Community > Jewish Life > Bo: Pesah Mizrayim – The First Passover

Bo: Pesah Mizrayim – The First Passover

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

Details of the Passover Seder service were first imparted to Moses in 12:1-20. The subsequent verses (21-28) record Moses' transmission of them to Israel, or strictly speaking to their elders. Ramban comments on the relationship between these two accounts (1-20; 21-28):

The latter (vv.21 ff) contains a briefer treatment since the main points have already been referred to in the first account. Moses no doubt gave complete instructions to the people but the text merely records: "as the Lord commanded, so they did".

We should therefore take these two accounts as complementing each other. In the second Moses is briefer but adds some extra information regarding the implementation of the ceremonies. In the first verse there is an unusual consecutive verb combination. Draw out and pick yourselves a lamb according to your families …

Some commentators understand the first verb "draw out" merely to connote promptitude: "get going". It is really therefore a kind of auxiliary or pre-verb. Ramban however considers that we have two separate but successive complementary actions:

Their livestock was located a long way off in Goshen since the "Egyptians abominated all shepherds" (Gen. 46:34). They had first to round up and "draw it" or drive it homeward and then each one could pick or take his individual family lamb and slaughter it at eventide.

Two different explanations are offered by the Mekhilta, the first of which is cited by Rashi:

"Draw out" – He who has (a lamb); "Take out" – he who has not, should buy in the market.

The two verbs represent separate alternative actions.

Rabbi Yose' the galilean offers a quite different explanation, understanding the two verbs as contrasting actions:

Said rabbi Yose' the Galilean: "draw out" – your hands from idolatry. "and take to" – cling to Mitzvot.

He understands the verse as symbolizing their separation from the past, from the depth of idolatry – "the forty-nine gate of defilement" – in which, our sages stated, that the Jews in Egypt wallowed. They were bidden to participate in a demonstrative act, divorcing themselves from the idolatrous environment.

This is stated quite plainly in the Midrash: So was it with Israel when they were in Egypt that they were given to idolatry and did not forsake it, as it is written: "But they did not every man cast away the abominations of their eyes" (Ezekiel 20:8). Said the Holy One blessed be he to Moses: as long as the Israelites worship the Egyptian gods, they shall not be redeemed. Go and tell them to forsake their evil ways and repudiate idolatry – as it is written: "Draw out and take you"—that is to say: Withdraw your hands from idolatry and take you a lamb, and slaughter thereby the gods of Egypt and make the Passover. (Shemot Rabbah 16:2)

Israel were called upon to perform actions that would symbolize not only the dramatic change in their physical fortunes from bondage to freedom but also their spiritual transformation from culture and religious enslavement to acceptance of the true God.

The night of the Passover represents a watershed in Jewish history separating the proceeding nightmare of slavery from the impending saga of redemption. The foregoing conception clarifies for us the symbolism of these rites exclusively enjoined for the first Passover in Egypt, in the terminology of our Sages, applicable only to Pesah Mizrayim but not Pesah Dorot (the Passover of ages). Speak to all the community of Israel saying: On the tenth of this month, let each man take one lamb for each household … It shall remain your charge till the 14th day of the month.

Mekhilta comments:

"On the tenth of the month" – excluding subsequent Paschals, since the Egyptian one was taken on the tenth and the subsequent ones could be taken any time.

This precept of taking the lamb four days before the date of slaughter (on the fourteenth at eventide) puzzled our commentators. A number of answers were proposed. Here we cite the Mekhilta as a formulated by Rashi:

"And it shall be to you for a charge" – this signifies examination. The lamb required examination for a blemish, four days before its slaughter. Why had the lamb to be taken four days before, whereas this was not so in the case of the ordinary Passover? R. Matya ben Harash said: "When I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, and, behold the time was the time of love" (Ezekiel 16:8) – the time had come for the fulfillment of the pledge that I gave to Abraham that I would redeem his sons. But they had no precepts to be occupied with to merit their redemption, as it is said: "Yet thou wast naked and bare" (ibid). He gave them two precepts: The blood of the Passover and the blood of circumcision; for they circumcised themselves on that same night, as it is said "wallowing in thy blood" (literally: "bloods" – in two kinds of blood). Because they were stepped in idolatry He said unto them: "Draw out and take you" – withdraw your hands from idolatry and take unto you the flock of the precept.

Rashi deviates in one respect from his source. The fact that they circumcised themselves on that same night does not occur in Mekhilta but in Midrash Rabbah (19). Not all commentators accepted it since it does not offer a complete answer to the question, why they were commanded to take the lamb on the tenth day.

Alshikh was bold enough to reject the explanation of the Sages:

They could not have circumcised themselves on the night of the Passover. On the contrary, they were bidden to take the lamb four days earlier to give them a breathing space of several days to recover from the operation. They could not afford to be sick at the time of the exodus. Three days are needed to recover from circumcision (see Gen. 34:25). God therefore wanted them to perform the circumcision first and wait three days to recover and then leave Egypt. To have circumcised themselves and afterwards take the Paschal lamb would have been to place the cart before the horse – the positive doing of good would have come before the negative removal of evil which is the rejection of idolatry. The text therefore states: "Draw away" from idolatry and "take" your lamb – to perform the Lord's command. They had therefore (1) to pick out their lamb (2) circumcise themselves and wait three days; finally (3) slaughter the Paschal lamb at eventide.

The significance of another rite linked exclusively to the Pesah Mizrayim but not applicable to Pesah Dorot is illuminated by this concept of "turn away from evil, and then do good" – abandon the past to prepare for the future: You shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two sideposts with the blood that is in the basin.

The above rite is referred to previously in the Divine message to Moses regarding the Passover ordinance. There it is stated: The blood shall be to you a token upon the houses where you are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you (verse 13).

Our Sages uttered a warning regarding a possible misinterpretation of this verse. They said:

To you for a token and not to others for a token.

Isaac Arama in his work Akedat Yizhak elaborates on this warning of the Sages. God forbid, he states, that the blood of the doorposts should be taken to constitute a token or sign to god like the scarlet thread of Rahab in the book of Joshua (2) but, as emphasized by our Sages, it was meant as a token for themselves. Here we shall quote two views of our commentators on this subject, explaining the implication of this rite.

First Rambam: The Egyptians were accustomed to worshipping the zodiacal sign of the lamb. That was why they forbad the slaughter of cattle and despised shepherds. The text alludes to this: "If we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their very eyes, they will not stone us". For this reason we were commanded to slaughter a lamb on Pesach and sprinkle its blood in Egypt on the doors outside – to cleanse ourselves of these ideas and demonstrate publicly our rejection of them. This would lead to the conviction that what had been considered lethal was now the source of deliverance. The Lord passed over the doorways and did not allow the destroyer to enter your houses and to do you harm – in reward for your performance of rites repugnant to the worshipper of idols.

Ha-ketav Veha-kabbalah: The Israelites themselves were responsible in part for deferring their own redemption. First they had to be purified and show by some outstanding act of self-sacrifice that they had repented of their ways. If they were willing to place their lives in danger in order to carry out the wishes of the Almighty, that would be a true token of their love of God. Consequently, God commanded them to slay the Egyptian god under conditions of the widest publicity. First they had to procure the lamb, lead it through the streets without fear of Egyptian reaction, second, to slaughter it family by family, in groups and finally they had to sprinkle its blood on the doorposts of every Egyptian passer-by to see, braving the vengeance of their former persecutors. Their fulfillment of every detail of this rite would be a proof of their complete faith in God. In the words of the Sages, the blood would be a token "to you"; and not to others.

Both Rambam and Ha-ketav Veha-kabbalah view the commandment as educational in intent to effect a change in their outlook. But the former stresses the liberation of their minds from superstition, the latter their release from fear of their Egyptian taskmakers. Rambam speaks of their being spiritually cleansed and attracted to the true faith, Ha-ketav Veha-kabbalah of their morale being boosted readying them to sacrifice their lives for the service of God.

We may now appreciate R. Ishmael's puzzling dictum in Mekhilta: R. Ishmael used to say: Surely everything is revealed to Him…why then does Scripture say: "when I see the blood?" But in reward for your performance of the commandment I reveal myself and have compassion on you. "When I see the blood", I see the blood of Isaac's sacrifice as it is stated: Abraham called the name of that place "The Lord shall see".

On the surface the Mekhilta's explication seems to be based on the duplication of the word dam "blood" when a pronominal was called for. "The blood shall be to you for a sign and when I see it";. Why is the noun repeated?

Malbim notes that it violated a universal rule of language. The nominal is never repeated in the same sentence. If the same nominal is the subject of succeeding verbs it is deleted. If it is the object then it is pronominalized. Wherever the nominal is repeated unnecessarily it bears a special semantic significance.

Very often the reason advanced has been that the referential index is not identical in every respect. In our context it has been suggested that the first "blood" is not literally identical with the second. But this, though technically true, does not answer the question of the deeper meaning of the Midrash. What idea is being propounded? If we regard the act of [placing the blood upon the doorpost before the very eyes of the Egyptians as a n indication of Israel's measure of dedication to Judaism then we have understood the true significance of this Midrash.

We have thus clarified the significance of three aspects of the first Passover (1) the double performance of "draw-out-and pick", (2) the choice of date for this performance – four days before the actual slaughter of the Paschal lamb, (3) the sprinkling of the blood on the doorposts. They were all meant to demonstrate one principle: freedom in depth precedes a purely surface redemption.