A Shiur in memory of Nehama Leibowitz, z”l
by Moshe Sokolow
Nehama Leibowitz did not open new windows on the Torah; she simply polished the glass so we could all see inside much more clearly. She did not compose a new commentary, per se; she enabled us to derive considerably more use from the many commentaries and supercommentaries which already exist.
I have chosen to devote a shi’ur on Torah in recognition of the woman who taught more Torah to more people in Israel (and the Diaspora), over a longer period of time than anyone else in recent memory. The shi’ur will utilize the principle of active learning which she advocated in these words:
The most important thing is that the students should study Torah from all angles; search it out, and choose or reject interpretations. All providing that they engage in Torah out of love.
Following the format of the weekly GILYONOT, which she circulated, formally, for 30 years, I have based my presentation on a series of related questions. (Unlike Nehama’s GILYONOT, however, I have also provided the respective answers.) Following Nehama’s lead, again, I have sought to combine sensitive reading of the Torah text with forays into medieval and modern commentaries, combined with a concern for the derivation of appropriate moral and ethical messages.
Part One: Korban versus To’eivah (Shemot cpt. 12)
After the plague of AROV (literally: a mixture, it can refer to either a swarm of insects, or a horde of wild beasts), Pharaoh offered to allow the Jews to make their sacrifices to God provided they didn’t leave Egypt. Moshe declines the offer, explaining (Shemot 8:22): “It would not be proper because the Egyptians regard our sacrifices to the LORD as abominations. Could we break an Egyptian taboo (TO’AVAT MITZRAYIM) before their very eyes without their stoning us?”
We may recall that because the Egyptians held the eaters of the flesh of sheep in the lowest regard, Joseph’s brothers were fed separately from the other Egyptians (Bereishit 43:32). Joseph also encouraged his brothers to list their occupations as shepherds in order to keep them isolated from the rest of Egypt (46:34). Both of these references feature the word “abomination” (TO`EIVAH).
QUESTIONS (vss. 3-7):
A. Why were sheep (and not cattle) made the objects of the sacrifice?
B. Why was the 15th of Nisan chosen for the sacrifice?
C. Why was it necessary to select the sacrificial animal four days earlier?
D. Why was the blood smeared on the door posts and lintel?
A. Sheep were chosen precisely because they were taboo to the Egyptians and any attempt to slaughter them would be resisted, forcefully.
B. The astrological symbol of the month of Nisan is Aries, the ram, and the 15th day is the apex of a lunar month. The ram-god of the Egyptians was to be slaughtered on the evening of the full-moon of its very own month (ostensibly, the height of its powers), and the Egyptians would be powerless to prevent it!
C. By selecting the sheep or ram (cf. Shemot 12:5 which treats them identically) four days in advance of the actual sacrifice, the Jews were flaunting their intentions in the faces of their Egyptian neighbors, as though daring them to interfere.
D. Similarly, the smearing of its blood on the door posts and lintel was intended to force the Egyptians to suffer the further indignity of seeing the lifeblood of the animal, the essence of many pagan rituals, “profaned.”
Part Two: The Significance of the Doorway
The Torah prescribes the smearing of the blood on the lintel [MASHKOF] and the two doorposts [MEZUZOT].
- Was it smeared on the inside or outside of the doors?
- What about the threshold?
- Since the whole point was for the blood to be visible to the Egyptians, it would have to be smeared on the outside of the doorways. If the purpose were just for God to “see” it (Shemot 12:13; ve-ra’iti et ha-dam), it could just as well have been on the inside.
- Whether the blood was smeared on the threshold depends upon your interpretation of the word SAF. In Shemot 12:21 ff., Moshe repeats God’s instructions of 12:1 ff. When he gets to the part about smearing the blood (vs. 22), he tells them to take a clump of grass and dip it into the blood which is in the SAF and touch it to the doorposts and lintel. According to RASHI, the SAF is a vessel in which the blood has been collected after the slaughtering. IBN EZRA, however, cites a definition of SAF as a threshold!
Considering the detail the Torah lavishes on the rest of the sacrificial ceremony, why does it fail to prescribe the site where the sacrifice was to be performed?
According to our general explanation–and consistent with IBN EZRA’s interpretation– it is obvious that the sacrifice took place at the entrance to the house, on the outer side of the threshold. If the blood collected on the threshold and was subsequently daubed on the doorposts and lintel, the entire doorway would be smeared with blood. This would be symbolically significant both in terms of the provocation to the Egyptians, as well as in the “apotropaic” terms of the protection it afforded them against the plague.
Part Three: Why Prescribe the Preparation?
QUESTIONS (vss. 8-10):
A. Why was it forbidden to eat it raw (NA`)?
B. Why could it not be cooked in a pot but only roasted?
C. Why did it have to be roasted whole–with its head, hind parts, and internal organs, all intact?
D. Why was it necessary for the bones to be kept intact?
A. These details were intended to increase the indignity the Egyptians were meant to suffer–and, correspondingly, increase the risk to the Jews participating in the sacrifice.
B. Roasting the sheep (or ram), rather than cooking it in a pot or eating it raw, meant that the aroma could not be contained. Even if the Egyptians did not actually see their taboo animal being slaughtered, they could not avoid the smell.
C. By requiring the principal organs to be kept intact, the identity of the roasting animal could not be altered or denied.
D. Similarly, by prohibiting the breaking of the bones, the evidence of the “sacrilege” could not be obliterated.
These same points are made by the commentary to the Torah called DA’AT ZEKEINIM MI-BA’ALEI HA-TOSAFOT.They say:
Since you are about to sacrifice an Egyptian abomination you might not think to roast it entirely, lest the Egyptians realize it. Therefore it says… Since you might think to cook it in a closed pot, it says… And lest you think to cut off its head or legs so they can’t tell what it is, it says…
Part Four: The Haggadah: Approaching the Korban Pesah from Another Angle
The Haggadah features four children. The second one, called “wicked,” asks: “What is this ritual to you?” The Haggadah replies: “[His use of the word] ‘You’ excludes himself. Since he has excluded himself from the general rule, he has rejected a principle [of faith] KAFAR BA’IKAR; in other words, he is a heretic [KOFER].
Why is the refusal to participate the KORBAN PESAH regarded as a rejection of faith, as an act of heresy? If someone fails to observe Kashrut or Yom haKippurim, we don’t necessarily declare them to be heretics; why is Pesah different?
To slaughter and eat the KORBAN PESAH in public, as we have explained, was to offer the gravest insult to the Egyptians and to their gods. Only those Israelites who were firmly committed to God and to Moshe were prepared to take that risk. To participate under those circumstances was an instance of MESIRUT NEFESH, of total dedication. To refuse to participate meant that one was not convinced that God could really do all that He had promised, and that one still feared the Egyptians more than one feared God.
While a transgression of kashrut is regrettable, it does not, per se, constitute either a denial of God or the recognition of some other power as greater than His. To reject the KORBAN PESAH, however, is to reject monotheism in its struggle for recognition over the “abominations” of idolatry.
The self-exclusion of the “wicked” son from this ritual is tantamount to his refusal to disavow idolatry. The Haggadah’s observation: “Were he there [in Egypt] he would not have been redeemed,” is self-explanatory. By rejecting the KORBAN PESAH; by honoring Egyptian abomination over divine commandment; he forfeited his right to redemption.
Part Five: Other Exclusionary Measures; NEIKHAR and AREIL
What is a BEN NEIKHAR (v. 43), and why may he not eat the KORBAN PESAH?
Since the entire purpose of the KORBAN PESAH was to force the Jews to relinquish their fears of the Egyptians and declare their allegiance to God, it is obvious that non-Jews could not participate. Assuming, then, that the Torah is not merely stating the obvious, whom does it mean to exclude? Targum Onkelos’s translation reflects this concern. He translates BEN NEIKHAR as: BAR YISRAEL DE’ISTALEK, a Jew who has removed himself. This interpretation fits neatly into our own analysis of the “wicked son,” who had also “removed himself” from the KORBAN PESAH. It is also reflected in RASHI’s commentary: SHE-NITNAKERU MA’ASAV LE-AVIV SHE-BASHAMAYIM; one whose actions have alienated him from God.
Why is someone who is uncircumcised [AREIL] forbidden to partake of it (v. 48) ?
Regarding the exclusion of the AREIL from the KORBAN PESAH, we note that Yehoshua was commanded to circumcise all the Jews who were not circumcised in the desert before they could participate in the first KORBAN PESAH to be celebrated in Eretz Yisrael (Joshua 5:2 ff.). One phrase which occurs there, and which duplicates a phrase we cited in the opening section, gives us a clue about the relationship of BERIT MILAH to the KORBAN PESAH. The phrase in Yehoshua (5:9) is: HA-YOM GALOTI ‘ET HERPAT MITZRAYIM ME-ALEIKHEM; “Today, I [God] have removed the disgrace of Egypt from upon you.” On the analogy of TO’AVAT MITZRAYIM, the abomination of Egypt, which described their taboos of sacrificing or eating sheep (Gen. 43:32, 46:34, and Exodus 8:22), we have a reference, here, to the scorn which the Egyptians apparently heaped upon the Jewish ritual of circumcision.
Just as someone who has not broken completely with idolatry and its taboos is excluded from the KORBAN PESAH –because it symbolizes total belief in God–so do we exclude someone whose sensitivity to the scorn of idolaters prevents him from undergoing circumcision. If a gentile slave or a resident alien [GER TOSHAV] undergoes circumcision, however, he becomes eligible to participate on an equal footing with a Jew (Exodus 12:44, 48).
Was circumcision a prerequisite for the original KORBAN PESAH, too?
Reason dictates that circumcision, like the repudiation of idolatry, was a necessary prerequisite for the redemption from Egypt and, hence, for participation in the original KORBAN PESAH. The problem is that there does not appear to be an explicit reference to this in the Torah.
Two later verses, however, and one Midrash, fill in this gap.
First of all, the verse we cited above (Yehoshua 5:2) instructed him “to circumcise the Israelites a second time.” If this was to be the second time, when was the first? A subsequent verse (5) answers: “All the people who came out [of Egypt] had been circumcised,” suggesting that a similar mass circumcision had taken place prior to the Exodus! [The use, here, of the passive participle: MULIM HAYU, as opposed to the verbal passive, NIMOLU (cf. Bereishit 17:27), also indicates that their state of being circumcised was intentional.]
A similar conclusion can be drawn from a prophecy of Yehezkel concerning Yerushalayim (chapter 16). Describing Israel, metaphorically, as a newborn infant abandoned in the field by its parents [as Israelite parents actually did with their offspring in Egypt, according to an Aggadah], God says (vs. 16): “I passed by and saw you wallowing in your own blood, and I said to you, ‘In your blood, live’!, I said to you, ‘In your blood, live’!” To what blood does this refer? A Midrash replies (Shemot Rabbah 16:3):
Why did God see fit to protect them by means of blood [on the doorposts]? To remind them of the blood of Abraham’s circumcision. Israel was rescued from Egypt by virtue of two types of blood: The blood of [korban] Pesah, and the blood of circumcision.
A trace of this Midrashic tradition can still be found in those versions of the Haggadah which, following the custom of the AR”I, include the verse from Yehezkel 16:6 in a Midrashic homily on Devarim 26:5, VA-YEHI SHAM LE-GOY GADOL ATZUM VA-RAV.
The Exodus from Egypt figures very prominently throughout the Torah. Many mitzvot are linked to YETZI’AT MITZRAYIM, demonstrating its centrality to Jewish law and lore. In thisshi’ur we have endeavored to demonstrate just how central the original Pesah sacrifice (known by the Talmud as PESAH MITZRAYIM) was to the experience of freedom and deliverance, and why its annual observance remains such an indispensable feature of Jewish life.