Searching for the Meaning of the Passover Sacrifice
Reasons for the Commandments
Over the years, Jewish Bible commentators and thinkers have been ambivalent about taamei ha-mitzvot, literally “the reasons for the commandments,” namely attempting to find rationales behind commandments in the Torah. Many argued that since God’s wisdom transcends ours, the attempt to identify with certainty the reasons for a mitzvah (commandment) is doomed to failure.
In fact, some considered this attempt potentially dangerous, since people could try to outsmart the legislator by being loyal to the idea behind the law but relaxing their observance of the law itself. Even Moses Maimonides, who does explain the reasons behind many mitzvot, specifically says that looking for the reasons behind the small details, and especially laws about sacrifices, is wasted effort and unproductive.
When it came to the Passover sacrifice in Parashat Bo (Exodus 12), however, many traditional commentators and thinkers did not hold back. They actively speculated about the reasons for individual details of the law, many of which seemed obscure:
- The animal must be a male yearling, either a sheep or goat (12:5).
- The animal should be purchased four days in advance. (12:3 and 12:6)
- None of it is actually “sacrificed,” or burnt for God. In a sense, the “sacrifice” in Exodus 12 is a family feast, but with strict rules.
- The assembled must roast it ראשו על כרעיו ועל קרבו “head, legs and entrails” (12:9).
- The meat should be eaten together with matzah and merorim, the latter generally rendered “bitter herbs” (12:8).
- The flesh cannot be boiled (Exod 12:9).
- The flesh must be consumed that night (12:10).
- It must be eaten in one house and no one is allowed to break a bone when eating it (12:46).
Modern Attempts to Understand the Ritual
Modern biblical scholars also struggle with the meaning of the ritual and the significance of these details, typically using anthropological tools to understand it, and suggesting that most of these rituals did not originate with a historical first Passover.
Pesach and Matzot: Flock and Agricultural Celebrations
John Durham writes that just as Passover “has connections with a flock-animal sacrifice predating it, so also eating of unleavened bread cakes was first practiced in a setting having nothing to do with the exodus . . . [and] is rooted, in all likelihood, in an agricultural celebration connected with grain harvesting.”
Nahum Sarna also believes that the slaughter of the lamb was originally a nomadic rite, repurposed by the Israelites: “The pagan shepherds offered the animal in order to ensure the fecundity of the flocks, just as the rites of the spring harvest festival were intended to secure the fertility of the soil. In Israel, each rite was severed from its magical and mythical roots.”
Pesach as an Apotropaic Ritual
Kristine Garroway, in her TABS essay "Origins of the Biblical Pesach,” suggests that Pesach began as an apotropaic ritual to protect babies by offering a sacrifice in their place. Along similar lines, William Propp offers an unusual explanation for the commandment to roast the animal whole: “If the paschal sacrifice was originally vicarious, perhaps it was roasted whole in order to resemble a human being as closely as possible.”
Eating Bitter Herbs as Magic or Penance
Rather than seeing the bitter herbs as an allusion to the bitter lives of the slaves described in Exodus (both words use the same root), or as an appropriate condiment for the roasted meat, the American scholar William Propp, who wrote the Anchor Bible commentary on Exodus, gathers a number of modern explanations of the merorim: it was a plant that grew in the spring; it had “a magical function” of an apotropaic nature; or it was “a primitive ascetic repast, consumed in mortification and penance.”
Roasting as Traditional Method
Arnold Ehrlich theorizes that roasting was the standard way of cooking meat in ancient times since people in the ancient world had not yet mastered the skills involved in other forms of cooking. Clearly, by the time of the biblical prohibition to boil they had, but by then roasting has become the traditional method for the Pesach and the Bible codified that in a prohibition against using other forms of cooking.
All of these modern critical explanations are neither provable nor falsifiable, since we know so little about pre-Israelite cultic practices.
The classical Jewish peshat Bible commentators addressed these questions in a different way. They sought meaning within the Bible, not in postulated pre-biblical ceremonies.
Indications of Speed – Rashbam
Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir; 12th century Northern France), for example, relates many of the details to the theme of the haste involved in the Israelites' departure from Egypt. The Torah writes this explicitly (Exod 12:11):
וְכָכָה תֹּאכְלוּ אֹתוֹ מָתְנֵיכֶם חֲגֻרִים נַעֲלֵיכֶם בְּרַגְלֵיכֶם וּמַקֶּלְכֶם בְּיֶדְכֶם וַאֲכַלְתֶּם אֹתוֹ בְּחִפָּזוֹן פֶּסַח הוּא לַי-הוָה.
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.
Rashbam adds (commentary to Exod 12:8) that many other details can be explained on the basis of this same principle: roasting is the fastest way of cooking; when you are in a hurry you do not cut up the animal before roasting it but you roast it whole; and when you eat it you do not take the time to break open the bones and suck out the marrow.
כל עניני אכילה הללו דרך חפזון ומהירות הוא כאדם הנחפז ללכת
All these details about the eating are connected to the idea of hurry and haste, like a person who is rushing to leave.
Not Eating Marrow as a Sign of Wealth – Sefer Ha-Hinukh
Sefer ha-hinukh (anonymous, 13th century Spain) gives another rationale for not breaking a bone: on this holiday of freedom, Israelites are to behave like wealthy free people who do not need to break open the bones to suck the marrow. Ehrlich writes in his commentary to the verse that he used to understand the law against breaking a bone in a different way, but then he came to the conclusion that the Torah was telling Israelites not to act like poor people who suck the marrow of bones at the Passover celebration.
Taunting the Egyptians – Hazzekuni
Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (Hazzekuni; 13th century France) offers the creative suggestion that roasting the animal was the most effective way of taunting the Egyptians (Exod 12:8). According to the common Jewish understanding of some biblical verses, the Egyptians worshipped sheep. When all the Israelites in Egypt roasted sheep at the same time, then,
ריחו נודף והולך בחוטמן של מצרים וידעו שאתם אוכלים את יראתם
The smell would waft, reaching the nostrils of the Egyptians. Then they would know that you were eating their god.
Hazzekuni suggests further that eating the sacrifice with an unpleasant-tasting herb, merorim, was a further way of degrading the god of the Egyptians. The Israelites, he says, purchased the animal four days in advance for the same reason—so that the Egyptians would see their god helpless and degraded for four days.
An unnamed Tosafist suggests that the commandment to roast the sheep whole was to the same end—that an onlooker would have no doubt that what the Israelites were roasting and eating was a sheep.
The Impetus to Understand the Paschal Sacrifice: Defense Against Christian Exegesis
Why were medieval Jewish commentators—including many who, like Rashbam, were committed to peshat—so interested in figuring out the rationale for the details of the laws of the paschal sacrifice? This question is especially pertinent since they do not, for example, show the same level of interest in explaining the details of the sacrifices in Leviticus, or, as noted above, many other biblical laws. Certainly Passover plays a central role in the Jewish religious experience, and this may explain, in part, why these particular laws were explicated in such detail. But another historical factor may also be at work.
Christian Exegesis: Jesus as the Paschal Lamb
We might understand their motives better when we study the passage about Exodus 12 in the late 13th-century Ashkenazic anti-Christian polemical work Sefer Nitztzahon Yashan. This book, a primer for Jews in their debates with Christians, goes through passages from Tanakh in order, offering Jewish interpretations that rebut Christian claims. The author shows good acquaintance with Christian texts and often vituperates against Christians and Christianity in extremely strong language. It is not surprising that the book is anonymous.
Concerning Exodus 12, Sefer Nitztzahon Yashan writes:
וכן אומרים בפסח ויקחו לכם [בתורה: להם] איש שה לבית אבות גם זה רמז על הריגת התלוי ואומרים לנו: שוטים! אנחנו יודעים שנתנה התורה לכם ולא לנו ולמה לא תרגישו בטיבה ומדוע לא תשימו על לב מה החוק הזה שצוה אתכם דתות משונות כמו אל תאכלו ממנו נא ובשל מבושל במים, ועצם לא תשברו בו. מאי נפקא מיניה אם הוא מבושל או לאו? וכן הרבה באותה פרשה. ומדוע כל זה? וכי אתם בהמות שלא תרגישו מה זה הרמז?
Similarly, they [the Christians] say of the paschal lamb, concerning which it is written, “they shall take to them every man a lamb according to their fathers’ houses,” that it prefigures the hanged one [= Jesus]. There are, indeed, many verses which they interpret as references to the hanged one, and they tell us: Fools, we know that the Torah was given to you and not to us; why then do you not perceive its nature? Why do you not consider the apparently peculiar nature of the laws which God commanded you, such as “Eat not of it raw, nor cooked at all with water . . . nor shall you break a bone of it.” What difference does it make whether or not it is cooked with water? Indeed, there are many peculiarities in that passage, and what could be the reason for them? Are you truly animals that you do not perceive what these things symbolize?”
Ever since the New Testament, the paschal lamb has been interpreted as prefiguring Jesus. In subsequent centuries, Church Fathers and later clergy taught that Jesus was the lamb of God, the new Passover sacrifice. The Christian who is quoted or paraphrased in Sefer Nitztzahon Yashan makes the curious argument: the difficulty of offering any rational reason for the details of the paschal sacrifice in Exodus 12 “proves” that the text requires an allegorical explanation, and it must be an allegory about Jesus. This seems to have led Jews to work harder to prove that, on the literal level, the rules were meaningful, not arbitrary.
Suffering of the Jewish People – Sefer Nitztzahon Yashan
The most surprising Jewish interpretation of Exodus 12 is the one provided by the author of Sefer Nitztzahon Yashan himself. He argues (perhaps tongue in cheek) that the text is an allegory, but goes through the details in a long explanation to prove that the allegory is not about the suffering of Jesus, but about the suffering of the Jewish people. For example, he explicates the requirement of merorim as follows:
רמז שהאומות מתעבדין בנו ומ[מ]ררין את חיינו ומחרפין אותנו ואומרים עלינו שאנו אוכלים בני אדם ודם שקצים.
[It] refers to the fact that the nations subject us to hard work, embitter our lives, and revile us by saying that we eat human beings and the blood of Christian children.
Such is the nature of allegorical explanations. Christians claimed that the allegory was about Jesus, but there was nothing to stop another allegorist from giving a totally different explanation, in this case, that it was about the Jewish people as a whole.
We must be cautious when attributing anti-Christian polemical motives to any individual Jewish commentator who does not specifically identify his motives as such. But the longstanding nature of the Christian “paschal lamb” claim about Jesus and the explicit Christian anti-Jewish polemical comments, coupled with Jewish thinkers in Christian countries' extensive explanations for the details about that paschal lamb, make such motives likely in this case.
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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