more than two hundred Passover offerings every year”—i.e., the Temidin and Musafin offered on the 50-plus Sabbaths of each year; in other words, that it is essentially a collective or public offering. But unlike the usual type of public offerings, in which a single offering is made on behalf of the entire people, purchased through a fund specially collected and set aside for that purpose, here the Torah wants each individual to participate in a personal way; hence, it is purchased by, offered by and eaten in a havurah, a group that serves as a kind of microcosm of the entire people. Indeed, according to Exodus 12:3 it is to be slaughtered by כל קהל עדת ישראל, “the entire public of the congregation of Israel,” albeit through the medium of the expanded family/clan unit, which was a kind of forebear of the havurah. First and foremost, then, it is a collective-social event, located in that nebulous region between public and private.
What underlies this rule? Quite simply: Pesah represents the birth of the Jewish people; the Exodus was the formative event par excellence of the nation Israel. The setting aside of the Paschal lamb or goat four days earlier, the sprinkling of its blood on the door frame of each home, and its eating on the night of the Exodus, when all members of the family were ready to move (“your sandals on your feet and your staffs in your hands”) was an archetypal experience, re-experienced every year through the eating of the Pesah.
At our own Seders, this is expressed in several ways. First, most Seders are collective gatherings. In almost very family I know of, it is an occasion for extended family and/or friendship circles to celebrate together: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and guests from outside the family circle. My own experience of the Seder has typically been of between ten and twenty people; large communal seders of a hundred or more (say, on the kibbutzim) are not unknown. In the modern world, the Seder is one of those few occasions on which many otherwise assimilated or secularized Jews, who would not participate in an ordinary Shabbat or even festival meal, take trouble to participate—and every synagogue worth its salt encourages members to invite guests who have nowhere to make the Seder. כל דכפין ייתי ויכול, כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח “Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who need, come and make Pesah.” This proclamation, recited at the very beginning of the Seder, seems to express something basic about the occasion as one in which all Jews have a share. The invitation to share one’s Seder with other people, beyond the immediate family circle, reflects this formative-national element. (While the idea of opening one’s doors to others is present in every holiday, see e.g., Rambam, Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.18, here it is raised to a higher level.)
A brief comment: there is a tendency among many to interpret Pesah as a personal, individual journey, from one’s own personal “Egypt” (“the narrow place”) to psycho-spiritual redemption. While this motif, found in numerous Hasidic works and elsewhere, is of course legitimate as a secondary homiletical motif, I think it is important not to forget its root meaning, which I think is clearly social and national.
2. “Do Not Slaughter the Blood of My Sacrifice upon Hametz”
The above verse, repeated in both Exodus 23:18 and 34:25, is understood by the halakhic tradition to refer specifically to Korban Pesah: that is, that a person may not slaughter the Korban Pesah if he has hametz in his possession. As the Pesah is slaughtered prior to the beginning of the festival proper—that is, before those seven days during which the Torah explicitly states that one may not eat hametz, on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan—this rule in effect adds another half-day to that period during which hametz is prohibited. (No less interesting, Hazal interpret the phrase used in the Torah for the time of the offering, בין הערביים, literally, “between the evenings”—in the original context, quite possibly twilight—as beginning at mid-day, That is, they interpreted these words in the most expansive possible fashion, as referring to the time from which the sun begins to turn towards the west, just after its zenith at high noon, until sunset. By contrast, the Samaritans, who to this day sacrifice a Korban Pesah on their holy mountain of Gerizim, near Shechem, slaughter all dozen or so animal needed for their community at one instant, precisely at sundown.)
Or does it? The rule about not slaughtering the Pesah while owning hametz dovetails with another unusual law of Pesah, applicable today. Unlike other holiday mitzvot (e.g., dwelling in the sukkah for the seven days of the festival, or fasting on Yom Kippur “from evening until evening”), the prohibition against eating hametz on Passover, and even the requirement that one’s home be free of hametz—goes into effect half-a-day before the beginning of the festival proper, at midday of the 14th of Nissan. (The Rabbis added to this another hour re the deadline for eliminating hametz, and two regarding not eating, pushing these times forward into late morning). The Talmud, at Pesahim 4b-5a, in fact discusses this law (see HY VII: Tzav-Hagadol=Rashi) and offers, in a somewhat serpentine sugya, two basic explanations: 1) that it is inferred from the biblical verse: אך ביום הראשון, “but on the first day [you shall remove / destroy leavening from your homes]” (Exod 12:15), reading the word akh, “but,” as so to speak dividing the daylight hours in two; 2) the second answer sees a direct relation between the prohibition of owning hametz when slaughtering the Pesah and the more general rule prohibiting all Jews, even those living thousands of years after the Temple, from owning or enjoying hametz from mid-day on the 14th.
This rule of course has strong implications for our observance today, including the perennial practical problem of what to eat for lunch on that day: “no longer bread, not yet matzah.” (My own family has a tradition, going back several generations, of eating borsht with potatoes; I wonder if any other Ashkenazic families have that practice.) But more than that: the afternoon of the 14th is treated as a semi-Yom Tov, similar to Hol ha-Moed. One is not supposed to engage in any work from noon on. In medieval times, there was a widespread custom of baking the matzot to be used at the Seder that afternoon—yet another custom suggesting an equation or parallel between matzah and korban pesah, the former so-to-speak fulfilling the role of the former as the “hero” of the Seder; the afikoman of matzah eaten at the end of the Seder, in place of or in memory of the Korban Pesah, is a clear indication of that. The baking of matzot on Erev Pesah is still done today by many Hasidim and others; in the Rebbe’s community in Boston, this was an occasion of great festivity. Many people read portions of the Mishnah or other descriptions of the offering of Korban Pesah at the time of the Minhah prayer; some go to the Western Wall for this purpose.
What does all this mean? I would suggest that it reflects a strong link between the public and private realm: the Pesah as such is a quasi-communal or group offering; but the fitness of each individual to participate therein is linked to his personal status vis-a-vis hametz.
3. The Pesah is Roasted Whole
The Pesah offering was roasted whole on an open fire; it may neither be eaten raw, nor boiled in water, nor cooked in some other manner. What does this rule express? To begin with, of course, it was presumably the method used in the first Pesah, being the simplest and most straightforward way of preparing meat. Secondly, the simplicity and elemental nature of roasting whole on fire may be the reason why the Torah required this method. Matzah, too, is the simplest and quickest possible form of bread to prepare: it is made without any additives—neither oil, wine, honey, eggs, or fruit juices, nor of course yeast; it is made quickly, using only flour and water. It is “the thing itself.” According to the Maharal of Prague, these facts symbolize simplicity, and the notion that true freedom involves, not only freedom from servitude, but also freedom from the more subtle servitude to things, to the external trappings of “civilization” or the pursuit of externalities: one is satisfied with the thing itself, as is. In similar fashion, roasting an animal whole on fire may be a counterpart to this same idea—the simplest, most pristine manner of preparing meat. Indeed, according to some Kabbalistic traditions, both of these symbolize a kind of faith, a willingness to take the jump into the unknown, to trust in God without necessarily having answers to the question of “who” and “what.”
Interestingly, this rule is applied in post-Destruction practice in two diametrically opposed ways. Some Jews take care to avoiding lamb or goat at the Seder meal, or any roast meat, so as to avoid the appearance of “eating holy things outside of the proper precincts.” I’ve even heard of those who go to the extent of avoiding roast meat for all seven days! On the other hand, there are those (particularly Sephardim) who specifically eat roast lamb as the main course of the Seder as a way of remembering the Korban Pesah, making some small difference to avoid full duplication of the manner of preparation of Korban Pesah.
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There is much more to be said about these subjects, including a fourth rule—that the Pesah is eaten at night, and specifically before midnight; some people apply this rule to the eating of matzah as well, while others find ground for lenience. But the hour is late, the Seder is starting in a few hours, and all that is left is to wish my readers a very happy and meaningful Pesah.