Parashat Bo: Passover

  • Harav Yaakov Medan


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who creatively fulfilled the mitzva of "והגדת לבנך".
Shanen Bloom Werber, Dov Bloom, Elana Bloom, Michael Bloom


I. "Who Passed Over the Houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt"

And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, What mean you by this service? that you shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote Egypt, and delivered our houses. And the people bowed the head and worshipped. (Shemot 12:26-27)

The Torah explains the term "Passover" as referring to the fact that God passed over the houses of the children of Israel and delivered them. The conventional understanding of this verse is that God Himself came down to smite the firstborns of Egypt, as expounded by Chazal in the Passover Haggada:

"I will pass through the land of Egypt," I and not an angel; "And I will smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt," I and not a seraph; "And I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt," I and not a messenger; "I the Lord," it is I, and none other.

It was God Himself who saw the Paschal blood on the doorposts of the houses of the people of Israel, passed over them and did not smite them. According to this understanding, this "passing over" means refraining from action. When God smote the firstborns of Egypt, he refrained from striking out at the firstborns of Israel. This explanation also led to the creation of the popular expression, "pose'ach al shetei ha-se'ipim," "halting between two opinions" – a person who refrains from deciding which path to choose.

We have three reservations about the conventional understanding:

1. How did the blood on the doorposts cause God to refrain from smiting the firstborns of Israel – unless we are dealing with a "royal decree" lacking any rationale that houses with blood on their doorposts would suffer no harm?

2. The plain sense of Scripture indicates just the opposite, that God Himself did not smite the firstborns of Egypt, but rather it was His agent – "the destroyer" - who did this:

And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where you are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you. (12:13)

For the Lord will pass through to smite Egypt; and when He sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to smite you. (12:23)

3. The expression "halting between two opinions" stems from the words of the prophet Eliyahu on Mount Carmel: "How long will you go halting between two opinions; if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Ba'al, then follow him" (I Melakhim 18:21). The meaning of the expression in its original context is not refraining from walking in two paths, but rather walking in both of them. In the days of Ach'av, the people of Israel worshipped both the God of Israel and also the Ba'al, like a bird that builds its nest on two branches, and jumps back and forth between them.

II. "And He said to the Angel That Destroyed, It is Enough, Now Hold Your Hhand."

It seems that the teaching found in the Passover Haggada is rooted in an exposition cited in two places in the Talmud Yerushalmi:

When God came to redeem Israel, He sent neither a messenger nor an angel, but rather He Himself, as it is written: "I will pass through the land of Egypt" – He and His entire staff. (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 2:1, and see also Horayot 3,1)

In this exposition, it is the redemption of Israel, and not the smiting of the firstborns, that is attributed to God Himself.

It seems, therefore, that God did not skip over the houses of Israel and refrain from smiting them. On the contrary, He hovered above them, in the sense that His Shekhina covered them. God entrusted the mission of destruction to an agent – the destroyer, and it is that agent that smote the firstborns of Egypt. But He was not prepared to hand over to an agent the task of protecting His firstborn son, Israel. In order to prevent the destroyer from entering the houses of Israel, He Himself, as it were, skipped over from one house to the other, stood above them, and barred the destroying angel from entering and causing harm. Thus it is stated explicitly in the Mekhilta:

Regarding Avraham it is written: "And he stood over them," and the Holy One, blessed is He, protected the houses of his children in Egypt so that they not suffer harm, as it is stated: "And the Lord will pass over the door." (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, petichta to Parashat Beshalach)

The Paschal blood that was placed on the doorposts of the houses is like the blood of the sacrifices that in future generations would be placed on the horns of the altar. Every house in Israel was treated like an altar, and the Shekhina rested upon it, as in the prophecy of Amos: "I saw the Lord standing over the altar" (9:1). In Amos, however, the prophecy reflects the attribute of justice, and God's standing over the altar heralds calamity. But God's standing over the altar can also herald the attribute of mercy, as was the case in Egypt, when God stood over the houses of Israel to protect them from the destroyer:

An altar of earth you shall make to Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt-offerings, and your peace-offerings, your sheep, and your oxen; in all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you, and I will bless you. (20:20)

The name of God is pronounced over the altar, and from there issue forth His blessing and protection.

The children of Israel tucked away in their homes which had turned into altars, are likened to one who runs away from the king who wishes to kill him, and the altar grants him asylum and saves him from death:

If, however, a person feared that a king will have him executed as is the king's authority, or that the court will execute him as an immediate directive, and fled to the altar and held on to it, he should be saved. This applies even if he is a commoner. He should not be taken from the altar to die unless he was sentenced to death because of the testimony of witnesses who delivered a warning, as is always required with regard to those executed by the court. (Rambam, Hilkhot Rotze'ach u-Shemirat Ha-nefesh 5:14)

This is the uniqueness of the Paschal offering in Egypt, that it is considered a sacrifice even though there is no altar and its blood is not sprinkled on the altar; the doorposts of the house are treated as if they are the corners of the altar.

We find in another place a similar relationship between God and His angel. Thus it is stated on Mount Moriya, when God reveals Himself to David, His anointed one:

And God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it: and as he was about to destroy, the Lord beheld, and He relented of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed, It is enough, now hold your hand. And the angel of the Lord stood by the threshing floor of Ornan the Yevusite. And David lifted up his eyes, and saw the angel of the Lord standing between the earth and the heaven, with a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, who were clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces. And David said to God, Is it not I who commanded the people to be numbered? so that it is I who have sinned and done very wickedly; but as for these sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand, I pray You, O Lord my God, be on me, and on my father's house; but not on Your people, so that they should be plagued. Then the angel of the Lord commanded Gad to say to David that David should go up, and set up an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Yevusite. (I Divrei Ha-yamim 21:15-18)

The angel was the destroyer, and God protected His people and did not allow the destroyer to harm them. The protection that He offered His people came together with the setting up of an altar on Mount Moriya and the designation of a place for the Shekhina to reveal itself there.

III. "He Will Defend it and Deliver it; He Will Pass Over it and Spare it"

God acted in similar fashion with regard to a later Passover, when the armies of Sancheriv, king of Ashur, laid siege around Jerusalem in the days of Chizkiyahu. At that time, the king of Ashur boasted of his power and mocked:

And my hand has found as a nest the riches of the people: and as one gathers eggs that are left, have I gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved the wing, or opened the mouth, or chirped. (Yeshayahu 10:14)

Sancheriv likens the gods of the nations to birds who fly away from their nests instead of protecting their eggs, and this was also his attitude to the God of Israel. To this the prophet Yeshayahu responds as follows:

As birds hovering, so will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem; He will defend it and deliver it; He will pass over it and spare it. (Yeshayahu 31:5)

For our Rock is not like their rocks, and God – likened here to a bird – will protect His nest, Jerusalem and its inhabitants. He will pass over and hover over Jerusalem, and from the heights of heaven He will protect it.

And this, indeed, is what happened on that night of Passover at midnight:

Then the angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of Ashur a hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses. (Yeshayahu 37:36)

The destroying angel smote the armies of Ashur that were surrounding Jerusalem. And the Shekhina hovered, passing over Jerusalem and protecting it so that the destroyer should not enter. We learn a great lesson from this: We are God's children, and He Himself protects us. He who dares to send out his unclean hand towards us will not be cleared.

IV. The Firstborns in Israel

We will deal now with another question: Was the plague against the firstborns intended only for the firstborns of Egypt as a punishment for Israel's enslavement, or was it intended for all the firstborns due to the great and terrible day of God in Egypt, when God left His place of habitation and came down to earth?

The second understanding accords with our position that protection was needed for the firstborns of Israel. Moreover it explains why even the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon and the firstborn of the maidservant that was behind the mill died, even though they were not Egyptians. According to this, the firstborns of Israel did not die, because they offered the Paschal offering, and through the blood of that offering they merited that it be a night of protection, God protecting them that night in their homes. And it is because they were saved that the firstborns of Israel are obligated to fast on that day:

We learned in tractate Soferim: The firstborns fast on the eve of Passover, in order to commemorate the miracle that they were saved from the plague brought down on the firstborns. (Tur, Orach Chayyim 470)

According to this, the festival of Passover was not the festival of redemption. The redemption was left for the festival of Matzot, which began on the fifteenth of Nisan. The day of Passover, from noon of the fourteenth of Nisan to midnight of the night that followed,[1] is the festival commemorating the rescue from the calamity of the plague brought down against the firstborns.

Therefore, and because of the plague brought down against the firstborns, the firstborns of Israel were sanctified to God at that very time:

Because all the firstborn are mine; for on the day that I smote all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed to Me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast: Mine they shall be: I am the Lord. (Bemidbar 3:13)

If we assume that even the firstborn of Israel were marked for the calamity of the plague brought down against the firstborns, and it was only the Paschal offering that saved them from it, we can explain a puzzling passage – the count of the firstborns of Israel in the first year in the wilderness:

And the Lord said to Moshe, Number all the firstborn of the males of the children of Israel from a month old and upward, and take the number of their names. And you shall take the Levites for Me (I am the Lord) instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel; and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstlings among the cattle of the children of Israel. And Moshe numbered, as the Lord commanded him, all the firstborn among the children of Israel. And all the firstborn males by the number of names, from a month old and upward, of those that were numbered of them were twenty two thousand, two hundred and seventy three. (Bemidbar 3:40-43)

In light of the age of marriage in Egypt, it may be assumed with a high degree of certainty that a very large majority of those who left Egypt, twenty years and older (six hundred thousand men) had been married for more than a year or two. Accordingly, we can assume that at least three-quarters of them had a first child, half of which were male. These assumptions lead to the conclusion that there were about two hundred and twenty thousand male firstborns, a month and older. This takes into account only the younger generation. Together with the older firstborns, among the fathers, the number of firstborns should have been much higher. Even if we are slightly off in our calculations, it is impossible to explain how there were only twenty-three thousand firstborns, less than a tenth of the number expected.

According to what we have said in this section, it may be assumed that only part of the people of Israel believed Moshe, and brought the Paschal offering. Those who did not bring it were indeed smitten in the plague brought down against the firstborns, them and their children. Only in the wake of the plague, when the power of God in the hands of His servant Moshe was absolutely proven, did they join the journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai.

One might have expected that they would have remained in Egypt and not follow after Moshe. But here it says:

And Egypt was urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We are all dead men… And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were driven out of Egypt, and could not delay, neither had they prepared for themselves any provision. (12:33, 39)

Many of the people of Israel were forcibly driven out by the Egyptians, and therefore they did not have time to prepare food for themselves. They probably also did not keep the commandment: "But every woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of her that sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments" (3:23), and they left without any property. Perhaps those who believed in Moshe stocked themselves with leavened bread that they baked in advance, as they were not forbidden to do so, and it was only the Paschal offering that they were commanded to eat with matzot. But for future generations, the Torah perpetuated those who did not manage to eat bread, because they were forcibly expelled from Egypt by the Egyptians.

Yechezkel might have been alluding to these people in his prophecy about the future redemption:

As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with anger poured out, will I be king over you: and I will bring you out from the peoples and will gather you out of the countries in which you are scattered, with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with anger poured out. And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there will remonstrate with you face to face. As I remonstrated with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I remonstrate with you, says the Lord God. (Yechezkel 20:33-36)

Nevertheless, for future generations the Torah mentions the children of Israel who left Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with no anger poured out. These are the ones who believed in God and in Moshe, His servant, and who left with their firstborn sons to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai.

V. The Holiday of Passover and the Holiday of Matzot[2]

In Rabbinic Hebrew, the festival of Matzot is also called the festival of Passover, but in the Torah they are two separate festivals:

On the fourteenth day of the first month towards evening is the Lord's Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread to the Lord: seven days you must eat unleavened bread. (Vayikra 23:5-6)

The festival of Passover is on the fourteenth of the month, a one-day holiday. The festival of Matzot lasts for seven days, from the fifteenth of the month to the twenty-first.

But the festival of Passover does not begin at the beginning of the night of the fourteenth in the manner of all the other holidays, but rather at noon of the fourteenth of Nisan, when the time for bringing the Paschal offering according to Torah law begins:

And you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it towards evening (bein ha-arbayim). (12:6)

There you shall sacrifice the Passover at evening, at the going down of the sun, at the time when you came out of Egypt. (Devarim 16:6)

Chazal taught by tradition that the words "at the going down of the sun" refer to the beginning of the going down of the sun, that is, noon (or half an hour after that), and this is also bein ha-arbayim, between the beginning of the going down of the sun and the end of the going down of the sun.

The festival of Passover ends, according to the plain meaning of the text, in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, after half a day, at midnight. At midnight, the time of the Paschal offering and of the matza that is eaten with it comes to an end:

The Paschal offering defiles one's hands after midnight. This proves that from midnight it is notar. Which Tanna [holds thus]? Rav Yosef said: It is Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya. For it was taught: "And they shall eat the flesh in that night." Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said: "In that night" is stated here, while elsewhere it is stated: "For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night." Just as there it means midnight, so here too [they may eat the Paschal offering] until midnight. (Pesachim 120b)

The festival of Passover has unusual features the likes of which we find nowhere else: It extends for half a day – from noon to the following midnight. Beyond the length of the festival, even the time at which it begins is exceptional, as it does not start at the beginning of the day, i.e., at sunset or at the time when the stars appear, but at the middle of the day.

So too we don't find anywhere else that a quarter of a day, about six hours, from the time the stars appear on the night of the fifteenth and until midnight, belongs to two different days. This quarter of a day is part of the festival of Passover, as a continuation of the fourteenth of Nisan, and it is also the beginning of the festival of Matzot – which begins on the fifteenth at night and continues until the end of the twenty-first of Nisan, seven days. Perhaps this is the tension between the reclining – the manner in which we sit on the night of the fifteenth, the night of our freedom, the day of the exodus from Egypt, and the manner in which we eat the Paschal offering which belongs to the continuation of the day of the fourteenth after noon, the day of Passover, regarding which our forefathers were commanded: "And thus you shall eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in our hand" (12:11)[3] – a manner which is the total opposite of eating in a reclining position on mats and pillows. The continuation of the day of Passover (the fourteenth after noon) rubs against the day of the exodus from Egypt (the fifteenth) for six hours.

It is possible that this exceptional "day," the day of Passover, stems from an unexpected and unnatural change in the times of the day due to a cosmic occurrence: the sun set suddenly at noon and rose at midnight, immediately after the plague striking the firstborns and after Pharaoh called upon the people of Israel to leave Egypt. We will never know what happened there and how it happened. This alone we know, that the exodus from Egypt involved the direct intervention of God and a clearly unnatural occurrence. There are allusions in the words of the prophets to an event similar to the one we are proposing in their descriptions of "the day of the Lord." All the prophets who related to this describe the day of the Lord like the day of the exodus from Egypt. We will bring examples from the prophet Yoel:

Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation. That which the cutting locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; and that which the swarming locust has left, the hopping locust has eaten; and that which the hopping locust has left, the destroying locust has eaten. (1:3-4)

A day of darkness and of gloom, a day of clouds and of thick darkness. Like twilight spread over the mountains… (2:2)

The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. (2:10)

And I will exhibit wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and the terrible day of the Lord. (3:3-4)

Egypt shall be a desolation… for the violence done to the children of Yehuda, because they have shed innocent blood in their land. (4:19)

For our purposes let us consider the description of the day of the Lord in the book of Amos:

For, lo, He that forms the mountains, and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, that makes the morning darkness, and treads upon the high places of the earth. (4:13)

He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deepest darkness into morning, and makes the day darken into night: that calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out upon the face of the earth. (5:8)

Woe to you that desire the day of the Lord! why would you have this day of the Lord; it is darkness, and not light… Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and not light? Even very dark, and no brightness in it? (5:18-20)

Shall not the land tremble for this, and everyone mourn that dwells in it? And it shall all rise up like the River; and it shall overflow and sink down like the river of Egypt. And it shall come to pass on that day, says the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day. (8:8-9)

It is possible that the prophets were familiar with sudden darkness, when the sun disappears in the middle of the day, from the day of the Lord as it occurred in Egypt, the day of Passover.

The aforementioned tension caused by the day of Passover's rubbing against the day of the exodus from Egypt is also the tension between the cosmic and supernatural miracle of the day of Passover – the plague brought down upon the firstborns and the saving of the firstborns of Israel, and the "natural" and political miracle – Pharaoh's agreement to release the people of Israel. This tension causes us a disruption in the sequence of the days with regard to the question what is "the morrow after the Passover."

And they departed from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month; on the morrow after the Passover the children of Israel went out with a high hand in the sight of all Egypt. (Bemidbar 33:3)

And they did eat of the corn of the land on the morrow after the Passover, unleavened cakes, and parched corn, that very day. (Yehoshua 5:11)

In the verse in the book of Bemidbar "the morrow after the Passover" is the fifteenth of Nisan, the day of the exodus, whereas in the verse in the book of Yehoshua, "the morrow after the Passover" is the sixteenth of Nisan, the day when one may eat of the new grain in the land of Israel. This difficulty was already pointed out by Ibn Ezra and the Tosafot:

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra raised a difficulty: Why do we say that "the morrow after the Passover" here is the sixteenth of Nisan, when the omer offering is brought? Perhaps "the morrow after the Passover" means the morrow after the slaughtering of the Paschal offering, i.e., the fifteenth of Nisan, when the omer offering was not yet brought. For so too we find in Parashat Mas'ei it is written: "On the morrow after the Passover, the children of Israel left," and they left on the fifteenth. (Tosafot, s.v. mi-macharat, Kiddushin 37b)

In my humble opinion, it is possible that the Torah relates to "the day of the Passover," as the day on which the Paschal offering is brought, and that is primarily on the fourteenth. But the context of the verse in the book of Yehoshua is the eating of the Paschal offering, and thus it stands to reason that we are dealing with the day of the eating of the Paschal offering, which is eaten after sunset and after the stars have appeared, on the fifteenth of Nisan.[4]

The disruption of the calendar, that is, the intermingling of the fourteenth and the fifteenth of Nisan and of the concepts connected to them (e.g., "the morrow after the Passover"), is the small price that we pay for the intermingling of the world of miracle and the world of nature on the day of Passover, the day of the exodus from Egypt.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] In accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya in Pesachim (120b). In our opinion, even Rabbi Akiva agrees with this on the fundamental level, but we will not expand upon this point here.

[2] The gist of this section I heard in my youth from my revered teacher, Rav Yoel Bin-Nun.

[3] In great measure this is the way that the Paschal offering was eaten in later generations in the streets of Jerusalem. The eaters presumably ate of it in their traveling clothes, as they arrived in Jerusalem from afar and would leave for the return journey at the end of the fifteenth of Nisan, so that even while they were in Jerusalem, they were there as travelers.

[4] Tosafot cites the resolution suggested by Rabbeinu Tam, who resolves the difficulty in a different manner.