The Peculiarities of the Pesah

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Eliav Grossman

The Korban Pesah is listed among the Kodshim Kalim, or “light sacrifices,” a category of sacrifices whose rules are relatively lenient and un­constrictive. Such sacrifices are largely shelamim, sacrifices whose meat is shared between the offerer of the sacrifice and the kohanim. The meat may be consumed for two days after the sacrifice was offered, which is the most generous window of time associated with any of the sacrifices. Moreover, Kodshim Kalim may be eaten anywhere in Jerusalem; unlike other sacrifices, their consumption is not restricted to the confines of the Temple. Finally, Kodshim Kalim can be eaten by anyone, whether a Kohen or Israelite. The laws of Kodshim Kalim are thus broadly characterized as expansive and generous, allowing sacrifices to be eaten leisurely among many people.

Though the Korban Pesah is numbered among Kodshim Kalim, many of its features undermine the characterization of Kodshim Kalim sketched above. One may not consume the Pesah for two days after it is offered; rather, it must be eaten only on the night of the 15th of Nisan, immediately after it is slaughtered. Additionally, while any spot within Jerusalem is theoretically appropriate for eating the Pesah, in reality the Korban Pesah must be eaten within the very restricted space of the group that convenes to eat it. The Pesah may not be removed from the house in which the havurah gathers to eat. Finally, while all Israelites are obligated to partake in the Korban Pesah, each individual Pesah sacrifice cannot be eaten by anyone. Instead, only those individuals who signed up as participants for a particular Pesah may partake. The Korban Pesah, then, in fact features law that tightly restrict when, where, and who may eat the sacrifice. The Korban Pesah’s laws seem to belie its status as a member of the Kodshim Kalim category.

What, then, accounts for the peculiarities of the Pesah? Pesahim 96a records:

…תנא רב יוסף ג’ מזבחות היו שם על המשקוף ועל שתי המזוזות…

Rav Yosef taught: There were 3 altars there; on the lintel, and on the two doorposts.

The first Pesah sacrifice, which occurred in Egypt just before the exodus, included a requirement to smear sacrificial blood across the lintel and doorposts of the house in which the sacrifice was brought. Rav Yosef understands this smearing as equivalent to the דם נתינת usually performed upon the altars in the Temple. For Rav Yosef, the home is transformed into a Temple on Pesah night; the doors become the altar.

I think that this idea may explain the Korban Pesah’s anomalous features. The Pesah must be eaten within the walls of the home. This, perhaps, is reflective of the home’s transformation into the Mikdash: just as many sacrifices must be eaten within the Temple walls, the Pesah must be eaten within the walls of the home. That the Pesah can be eaten only by those who registered with a particular group may also reflect the home’s special status as a temporary Temple. For many sacrifices only a special cadre, namely Kohanim may partake of the meat. The Pesah may accord a priest-­like status to all those who eat it, such that they may do so only by registering themselves as members of a special group in advance.

Philo of Alexandria articulates this position, writing:

In this festival many myriads of victims from noon till eventide are offered by the whole people, old and young alike, raised for that particular day to the dignity of the priesthood…On this day every dwelling­house is invested with the outward semblance and dignity of a temple. The victim is then slaughtered and dressed for the festal meal which befits the occasion. (Special Laws 2: 145, 148).

On the night of Pesah, the home becomes the locus of ritual service. Though much more could surely be said about this unique phenomenon, it suffices to suggest it as at least a partial explanation for the Korban Pesah’s outstanding features.

Eliav Grossman (SBM 2013)  is a senior at Columbia College majoring in Religion and Philosophy. 

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