The Meaning of the Korban Pesach

  • Rav Amnon Bazak




In memory of Pinhas ben Shalom (Paul) Cymbalista zl.

Niftar 20 Nissan 5752. Dedicated by his family.




The Meaning of the Korban Pesach


By Rav Amnon Bazak

Translated by David Silverberg



A.        The pesach as a sacrifice


We read in the Exodus narrative of God’s command to Bnei Yisrael concerning the pesach, the paschal ritual, which required taking a sheep, slaughtering it and partaking of its meat in accordance with certain laws (Shemot, chapter 12).  When celebrated in Egypt, was this paschal ritual a sort of festive meal, or was it perhaps a type of sacrifice?  On the one hand, the main features that characterize the realm of korbanot are absent from this ritual: the animal is not placed upon the altar, there is no requirement to dismember and skin the animal after slaughtering, no blood is sprinkled, and no kohanim are involved.  The central idea in korbanot is that of netina (giving), whether of the meat or of the blood.  The absence of these components seemingly indicates that we are not dealing here with a sacrifice, but rather with a command to conduct a special celebration.


            On the other hand, however, we indeed find a number of aspects of the paschal offering that it shares with other sacrifices:


  1. God presents the following qualifications for the animal chosen for this purpose: “It shall be for you an unblemished, male yearling sheep; you shall take from among the sheep or goats” (12:5).  These qualifications bear considerable resemblance to the conditions that apply to other sacrifices, particularly the korban ola – “If his sacrifice comes from the sheep, from among sheep or goats as a burnt-offering, he shall offer an unblemished male” (Vayikra 1:10).
  2. Likewise, the prohibition against leaving over some of the animal’s meat – “Do not leave over any of it until morning; and that which is left over from it by morning you shall burn in fire” (Shemot 12:10) – brings to mind the corresponding prohibition familiar to us from the realm of korbanot: “The meat of his thanksgiving peace-offering shall be eaten on the day of its offering – he shall not leave any of it until morning… That which is left over from the meat of the offering on the third day shall be burnt in fire” (Vayikra 7:15-17).
  3. Moreover, the requirement to prepare the paschal offering “roasted over the fire, its head together with its legs and entrails” (Shemot 12:9) is formulated similarly to the laws that apply to korbanot.  Regarding the korban ola, for example, the Torah instructs, “Aharon’s sons, the kohanim, shall arrange the sections [of the animal], the head and the suet on the wood that is upon the fire on the altar.  He shall wash its entrails and legs in water, and the kohen shall then offer everything on the altar as a burnt-offering upon the fire, a pleasing fragrance to the Lord” (Vayikra 1:8-9; see also 4:11).
  4. Bnei Yisrael were commanded to eat the korban pesach “roasted on the fire, as well as matzot together with bitter herbs” (12:8).  The command to partake of matza appears later, as well: “You shall observe this day as a commemoration, and you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord for all your generations; you shall celebrate it as an eternal statute – seven days you shall eat matzot…” (12:14-15). Why did God command them to eat matzot?  This command does not seem to relate to Bnei Yisrael’s consumption of matza along their journey out of Egypt, as that incident occurred only later: “They baked the dough that they had taken from Egypt as unleavened cakes, rather than leaven, because they were chased from Egypt and could not tarry; nor did they prepare food for the journey” (12:39).  It would thus appear that the consumption of matzot constituted part of the paschal sacrifice, just as bread accompanied the offering of the korban toda (thanksgiving offering): “If he offers it [the sacrifice] as thanksgiving, then he shall offer together with the thanksgiving sacrifice unleavened loaves mixed with oil and unleavened wafers spread with oil” (Vayikra 7:12).  According to this approach, the mitzva to eat matza stems primarily from the laws of the korban, and the aspect of commemorating the hasty departure from Egypt was added only later.  (Further in our discussion, however, we will suggest an additional explanation for the meaning of matza on Pesach.)


These aspects of the paschal offering reinforce our original question as to the fundamental nature of the paschal ritual.  How might we explain the fact that it resembles sacrifices in some respects, while differing from sacrifices in several other important respects?


            The key to understanding the nature of the pesach lies in another unique feature of this ritual: “They shall take some of the blood and place [it] upon the two doorposts and the lintel, on the homes in which they will partake of it” (12:7).  It appears from this verse that the pesach ritual indeed featured an aspect of netina, the “giving” of sacrificial blood, like sacrifices.  This giving of blood may be compared to the placing of sacrificial blood on the corners of the altar, and indeed the Sages comment regarding the paschal ritual in Egypt, “There were three altars there [in Egypt] – on the lintel and on the two doorposts” (Pesachim 96a).  In particular, we may compare the formulation, “You shall take a bundle of hyssop and dip it in the blood in the doorstep and apply some of the blood in the doorstep onto the lintel and both doorposts” (12:22) with the ritual conducted on the eighth day of the Mishkan’s inauguration: “He [Aharon] dipped his finger in the blood and placed it on the corners of the altar; he then poured the blood on the altar’s foundation” (Vayikra 9:9).


            The paschal offering transformed the entire house into an altar, a place that is entirely consecrated to God and under His protection.  The notion of the altar as a place of protection, which belongs to the Almighty such that one has no right to harm somebody at that site, emerges clearly from the fact that the Torah had to specifically allow seizing a murderer from the altar to execute him: “If a person deviously schemes against his fellow to kill him, you shall take him even from My altar to put him to death” (Shemot 21:14).  We indeed find two occasions in Tanakh where somebody attempted to save himself from execution by clinging to the corners of the altar, both of whom fled from King Shlomo: “And Adoniyahu feared Shlomo; he arose and went and grabbed the corners of the altar” (I Melakhim 1:50); “Yoav fled to the tent of the Lord and grabbed the corners of the altar” (I Melakhim 2:28).  Had the Torah not issued this special provision, it would have been forbidden to seize a murderer from the altar, as the altar is perceived as extra-territorial space that grants asylum to people at the site.  Similarly, transforming the house into an altar affords protection to Bnei Yisrael who, in essence, become like the kohanim as they partake of the meat of the pesach.  Thus, this ritual indeed constitutes a sacrifice, in the sense that it features the aspect of netina, but this is a unique type of korban that transforms the home into an altar and the people partaking of the sacrifice into “a kingdom of priests and a sacred nation.”


            Viewing the home as an altar also helps us understand several other halakhot mentioned in the context of the pesach:


  1. God instructs, “It shall be eaten in one house; do not remove any of the meat from the house outside” (verse 46).  This prohibition is easily understood once we perceive the house as an altar.
  2. From the obligation to eat matza stems the prohibition against eating leaven, which appears later: “Seven days you shall eat matzot, but on the first day you shall eliminate leavened products from your home, for whoever eats leaven – that soul shall be excised from Israel” (verse 15).  As mentioned earlier with regard to the obligation of eating matza, here, too, it seems unlikely that this prohibition results from that which the Torah tells later – “The nation carried its dough before it leavened” (verse 34), an event that transpired only later.  It is thus reasonable to assume that the prohibition against eating chametz also relates to the status of the home as an altar, regarding which the Torah instructs, “Any meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall not be prepared as leaven, for leavened products and honey – you shall not offer any of it as a fire offering to the Lord.  You shall offer them to the Lord only as an initial offering [referring to the korban shetei ha-lechem], but they shall not be placed upon the altar as a pleasing fragrance” (Vayikra 2:11-12).
  3. In this vein we might also explain the prohibition against boiling the meat of the pesach, and the obligation to roast it: “They shall eat the meat on this night; they shall eat it roasted on the fire, as well as matzot with bitter herbs.  You shall not eat it raw or boiled in water, but rather roasted over the fire…” (verses 8-9).  On the altar, too, of course, the meat is roasted over a fire and not boiled.


On this basis we can also explain why as a result of this extraordinary night the firstborn of Bnei Yisrael were consecrated for the ritual service, as God establishes in chapter 13.  The firstborn earned unique divine protection on this night, when the entire Nation of Israel served as “a kingdom of priests.”  Naturally, then, the firstborn were consecrated on this night for the service in the Mikdash, until they were replaced by the tribe of Levi.


B.        Which type of korban?


Now that we have determined the status of the pesach ritual as a sacrifice, let us address the question of to which specific korban it may be compared.  Our earlier discussion yields two possible approaches:


  1. One might argue that the pesach corresponds most closely with the ola offering.  Earlier we mentioned its resemblance to the ola with regard to the obligation to burn “its head with its legs and entrails,” as well as the type of animal required (an unblemished, male yearling, taken from the sheep or goats).  Furthermore, like the ola, which was burnt entirely on the altar, the pesach is eaten by those “sitting on the altar,” an expression of the same concept.  On this basis we might also explain the prohibition against breaking the bones of the pesach, just as the entirety of an ola offering must be burnt on the altar.
  2. On the other hand, we have also noted the similarity between the pesach and the korban toda as manifest in the accompanying obligation to eat matza and the prohibition against eating the leftover meat.  We might therefore conclude that in one aspect the pesach offering functions as a thanksgiving offering, and thus, like a toda, the meat is eaten by the ba’alim – the person who brings the offering.  Moreover, in the context of both rituals the Torah introduces – with similar terminology – a prohibition relating to forbidden food that is punishable with karet (eternal excision from the Jewish people): “for whoever eats leaven – that soul shall be excised from Israel” (Shemot 12:16); “for whoever eats the fat of an animal from which a fire offering may be brought to the Lord – that soul shall be excised from its nation” (Vayikra 7:25).  According to this approach, the korban pesach serves as a thanksgiving offering to God who took Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt.


These two possibilities need not contradict one another; the korban pesach may very well contain both aspects – that of a korban ola, which extends the notion of  the home as an altar, and that of a korban toda, which expresses Am Yisrael’s sense of gratitude to the Almighty.


In light of what we have seen thus far, we can explain the unique status of the korban pesach that sets it apart from other sacrifices.  Thus, for example, we can understand why specifically with regard to this offering the Torah affords a second opportunity to somebody who did not bring this sacrifice in its proper time, and we can understand the complaint of those who were tamei (ritually impure) in the wilderness and as a result could not offer the korban pesach: “Why shall we be deprived from offering the sacrifice of the Lord in its time among the Israelites?” (Bamidbar 9:7).  Furthermore, the Torah establishes as the punishment for neglecting this mitzva, “that soul shall be excised from its nation, because he did not offer the sacrifice of the Lord in its time” (Bamidbar 9:13).  Korban pesach and circumcision are the only two affirmative commands which carry the punishment of karet, for the obvious reason that they both share the element of berit, the covenant between the Jewish people and God.  Circumcision signifies the individual’s personal covenant with the Almighty, while korban pesach expresses the covenant between Am Yisrael collectively and God.  Indeed, throughout the Tanakh, we always find the korban pesach in the context of a renewal of Am Yisrael’s covenant with God:

1)    Yehoshua 5:10 – The korban pesach is offered upon Benei Yisrael’s entry into the Land of Israel.

2)    The pesach ritual is mentioned in the context of the religious revolution led by King Yoshiyahu – “The king commanded the entire nation, saying: Make a pesach to the Lord your God as written in this Book of the Covenant, for this pesach has not been conducted since the days of the Judges who judged Israel and throughout all the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Yehuda” (II Melakhim 23:21-22).

3)    II Divrei Ha-yamim tells that even earlier, during the time of King Chizkiyahu, the pesach was brought (30:1) in the framework of a religious revolution consisting of the purification of the Temple and a renewal of the nation’s covenant with God (see especially 29:10).

4)    The pesach ritual led by Yoshiyahu is described in great detail in II Divrei Ha-yamim, where we read, “A pesach like this had not been conducted in Israel since the days of the prophet Shmuel, and all the kings of Israel did not conduct a pesach similar to that which Yoshiyahu conducted” (35:18).  To what event during Shmuel’s time does this verse refer?  Presumably, as the Radak explains, this refers to the event described in Sefer I Shmuel (chapter 7) when Shmuel renewed the covenant between God and Am Yisrael.

5)    A command concerning the pesach ritual also appears towards the end of Sefer Yechezkel (45:21), in the chapters describing the Mikdash in the future.


C.        The pesach ritual and Bnei Yisrael’s hasty departure


What remains for us to clarify is the precise meaning of the term pesach.  At first glance, this word relates to the verb which appears several times in chapter 12: “I will see the blood and I will pass over [u-fasachti] you, and no plague will destroy you when I smite the land of Egypt” (verse 13); “He will see the blood on the lintel and upon the two doorposts, and the Lord shall pass over [u-fasach] the entrance and not allow the destroyer to enter and smite your homes” (verse 23); “You shall say: It is a paschal offering to the Lord who passed over [pasach] the homes of the Israelites in Egypt when He brought a plague upon Egypt, saving our homes” (verse 27).[9]

            Still, one might wonder whether this is indeed the only reason for the name pesach.  In the context of the korban pesach we encounter a problem similar to the problem mentioned earlier regarding the obligation of matza and the prohibition of chametz.  Namely, the term pesach first appears in a context that is entirely unrelated to the story of God’s “passing over”: “And this is how you shall eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes upon your feet, and your staff in hand; you shall eat it hastily – it is a pesach for the Lord” (verse 11).  The concept of “passing over” is introduced for the first time only two verses later (verse 13).  On this basis, Rav Mordechai Breuer explained that the Torah here employs a play on words (“va-akhaltem oto be-chipazon – pesach hu le-Hashem”), similar to the play on words that appears in the context of the asham offering (“Asham hu ashom asham le-Hashem” – Vayikra 5:19).  Accordingly, the word pesach is derived from the word chipazon, in which case it means “the sacrifice eaten in haste.”


            This issue would then relate to the broader question as to the significance of the chipazon that characterized the night of Pesach.  The Torah’s repeated emphasis on the haste of Bnei Yisrael’s departure is indeed among the more surprising features of the Exodus narrative.  As mentioned, even before they left Egypt Bnei Yisrael were instructed to partake of the korban pesach hastily (12:11), and later the Torah makes a point of describing their rushed departure from the country: “The Egyptians pressured the people, hurriedly sending them from the country, for they said, ‘We are all dying!’” (12:33). This hasty departure resulted in the fact that “the nation carried its dough before it leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped in their garments, upon their shoulders” (12:34).  A particularly striking emphasis on this element appears later: “They baked the dough that they had taken from Egypt as unleavened cakes, rather than leaven, because they were chased from Egypt and could not tarry; nor did they prepare food for the journey” (12:39).  This phenomenon is most surprising.  Seemingly, we would have expected Bnei Yisrael to leave Egypt with pride and a sense of triumph, precisely as the prophet Yeshayahu describes the future redemption: “For you will not depart in haste, nor will you leave in fright; for the Lord is marching before you, the God of Israel is your rear guard” (Yeshayahu 52:12).  Why does the element of haste emerge specifically at such an exalted moment of victory?


            This question becomes particularly troubling in light of the fact that in Tanakh the concept of chipazon always appears in the context of a frantic escape as part of a resounding defeat.  Thus, for example, we read of how the mother of Mefiboshet (the son of King Shaul’s son Yehonatan) fled during Bnei Yisrael’s defeat at the hands of the Pelishtim: “When the news of [the deaths of] Shaul and Yehonatan came from Jezreel, his [Mefiboshet’s] nurse carried him and fled, and as she hastily fled [be-chofzah lanus] he fell and became lame” (II Shmuel 4:4).  This term likewise appears in the description of the defeat suffered by the nation of Aram: “Behold, the entire road was filled with clothing and utensils that the Arameans cast in their haste [be-chofzam]” (II Melakhim 7:15).  (See also Tehillim 48:6 – “They saw and were indeed astonished; they were frightened and frantic [nechpazu]” – and Tehillim 104:7 – “They flee from Your wrath; they are frantic [yeichafeizun] because of the sound of Your thunder.”)  Is this the appropriate manner in which the Exodus should unfold?


            We may perhaps find the answer to this question in a verse in Sefer Devarim (16:3): “Do not eat leaven with it; for seven days you shall eat with it matzot, bread of poverty, for you left the land of Egypt in haste so that you remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life.”  The purpose of the chipazon was thus to ensure that Bnei Yisrael would vividly remember the day of the Exodus as a day of a reckless, frantic departure.  As we know from Bnei Yisrael’s experiences in the wilderness, they did not easily detach themselves emotionally from Egypt, and on several occasions they even expressed their desire to return.  Knowing that they were chased from Egypt would help deepen their sense of alienation from this country and its inhabitants, who forcefully drove them from the land.


            Moreover, the Exodus from Egypt was not a one-time event.  We find on several occasions strong emphasis on the importance of Bnei Yisrael’s detachment from Egyptian culture.  Moshe reminds them in Sefer Devarim (17:16), “And the Lord has told you not to ever again return along this route.”  Later, Yeshayahu admonishes the people, “Oh, wayward children…who proceed to go down to Egypt without consulting Me, to find strength in the fortress Pharaoh and find refuge in the shadow of Egypt!  The fortress of Pharaoh shall be for you a source of shame, and the refuge in the shadow of Egypt – a source of humiliation!” (Yeshayahu 30:1-3).  The frantic banishment from Egypt was thus intended to serve as an additional means of alienating the people from the negative influence of Egyptian culture.


            In light of this, we might suggest an additional meaning underlying the mitzva to eat matza on Pesach and the prohibition of chametz.  They perhaps relate not only to the concepts of the sacrifice and the altar as described above, but also to the haste with which the pesach was to be eaten, even before the hasty departure from Egypt.


D.        The conceptual significance of the pesach ritual


Conceptually, the notion discussed earlier of the house transforming into an altar bears great meaning and significance.  The night of the Exodus is one of the most pivotal events in the history of Am Yisrael, and we are thus naturally inclined to focus on its significance for the nation generally, rather than looking from the perspective of the individual.  Yet, specifically on this night, Am Yisrael did not assemble as a single entity, as they did at Ma’amad Har Sinai, for example, but rather remained in their homes, with each household standing alone and independent.


It would seem that the idea behind this phenomenon is the need to maintain proper balance between the individual family unit and the nation as a whole.  Excessive preoccupation with the national perspective could repress the fact that the nation consists of individuals, and that Am Yisrael is based upon, first and foremost, the family units that together comprise the nation.  On this historic night, a one-time phenomenon occurred in that each family transformed its house into an altar.  Conceptually, however, this event did not occur only once.  Am Yisrael’s existence has continued to be based upon the perspective of the house as a sacred site, which does not allow for the presence of “chametz.”  Preserving the sanctity of the home, even within the perspective of the nation as a whole, remains for all generations as a central theme of the festival of Pesach.



(Note: The first two parts of this shiur overlap with this shiur:, but the last two sections do not.)




[9] The commentaries disagree in interpreting this verb.  Rashi, in his second approach, explains that denotes “skipping” and “jumping over,” and these verses thus speak of God skipping over the homes of Bnei Yisrael.  R. Saadia Gaon, however, explained this verb to mean “protect” (and this definition also emerges from Rashi’s first approach), on the basis of a verse in Yeshayahu (31:5) – “As flying birds – so shall the Lord of Hosts shield Jerusalem - shielding, saving, protecting [paso’ach] and rescuing.”  It is possible that in fact both interpretations are correct, and the definition depends on another issue that arises when studying chapter 12.

A careful reading of the Exodus narrative reveals significant differences between God’s command to Moshe and Moshe’s instructions to Bnei Yisrael.  The Almighty commands Moshe, “They shall take some of the blood and place [it] upon the two doorposts and the lintel, on the homes in which they will partake of it” (12:7).  Moshe, however, instructs Bnei Yisrael, “You shall take a bundle of hyssop and dip it in the blood in the doorstep and apply some of the blood in the doorstep onto the lintel and both doorposts.  And each of you shall not leave the entrance to his home until morning” (12:22). 

Moshe adds two details that do not appear among the commands conveyed by God.

1) Twice Moshe emphasizes that the placement of blood on the lintel and doorposts should be performed with the blood “in the doorstep.”

2) Moshe introduces a prohibition that does not appear in God’s commands to him – leaving one’s home before morning. 

It stands to reason that these two details are integrally related to one another: placing the blood on the doorstep further underscores the warning not to leave the entrance to one’s home.  This issue likely relates to the two different perspectives on the actions taken by God in Egypt on the night of the Exodus.  The Almighty says to Moshe, “I shall pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I shall smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt… And the blood shall serve for you as a sign upon the houses where you will be, and I will see the blood and I will pass over you and no plague will destroy you when I smite the land of Egypt” (verses 12-13).  According to this description, the purpose of God’s “passing through” Egypt was to kill the firstborn, and the blood on the houses served as a sign indicating who has been excluded from the death sentence.  In Moshe’s prediction ahead of the plague, by contrast, he describes, “The Lord shall pass through to smite Egypt, and He will see the blood on the lintel and upon the two doorposts, and the Lord shall pass over the entrance and not allow the destroyer to enter and smite your homes” (verse 23).  According to this description, God intended to visit a plague upon all of Egypt, and the purpose of the blood was that the Almighty would protect, so-to-speak, the residents of the home from “the destroyer.”  Moshe describes the situation as though everybody was initially at risk, and the blood would help grant Bnei Yisrael protection from the plague.  Understandably, specifically in this description emphasis is placed on the danger involved in leaving one’s home – the area protected directly by the Almighty Himself.

It would appear that these two perspectives relate to the two interpretations given for the verb  Rashi’s understanding, that this verb denotes “skipping,” accommodates God’s description of the events, whereby the firstborn of Israel were never included in the decree.  R. Saadia Gaon’s view, by contrast, that this verb refers to protection, is more suitable for Moshe’s description – “the Lord shall protect the entrance and not allow the destroyer to enter and smite your homes.”