The Evolution and Innovation of Pesach Sheni
Offering the Pesach Sacrifice at its Proper Time
Numbers chapter 9 opens with God’s telling Moses that the Children of Israel must properly observe “the Pesaḥ” in the second year, i.e., the year after the Israelites left Egypt. The text emphasizes, at least three times within two verses, that the ritual is to be performed precisely at its prescribed time: at twilight on the 14th day of the first month of the year.
2 וְיַעֲשׂ֧וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־הַפָּ֖סַח בְּמוֹעֲדֽוֹ׃3 בְּאַרְבָּעָ֣ה עָשָֽׂר־י֠וֹם בַּחֹ֙דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֜ה בֵּ֧ין הָֽעֲרְבַּ֛יִם תַּעֲשׂ֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ בְּמוֹעֲד֑וֹ…
2 Let the Israelite people offer the Pesaḥ sacrifice at its set time: 3 you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, at its set time;
To hammer home the point, verses 4 and 5 go on to report that the Israelites followed these instructions and that they offered the Pesaḥ sacrifice at the right time. Considering this emphasis on proper timing, the next part of the story is quite a surprise.
The Unexpected Response to The People who were Impure
Some men happened to be ritually impure by virtue of having come in contact with a corpse, and they realized (or simply assumed – there is no explicit mention of a purity requirement in Exodus) that their ritual status would prevent them from offering the Pesaḥ sacrifice along with the rest of their “fellow citizens.” The possibility of missing out on this important ritual disturbs them, and they approach Moses and Aaron (v. 7) wanting to know why (or if) their impurity would really preclude them from it.
אֲנַ֥חְנוּ טְמֵאִ֖ים לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֑ם לָ֣מָּה נִגָּרַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֙י הַקְרִ֜ב אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן יְהוָה֙ בְּמֹ֣עֲד֔וֹ בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Although we are unclean by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?
Moses responds by telling them to “stand (by)!” so he can find out from God the answer to their query. At this point in the narrative, what does the reader expect to hear? On one hand, sacrifices may not be offered by the impure (see Lev 22:3), so the men may be correct, and God may require their exclusion from the ritual. On the other hand, since the Pesaḥ seems to be a particularly central ritual for God and the Israelites, perhaps, due to its importance, God will allow them to participate anyway. Either of these responses seems possible, but, in fact, God offers a third and entirely unexpected response.
Unwilling either to allow the impure men to participate in the sacrifice or to exclude them entirely, God ordains an entirely new law by allowing these men to offer the Pesaḥ sacrifice exactly one month later than the original date. The unexpected nature of this solution can hardly be over-emphasized. Pesaḥ commemorates an event—the original Pesaḥ which was offered on the night of the Exodus from Egypt—and is meant to be offered on the anniversary of that event. What sense does it make to offer it a month later? Furthermore, and most importantly for our purposes, this section opened with a thrice repeated emphasis that the Pesaḥ must be offered at its proper time. Why, according to the Torah, does God suddenly create this unexpected make-up day for the offering?
The Long Journey… to Where?
It gets worse. In a perplexing extrapolation, God not only responds to the men suffering from impurity, granting them a delay, but God adds another unrelated circumstance, allowing the delayed date for those who were on a long journey as well. “A long journey” during the desert march? A long journey where? What inspires God to deal with this case or be lenient regarding long trips?
The Sages noted the problem of the “long trip” reference in a wilderness period account and attempt a number of solutions (m. Pesaḥim 9:2).
איזו היא דרך רחוקה?
What is ‘a far distance’?
מן המודיעים ולחוץ, וכמדתה לכל רוח, דברי רבי עקיבא.
“From Modiʿim and beyond, and the same distance in all directions [from Jerusalem]” – these are the words of Rabbi Akiva.
רבי אליעזר אומר: "מאיסקופת העזרה ולחוץ."
Rabbi Eliezer says: “From the threshold [of the Temple court/cult site] and beyond.”
אמר ליה רבי יוסי: "לפיכך נקוד על ה', לומר לא מפני שרחוק ודאי, אלא מאיסקופת העזרה ולחוץ."
Rabbi Yossi said to him: “This is the reason for the special pointing over [the letter] “heh,” to teach that [the verse] does not mean distance in an objective sense, rather it refers to [the area] from the threshold [of the Temple/cult site] and beyond.”
Nevertheless, despite the attempt by traditional commentators to find practical relevance for the passage in its wilderness context, most modern biblical scholars assume that the notion of being on a “long journey” would be more appropriate only after the Israelites had settled in the Land.
During the wilderness experience, the Torah describes a people together in one camp, surrounding one tabernacle, and supported by miraculous food gifts. There was really nowhere for them to go. However, once in a settled land, the problem of travel and being away from local cult-sites with proper cultic personnel would become a real one. The ideal picture of all of Israel being available for the Pesaḥ offering at one time was confronted by reality, whether the reality of impurity or the reality of travel. Therefore, it makes sense that only after the time of the settlement in Canaan someone could have been away on a “long journey,” too far from the sacrificial site.
Where was the Proper Place for Offering the Pesach?
It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect: Where must the Pesaḥ be offered according to the Torah? There seems to be more than one answer. Exodus 12, discussing the first Pesaḥ sacrifice (what the Sages call מצרים פסח, the Pesaḥ of Egypt), states that the offering was to be roasted and eaten by the members of each household where they lived. As there is no mention of an official local mizbeaḥ (altar), presumably each household made the offering on its own and near its own home. Numbers makes no specific reference for where the offering should be made, but one might reasonably assume that it was meant to be offered at the Tabernacle. The equivalent in Israel may have been the local cult site—something most towns of sufficient size probably would have had.
Only the book of Deuteronomy (16:2) includes a requirement to offer the Pesaḥ in “the place where the Lord will choose to have the divine name dwell”—presumably a reference to Jerusalem. With its general insistence on cult centralization for all sacrifices of any kind, it is hardly surprising that Deuteronomy would be the one book in the Torah to contain this requirement. In the Exodus text, there is nowhere specific to sacrifice, so that traveling could not possibly be a problem. However, considering the various possibilities for where the sacrifice should be offered in Numbers (Tabernacle) and Deuteronomy (Temple in Jerusalem), which one is intended here in Numbers 9?
An Academic Solution to the Long Journey and the Pesach Sheni
The rabbinic interpretations assume a unified text and suggest that God is simply thinking ahead to a future time. Modern scholarship approaches this question from a different angle. It seems reasonable to suggest that since the original narrative referenced only men who were impure, God’s answer originally addressed only this question. The phrase “or on a long trip” may have been added later. Why? One might suggest that as the Pesaḥ developed from the Exodus model (a sacrifice offered by the head of a household near his home) to the Numbers or Deuteronomy models (local cult site or the Temple in Jerusalem), the possibility that a person would be too far from the cult site to offer the Pesaḥ became a realistic one. Finding precedent in the story of the impure men, a later editor added the words “or on a long trip” into God’s response so that the make-up ritual of the Second Pesaḥ would apply to such people as well.
This explains the addition of the travel, but what about the original legislation itself? In this case, modern scholarship may actually make the problem more poignant. The idea of an approved delay of a ritual is unusual, if not unique, in the ancient Near East. An excerpt from the Hittite “Instructions to Priests and Temple Officials” (column ii) is instructive. In that text, the priests are warned that they must perform the festivals “at the time of the festivals,” not at another time, and that they not be intimidated by anyone who asks them to delay the festival because of the harvest, or to delay the festival “for a journey some other matter.”
Given the surprising nature of the legislation of a second-chance ritual it is likely that the legislation of a delayed Passover reflects the central importance of this ritual and God’s desire to include as many Israelites as possible in its yearly observance. This suggestion can be supported by the legislation in Exodus (12:48) as well as the end of the Second Pesaḥ section (Num 9:14), which explain that even a ger (non-Israelite sojourner in the Torah, but interpreted by the rabbis to mean a convert) may participate in the ritual. The harsh punishment administered to one who skips out on doing the Pesaḥ without an excuse—being cut off from the people of Israel—also points to the Pesaḥ’s fundamental importance.
The Torah’s Innovation
In sum, we learn two important messages from the account of the Second Pesaḥ. First, we can see how the law developed over time in order to accommodate new realities. As the Pesaḥ changed from a home-based offering to one based in a cult site, a solution needed to be found for those who were out of town. The solution was found in the older legislation about a make-up day for the Passover offering, originally created for people who were impure after having come in contact with a corpse.
Second, we learn that the Torah, wishing to include all Israelites in the significant ritual of the Pesaḥ, understands the need to assess circumstances in the application of law and, sometimes, to give humans a second chance. The Torah weighs the exclusion of Israelites from a “perfect” ritual against the accommodation of less than ideal circumstances by adapting the ritual in a somewhat inelegant manner—commemorating the Exodus on a day other than the actual anniversary—and chooses the latter.
In other words, in the Second Pesaḥ account, the Torah shows a preference for the acceptance and understanding of human reality over and above the perfect and pristine performance of ritual duties. The God of the Second Pesaḥ is a compassionate and understanding God. The Torah tells us that we are all made in the image of God—a compassionate God crafting divine rituals around the realities of human life and ensuring the inclusion of all. That is certainly an example we should try to emulate.
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May 13, 2014
January 10, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Stephen Garfinkel is associate provost and an assistant professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He also serves as chair of the Council on Graduate Studies in Religion. Garfinkel received his master’s degree and rabbinic ordination from JTS. He later received a second master’s degree, and the degrees of M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Middle East Languages and Cultures from Columbia University.
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