The Cow That Laid an Egg (!)
Korban Chagigah from the Torah to the Seder Plate
Arrive at morning synagogue services at their very beginning (!) and you are likely to recognize the following lines that are recited just before the early Kaddish deRabbanan:
וכן שני כתובין המכחישים זה את זה עד שיבא הכתוב השלישי ויכריע ביניהם
So, too, with regard to two contradictory (biblical) verses, (they are to remain in contradiction) until a third verse comes and decides between them.
These are the concluding words from The Thirteen Rules for the Interpretation of Torah of the School of R. Ishmael, taken from the introduction to the Sifra, and they address a typical circumstance that occurs both with regard to narrative and legal passages in the Torah.
The Paschal Sacrifice: The Contradiction between Deuteronomy and Exodus
One pre-rabbinic example of a verse that solves a contradiction between two verses is illustrated in the book of Chronicles, which famously resolves contradictions between the Passover sacrifice rules in Parashat Re’eh in Deuteronomy and those of Parashat Bo in Exodus. Deuteronomy 16:1-7 reads:
טז:א שָׁמוֹר֙ אֶת חֹ֣דֶשׁ הָאָבִ֔יב וְעָשִׂ֣יתָ פֶּ֔סַח לַי-הֹוָ֖ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֞י בְּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽאָבִ֗יב הוֹצִ֨יאֲךָ֜ יְ-הֹוָ֧ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֛יךָ מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם לָֽיְלָה: טז:ב וְזָבַ֥חְתָּ פֶּ֛סַח לַי-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ צֹ֣אן וּבָקָ֑ר בַּמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַ֣ר יְ-הֹוָ֔ה לְשַׁכֵּ֥ן שְׁמ֖וֹ שָֽׁם…טז:ז וּבִשַּׁלְתָּ֙ וְאָ֣כַלְתָּ֔ בַּמָּק֕וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ בּ֑וֹ וּפָנִ֣יתָ בַבֹּ֔קֶר וְהָלַכְתָּ֖ לְאֹהָלֶֽיךָ:
16:1 Observe the new moon of Abib and offer a passover sacrifice to the LORD your God, for it was in the new moon of Abib, at night, that the LORD your God freed you from Egypt. 16:2 You shall slaughter the passover sacrifice for the LORD your God, from the flock or the herd, in the place where the LORD will choose to establish His name… 16:7 You shall boil and eat it at the place that the LORD your God will choose; and in the morning you may start back on your journey home.
This pericope presents the law of the biblical Passover, a ritual whose observance God had ostensibly commanded earlier in the Torah (Exodus 12:1-9).
יב:א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל אַהֲרֹ֔ן בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר… יב:ג דַּבְּר֗וּ אֶֽל כָּל עֲדַ֤ת יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר בֶּעָשֹׂ֖ר לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֑ה וְיִקְח֣וּ לָהֶ֗ם אִ֛ישׁ שֶׂ֥ה לְבֵית אָבֹ֖ת שֶׂ֥ה לַבָּֽיִת: יב:ה שֶׂ֥ה תָמִ֛ים זָכָ֥ר בֶּן שָׁנָ֖ה יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֑ם מִן הַכְּבָשִׂ֥ים וּמִן הָעִזִּ֖ים תִּקָּֽחוּ:יב:ו וְהָיָ֤ה לָכֶם֙ לְמִשְׁמֶ֔רֶת עַ֣ד אַרְבָּעָ֥ה עָשָׂ֛ר י֖וֹם לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֑ה וְשָׁחֲט֣וּ אֹת֗וֹ כֹּ֛ל קְהַ֥ל עֲדַֽת יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בֵּ֥ין הָעַרְבָּֽיִם: יב:ח וְאָכְל֥וּ אֶת הַבָּשָׂ֖ר בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַזֶּ֑ה צְלִי אֵ֣שׁ וּמַצּ֔וֹת עַל מְרֹרִ֖ים יֹאכְלֻֽהוּ:יב:ט אַל תֹּאכְל֤וּ מִמֶּ֙נּוּ֙ נָ֔א וּבָשֵׁ֥ל מְבֻשָּׁ֖ל בַּמָּ֑יִם כִּ֣י אִם צְלִי אֵ֔שׁ רֹאשׁ֥וֹ עַל כְּרָעָ֖יו וְעַל קִרְבּֽוֹ:
12:1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt… 12:3Speak 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…12:5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a yearling male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 12:6 You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight… 12:8 They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs. 12:9 Do not eat any of it raw, or cooked in any way with water, but roasted—head, legs, and entrails—over the fire.
The two texts contradict in a number of ways:
- Exodus prescribes a Passover ritual that takes place around the full moon (12:6); Deuteronomy, on the New Moon (16:1).
- Exodus has the ritual near the officiant’s own home (12:3); Deuteronomy at a central location (the Temple) and not at one’s home (16:2, 5, 7).
- Exodus features a lamb or goat that is “wholly roasted,” boiling being explicitly prohibited (12:8); Deuteronomy states that the meat should boiled.
- Exodus specifies a lamb or a goat (12:5), whereas Deuteronomy offers a choice, either “from the flock (=sheep or goat) or the herd (=cattle)” (16:2).
I will focus on the last two contradictions, which actually work in tandem in this piece.
Chronicles’ Two Pronged Solution
Boiled with Fire
In its retelling of the great Passover of Josiah, Chronicles writes the following:
לה:ג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לַ֠לְוִיִּם (המבונים) [הַמְּבִינִ֨ים] לְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל… לה:ווְשַׁחֲט֖וּ הַפָּ֑סַח וְהִתְקַדְּשׁוּ֙ וְהָכִ֣ינוּ לַאֲחֵיכֶ֔ם לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת כִּדְבַר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה בְּיַד מֹשֶֽׁה:לה:ז וַיָּ֣רֶם יֹאשִׁיָּ֣הוּ לִבְנֵ֪י הָעָ֟ם צֹ֞אן כְּבָשִׂ֣ים וּבְנֵֽי עִזִּים֘ הַכֹּ֣ל לַפְּסָחִים֒ לְכָל הַנִּמְצָ֗א לְמִסְפַּר֙ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים אֶ֔לֶף וּבָקָ֖ר שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת אֲלָפִ֑ים אֵ֖לֶּה מֵרְכ֥וּשׁ הַמֶּֽלֶךְ:
35:3 He said to the Levites, consecrated to the LORD, who taught all Israel…35:6 Having sanctified yourselves, slaughter the passover sacrifice and prepare it for your kinsmen, according to the word of God given by Moses. 35:7Josiah donated to the people flocks—lambs and goats, all for passover sacrifices for all present — to the sum of 30,000, and cattle, 3,000 — these from the property of the king.
לה:יג וַֽיְבַשְּׁל֥וּ הַפֶּ֛סַח בָּאֵ֖שׁ כַּמִּשְׁפָּ֑ט וְהַקֳּדָשִׁ֣ים בִּשְּׁל֗וּ בַּסִּיר֤וֹת וּבַדְּוָדִים֙ וּבַצֵּ֣לָח֔וֹת וַיָּרִ֖יצוּ לְכָל בְּנֵ֥י הָעָֽם:
35:13 They boiled the passover sacrifice in fire, as prescribed, while the sacred offerings they boiled in pots, cauldrons, and pans, and conveyed them with dispatch to all the people.
Looking at the strange expression “boiled in fire,” scholars have long noted that the author of Chronicles is trying to solve the contradiction between the law in Exodus and that in Deuteronomy. However, this this does not seem to be the author’s main solution. If anything, it reads like an extra, “back-up” solution. Chronicles’ main solution to the problem of the Exodus-Deuteronomy contradiction is that the verse about boiling in Deuteronomy does not refer to the Passover sacrifice at all, but to a generic festival sacrifice (קדשים), probably a reference to a שלמים. According to this text, the Passover sacrifice was to be roasted and קדשים to be boiled. This same division between two sacrifices serves double duty, since it appears to solve another contradiction. The Passover can only be a sheep or a goat from the flock (as per Exodus), but the קדשים may be a cow (as per Deuteronomy).
The text in Chronicles is the earliest evidence we have of Jews attempting to reconcile the contradiction between the provision of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Since Chronicles has been canonized, this “inner biblical” interpretation illustrates the rabbinic hermeneutic rule with which we began: two verses contradict one another, and a third comes to reconcile between them!
The Two Sacrifices Interpretation and the Mishna’s Seder Plate
Early rabbinic writings already recognize two distinct Passover sacrifices. For example, the Mekhilta, based on a midrashic reading of Exodus 12:14, assumes that a special holiday sacrifice called the chagigah must be brought every day.Ostensibly, this sacrifice would have been eaten at the Pesach meal on the night of the 15th. Although early medieval sources identified the קדשים in Chronicles with the chagigah, the Mekhilta itself assumes that it is a reference to the Pesach.
The issue of the two sacrifices eaten during the Pesach meal is discussed in the Talmud’s interpretation of the Mishna about the “Seder Plate,” (Pesachim 10:3), which prescribes two kinds of cooked food:
הביאו לפניו מטבל בחזרת עד שמגיע לפרפרת הפת. הביאו לפניו מצה וחזרת וחרסת ושני תבשילין… ובמקדש היו מביאים לפניו גופו של פסח.
They bring before him herbs and vegetables… then they bring before him matzah and lettuce, haroset, and two kinds of cooked food… During the existence of the Holy Temple, they brought before him the paschal sacrifice.
The simple meaning of the Mishna is that two cooked foods should be eaten since this is the minimal fare for a festive holiday meal. However, Rav Yosef states that these two cooked foods commemorate the dual sacrifices for the day (b Pesachim114b):
מאי שני תבשילין? אמר רב הונא: סילקא וארוזא. רבא הוה מיהדר אסילקא וארוזא הואיל ונפיק מפומיה דרב הונא… חזקיה אמר אפילו דג וביצה שעליו. רב יוסף אמר: צריך שני מיני בשר אחד זכר לפסח ואחד זכר לחגיגה. רבינא אמר: אפילו גרמא ובישולא פשיטא.
Which kinds of the above-mentioned cooked food are meant? Said R. Huna: “Mangold and rice,” and Rava would search (specifically) for mangold and rice, because he wished to carry out the literal sense of R. Huna’s teaching… Hizkiya said: “Fish, together with an egg may also serve for the two kinds of cooked food,” but R. Yosef said: “No; there must be two kinds of meat, one to serve as a remembrance of the Pesach (sacrifice) and the other as a remembrance of the Chagigah (sacrifice). Ravina said: “A bone and some boiled meat suffice.”
Hizkiya seems to understand the Mishna in its simple sense, and deals with the question of whether a combined dish (fish with egg) counts as one or two (the question comes up in m.Beitzah 2:1 regarding eruv tavshilin). Rav Yosef, followed by Ravina, understood the two cooked foods as representative. Further, Ravina’s adaptation of R. Yosef’s prescription anticipates our own custom of including a “shankbone” on the Seder plate to retain some minimal adherence to the provisions of Exodus for roasted meat.
In theory, if we were to follow Rav Yosef/Ravina, we should have two pieces of meat; one roasted and one boiled. But that isn’t what we do.
The Loss of the Boiled Meat for the Seder Plate
Despite the ruling of Maimonides that mandated R. Yosef’s practice, nearly universal practice today follows the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh (473:4) that stipulated as follows:
מביאין לפני בעל הבית קערה שיש בה שלש מצות ומרור וחרוסת וכרפס או ירק אחר… ושני תבשילין אחד זכר לפסח ואחד זכר לחגיגה ונהגו בבשר וביצה… והבשר נהגו שיהיה זרוע ונהגו שהבשר יהיה צלי על הגחלים והביצה תהיה מבושלת.
They bring before the host a tray that has three matzot on it, and maror and charoset and karpas (or another vegetable)… and two cooked dishes, one in remembrance of the pesah and one in remembrance of the chagigah. They are accustomed to [fulfill this] with meat and an egg. They are accustomed for the meat to be a shankbone, and for it to be roasted, and that the egg should be boiled.
Thus, in lieu of R. Yosef’s insistence on “two kinds of meat (one roasted and the other boiled)” R. Yosef Karo states that we use an egg for the second dish. Where did the egg come from? It isn’t from Hezkiyah, since he wasn’t suggesting using an egg, merely mentioning fish with egg as an example. Although it is true that the custom has great pedigree—Sa’adiah Gaon suggests an egg—this still begs the question of where the custom comes from. Moreover, the problem for us is even greater than for Rav Karo—his custom maintains the veneer of chagigah by boiling the egg, but the predominant custom today is to roast the egg. In contemporary practice, the egg, not its manner of preparation, has become key.
The Egg as a Springtime Ritual
It seems to me that the egg tradition—roasting the egg as well as eating boiled eggs as a first course of the Seder meal—is not connected to the two cooked foods Mishnah, and that Jewish legal tradition has not preserved an accurate memory for why this custom exists. Instead, it seems likely to me that the custom of incorporating eggs in various ways into the Seder is a spring rite, just as karpas as a green vegetable seems to be. A look at springtime rituals in religions world-wide shows that the Passover egg stems from the same rites of spring that have led Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians and members of other religious faith traditions to use eggs in their spring festival rituals (think of the Easter egg hunt).
Be that as it may, after some reinterpretation by the rabbis, the roasted egg on the Seder plate has come to represent the second of the two “cooked foods” prescribed by the Mishna, and so takes on the representation of the chagigah sacrifice — itself, which, as we have seen, is the rabbinic descendent of the Deuteronomic 16:2 bovine Passover sacrifice. And thus, (finally!) the title of this essay, “the cow that laid an egg,” although it took a gestation of over one-thousand years!
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August 12, 2015
January 11, 2021
Dr. Rabbi Robert Harris is an associate professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, teaching courses in biblical literature and commentary, particularly medieval Jewish biblical exegesis.
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