INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v' Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.
By Rav Zvi Shimon
Passover in Egypt
The Blood of Redemption
In this week's Torah reading, we read of the last of the ten plagues of
Egypt, the slaying of all Egyptian firstborn. It is only after this, the most
gruesome and severe of the plagues, that Pharaoh allows the Israelites to leave
Egypt in order to worship God. This tenth plague differs from the rest not only
in its severity but also in the events preceding it. The Israelites no longer
sit passively witnessing the mighty hand of God. This time, they must perform
the commandment of the Paschal lamb before God's smiting of all the firstborn of
"The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: ...
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month
each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household...Your lamb
shall be without blemish, a yearling male; you may take it from the sheep or
from the goats. You shall keep watch
over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled
congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it towards evening. They shall take some of the blood and
put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to
eat it. They shall eat the flesh
that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread
and with bitter herbs. Do not eat
any of it raw, or cooked in any way with water, but roasted over the fire - its
head with its legs and with its entrails.
You shall not leave any of it over until morning; if any of it is left
until morning, you shall burn it.
"This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and
your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly; it is a passover
offering to the Lord. For that
night, I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every firstborn in
the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all
the gods of Egypt, I the Lord. And
the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I
see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I
strike the land of Egypt" (Exodus 12:1, 3-13).
"Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, 'Draw out and
take lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the
blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to
the lintel and to the two doorposts.
None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. For when the Lord goes through to
smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts,
and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite
your home'" (Exodus 12:21-23).
God commands the Israelites to put blood from the sacrificed lamb on the
two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which the Paschal lamb is eaten.
The blood is to serve as a sign protecting the Israelites from the plague of the
firstborn. Upon seeing the blood on the homes of the Israelites, God will pass
over them and not inflict any harm on those in the home. According to a simple
reading of the text it seems as if the blood on the houses is to serve as a sign
for God designating the Jewish residences in Egypt. However, such a possibility
is philosophically untenable; why would God, the omniscient, need an external
sign in order to know which homes are Jewish? Surely everything is revealed
before Him! Our sages in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael (Halakhic midrash of our
sages on Exodus) rule out the possibility that the blood is a sign for God on
"And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for YOU"
(12:13)- "A sign for you but not a sign for Me."
If the blood is not meant to serve as a sign for God, designating Jewish
homes, then what is its function? The answer to this question depends on a
disagreement amongst our sages regarding the exact location where the blood was
"Rabbi Natan says [that the blood was applied] on the inside [of the
houses]...as is stated 'And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall
be a sign for you' (12:13) - A sign for you but not a sign for others. Rabbi
Isaac says [that the blood was applied] on the outside [of the houses] so that
the Egyptians would see [the blood] and their intestines would fail [they would
be horrified]" (Mekhilta).
The sages agree that the blood is not a sign for God. However, they
disagree whether the blood was applied on the internal part of the door, facing
the people inside the house, or on the external part of the door, facing the
Egyptians walking outside. The location of the blood affects our understanding
of its function and the ultimate purpose of the commandment of the Paschal lamb.
We will begin our analysis of the Paschal lamb with Maimonide's (Rabbi
Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204) explanation:
"Scripture tells us that the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained
from killing sheep, and held shepherds in contempt. Compare 'Behold we shall sacrifice
the abomination of the Egyptians,' etc. (Exodus 8:26); 'For every shepherd is an
abomination to the Egyptians' (Genesis 46:34).
Some sects among the Sabeans worshipped demons, and imagined that these
assumed the form of goats, and called them therefore 'goats' [se'irim]. For this reason those sects abstained
from eating goats' flesh. Most
idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great
estimation. Therefore the people of
Hodu [India] up to this day do not slaughter cattle even in those countries
where other animals are slaughtered.
In order to eradicate these false principles, the Law commands us to offer
sacrifices only of these three kinds: 'You shall bring your offering of the
cattle, of the herd and of the flock' (Lev. 1:2).
Thus the very act which is considered by the heathen as the greatest
crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins.
"This is also the reason why we were commanded to kill a lamb on Passover, and
to sprinkle the blood thereof outside on the gates. We had to free ourselves of evil
doctrines and to proclaim the opposite, that the very act which was then
considered as being the cause of death would be the cause of deliverance from
death. Compare 'And the Lord will
pass over the door, and will not let the Destroyer to enter your houses to smite
you' (Exodus 12:23). Thus they were
rewarded for performing openly a service every part of which was objected to by
the idolaters" (Guide for the Perplexed, Book 3, chapter 46).
According to Maimonides, God commanded that the Israelites slaughter
lambs because the Egyptians worshipped them. The purpose of the Paschal lamb is
to rid the Israelites of these idolatrous beliefs. The sacrifice, and the blood
sprinkled on the house, is directed towards the Israelites. The Israelites see
the blood on their gates and realize that they were saved because of their
slaughtering a lamb, the Egyptian god. Only after rejecting idolatry do they
merit being saved. This explanation lends itself to the position of Rabbi Natan
the sage, who believes the blood was sprinkled on the inside of the houses. It
was aimed at the Israelites, at correcting their skewed beliefs.
A similar idea is expressed by our sages in Midrash Rabba (a compilation
of homiletical interpretations of our sages):
"You will find that when Israel were in Egypt, they served idols, which they
were reluctant to abandon, for it says: "They did not cast away the detestable
things of their eyes" (Ezekiel 20:8). God then said to Moses: 'As long as Israel
worship Egyptian gods, they will not be redeemed; go and tell them to abandon
their evil ways and to reject idolatry.' This is what is meant by: "Draw out and
take your lambs"(12:21), that is to say: Draw away your hands from idolatry and
take for yourselves lambs, thereby slaying the gods of Egypt and preparing the
Passover. Only through this will the Lord pass over you."
A very different approach is advanced by the Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben
Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century). He attempts to understand the
underlying idea behind the Paschal lamb by analyzing the many laws regarding its
slaughter and consumption.
God commands that the Israelites take a lamb on the tenth of the month
but sacrifice it only on the fourteenth, four days later. Why was it necessary
to take the lamb four days before its actual sacrifice? Why couldn't it have
been taken immediately prior to its being slaughtered? The Chizkuni offers the
"Until the fourteenth day"(12:6) - "So that the Egyptians would see their gods
tied shamefully and disgracefully in the homes of the Israelites and would hear
the sheep squealing with no one to save them."
The sheep were taken four days before their slaughter in order that the
Egyptians would know in advance what was being done to their gods.
The Chizkuni also explains the time designated for slaughtering the
sheep, "towards evening" (12:6), as follows:
"At the hour in which people congregate, when the laborers return from their
The lamb was to be slaughtered in full view of the public's eye, at "rush
hour" when all the Egyptians are returning to their homes. The Chizkuni also
explains the sprinkling of the blood on the doorposts and the lintel of the
houses in a similar manner:
"In case certain Egyptians couldn't come at the hour of slaughtering, they
would, nevertheless, see the blood of their gods there [on the doorposts]"
It is clear from this interpretation that the Chizkuni accepts Rabbi
Isaac's position that the blood was applied on the outside of the houses. The
blood is aimed at the Egyptians and not, as implied in Maimonide's
interpretation, at the Israelites. The Chizkuni continues his line of
explanation also with regard to the laws pertaining to the preparation of the
lamb for consumption. He explains the prohibition of eating any of the meat raw
"Do not eat any of it raw" (12:9) - "If an Egyptian shall come into your home
while you are roasting the lamb, do not in fear remove it hastily from the fire
claiming that it is well roasted when it is still actually raw...but you should
not fear them [the Egyptians]."
The Chizkuni offers a similar
interpretation regarding the manner in which the lamb is to be roasted:
"...roasted over the fire; its head with its legs and with its entrails" (12:9)
- "Even as it is roasting it must be whole, so that it shall be noticeable that
it is their [the Egyptians'] god."
The shape of the lamb must be kept while it is being prepared so that the
Egyptians will know that the Israelites are roasting their gods.
The impression one gets from reading the Chizkuni's interpretation is
that the Paschal lamb in Egypt was primarily directed at the Egyptians. The
sacrifice is part of God's war against Egyptian idolatry, "I will mete out
punishments to all the gods of Egypt" (12:12). In contrast to Maimonides, it is
not so much the Israelites as it is the Egyptians who must realize the
uselessness of their gods and the absurdity of their beliefs. However, there is
an additional dimension to the Chizkuni's interpretation.
"All the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it [the lamb]"
(12:6) - "So that no Jew could cast the blame [for slaughtering the lamb] on his
friend stating: 'I did not do this, somebody else did it,' because everybody was
party to it."
The whole nation had to take part in the slaughtering of the lambs, the
Egyptian gods. This requirement insures that nobody could evade taking
responsibility for the act. The Israelites, as a whole, had to take this
rebellious and potentially life-threatening initiative. In order to be worthy of
redemption, every Israelite must evince courage in defying his Egyptian
slavemaster; he must slaughter the Egyptian god before his very eyes. Once the
Israelite has mentally freed himself from his subordination and submission to
his taskmasters, then he is ready for physical redemption. Thus, there are two
distinct and yet intertwined functions in the Paschal lamb. The sacrifice proves
to the Egyptians that their gods are worthless, and at the same time obliges the
Israelites to prove their courage in defying the Egyptians. Both these goals
require that the sacrifice be performed in sight of the Egyptians, outside of
Our sages, as cited by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France,
1040-1105), advance a third approach to understanding the Paschal lamb in Egypt:
"For what reason did God command that the lamb be taken four days prior to its
slaughtering, a requirement which does not pertain to the Paschal lamb of future
generations? Rabbi Matiah the son of Heresh used to say '...the time has come to
fulfill the oath which I [God] swore to Abraham that I will redeem his children.
But they were not engaged in any commandments for which they could merit being
redeemed as is stated, 'and you were naked and bare' (Ezek. 16:7). Therefore He
gave them two commandments, the blood of the Paschal lamb and the blood of
The purpose of the Paschal lamb is not to negate Egyptian idolatry or
domination. It is not aimed at rejecting heretical beliefs but rather at
affirming religious convictions and strengthening the Israelites' bond with God.
Disassociating oneself from idolatry, from the depraved culture of Egypt does
not make one worthy of redemption. 'Sur mei-ra' - "shunning evil," must be
followed by 'asei tov' - "doing good" (see Psalms 34:15). Only after Israel
begins performing God's commandments can they be redeemed. Torah is not
satisfied with people abstaining from wrongdoing. It demands positive
affirmative action. According to the interpretation cited above, these include
circumcision and the offering of the Paschal lamb.
Why were these two commandments specifically selected for preparing
Israel for redemption? Is there anything which distinguishes these commandments
from the rest? I believe the common denominator between these two commandments
is that they are both expressions of belonging to the Jewish people.
Circumcision is an initiation into the Jewish people. It is a sign of the
covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham and inducts the newborn baby
into this covenantal relationship with God. The Paschal lamb is also an
expression of belonging. However, unlike circumcision which relates to the
individual baby, the Paschal lamb is a family-centered act. The Torah stresses
"a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household" (12:3). It must be eaten within the
house, together with the family, and no one must leave the home during the
night: "None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning"
(12:22). Partaking in the feast of the Paschal lamb is an expression of
belonging to the family, of one's connection to the home. It is the Jewish home,
the family, which is the core of Jewish existence. It is the passing down of
Jewish tradition from parent to child, from generation to generation, that keeps
the nation alive and prevents its assimilation. A vibrant Jewish atmosphere in
the home generates a tenacious and unwavering Jewish identity. The Jew who
leaves the home, breaks off his connection with his family, his roots, is doomed
to assimilate in the surrounding foreign culture. He does not have a home to
protect him from the "destroyer" and risks suffering a fate similar to that of
However, this does not exhaust our analysis of the Paschal lamb. A close
examination of the details regarding the Paschal lamb in Egypt reveals an even
deeper meaning behind the commandment. Many of the laws regarding the Paschal
lamb resemble the regulations governing the offering of sacrifices in the
temple. Other sacrifices also require a one year-old animal (see Leviticus 12:6,
23:12, Numbers 6:12, 7:15). The requirement that the lamb not be cooked but
rather roasted over a fire parallels the burning of sacrifices on the altar
(compare Leviticus 1:8). Similarly, the prohibition of leaving over from the
Paschal lamb is similar to the prohibition regarding temple offerings, "When you
sacrifice a thanksgiving offering to the Lord.... It shall be eaten on the same
day; you shall not leave any of it until morning" (Leviticus 22:29, compare
ibid. 7:15 ff.). There is one additional similarity. All animal sacrifices in
the temple involved the dashing of the slaughtered animal's blood onto the altar
(see, for example, Leviticus 1:5). Here, too, God provides instructions
regarding the blood. However, in this case, they do not prescribe the dashing of
blood onto an altar; there is no altar on which to dash the blood. Rather, the
blood must be spread on the doorposts and lintel of their houses. Based on all
the similarities we mentioned between the Paschal lamb and sacrifices in
general, our sages' commentary regarding the sprinkling of the blood of the
Paschal lamb is not surprising:
"We learn from here that they had three altars in Egypt: the lintel and the two
doorposts."(Mekhilta on 12:7)
The lintel and the doorposts on which the blood of the lamb was sprinkled
served as altars for the Israelites in Egypt. Consequently, their houses must be
regarded as temples. It is not the home, per se, which saved the Jews in Egypt.
Rather, it is the consecration of the home as a temple which ensured their
salvation. The home which revolves around the service of God and the performance
of His will protected the Jews from the calamities taking place in Egypt. The
Israelites who, by virtue of the spreading of the blood of the Paschal lamb on
their doorposts managed to transform their homes into a "mini-temple," were
worthy of being redeemed.
Just as the Jews in Egypt transformed their homes into "temples" for the
service of God, we, too, must strive to do the same. Indeed, our sages draw a
parallel between the Paschal lamb and another commandment related to the home:
"If it is stated regarding the blood [of the Paschal lamb] in Egypt which was
only a temporary commandment and was not obligatory during the day and night
[but only during the night], and does not pertain to future generations, [that
God] "will not let the Destroyer enter," 'mezuza' which is much more stringent
since it includes ten appearances of God's names, and is obligatory both during
the day and the night, and pertains to all generations, so much the more so
[that God] "will not let the Destroyer enter." (Mekhilta)
Similar to the blood of the Paschal lamb which proclaimed the houses of
the Israelites to be houses devoted to God, so too the 'mezuza' defines the home
as a house of Torah. The 'mezuza,' the appendage of parts of Torah to the
doorpost (see Deuteronomy 6:9), establishes the home as a place of holiness, an
abode committed to the performance of God's will. It is hoped that just as the
blood of the Paschal lamb made the Israelites worthy of redemption from Egypt so
too the 'mezuza' and the ideas embedded in it will make us worthy of the future