Purpose of the Pesach

Exegetical Approaches

Overview

Commentators disagree as to whether the Pesach was required for the physical salvation of the Israelites or was designed primarily to strengthen their spiritual relationship with Hashem. Jubilees and others adopt a literal reading of the verses and explain that the blood was aimed at the destroying angel who, if not for this sign, would not have been able to discern between Egyptians and Israelites.

Most Rabbinic sources, though, prefer to avoid attributing limitations to Hashem or His messengers, and thus view the Pesach as having inherent educational or religious value for either the Israelites or Egyptians. Thus, some Tannaim in the Mekhilta propose that the Pesach was commanded so that the Israelites could begin to perform Hashem's commandments and merit redemption. Others focus on the Pesach as a slaughtering of the Egyptians' gods, which was intended either to wean the Israelites away from idolatry, or to prove the impotence of their gods to the Egyptians themselves. These contrasting positions also have important ramifications for understanding whether the original Pesach was a full-fledged sacrifice, the nature of the "מַשְׁחִית", and the meaning of the name "פֶּסַח".

Apotropaic Blood Rite

The Pesach was commanded so that its blood would prevent the destroyer ("הַמַּשְׁחִית") from entering the Israelites' homes and harming them.

Focal point of the commandment – This position views the smearing of the blood and its concomitant protection as the raison d'être for the entire process of the Pesach.1
Nature of the "מַשְׁחִית" – All commentators who take this approach agree that the "destroyer" was a separate entity (distinct from Hashem)2 who, without the sign of the blood, would have been incapable of distinguishing between the Israelites and Egyptians. However, these exegetes disagree regarding the exact identity and nature of the "מַשְׁחִית":
  • Angel3 – According to Jubilees, Ibn Ezra, and R"Y Bekhor Shor, the "מַשְׁחִית" was a Divine messenger who received instructions from Hashem to destroy the Egyptians and spare the Israelites.4
  • Celestial force – Ibn Daud, in contrast, asserts that the phrase refers to the powers of a heavenly sphere5 which were unleashed against the Egyptians. According to him, this force functioned in accordance with fixed natural laws.
  • Plague – Seforno understands the "מַשְׁחִית" to be a general epidemic which wreaked havoc upon the general population of Egypt. This plague coincided with, but was distinct from, the Plague of the Firstborn.6
The roles of Hashem and the "מַשְׁחִית" during the Plague of the Firstborn
  • The "מַשְׁחִית", rather than Hashem, did both the killing ("נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית") and sparing ("וּפָסַח") – According to Jubilees,7 Hashem merely gave the original instructions but did not accompany the "מַשְׁחִית" for the implementation, and all of the verbs which speak of Hashem's actions ("וְעָבַרְתִּי"‎, "וְהִכֵּיתִי"‎, "וְרָאִיתִי"‎, "וּפָסַחְתִּי"‎, "בְּהַכֹּתִי"‎, "‏וְעָבַר ה'‏",‎ "וְרָאָה"‎, "וּפָסַח"‎, "וְלֹא יִתֵּן") really refer to the actions of the "מַשְׁחִית" (functioning as Hashem's agent)‎.8 Jubilees does not feel obligated by the later homily of "‏אני ולא מלאך...‏" found in the MekhiltaMekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael Bo Pischa 7 s.v. "וראיתי"About the Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael.
  • Hashem protected the Israelites while the "מַשְׁחִית" slew the Egyptians – Shemot Rabbah presents Hashem as physically preventing the destroying angel from entering the Israelite homes.9 This reading accounts for both "וְרָאִיתִי אֶת הַדָּם וּפָסַחְתִּי עֲלֵכֶם" and "וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָכֶם נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית", but it does not explain why Hashem did not simply order the angel not to enter the blood-marked houses.
  • Hashem performed both the saving and the killing, and the "מַשְׁחִית" merely accompanied Him10 – Seforno and the Ma'asei Hashem completely separate between the roles of Hashem and the "מַשְׁחִית", asserting that Hashem alone killed the firstborns ("וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל בְּכוֹר"), while a more general plague ("נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית") was simultaneously brought upon the rest of the Egyptian nation. This position is undoubtedly influenced by the Mekhilta's homily which attributes the final plague to Hashem alone, and it has the added advantage of explaining why every home, even ones in which there was no firstborn, required the smearing of blood.
Function of the blood and analogous cases
  • Identification sign – Perhaps the simplest understanding is that the "מַשְׁחִית" was simply incapable of distinguishing on its own between Egyptian and Israelite,11 and thus the blood was needed to serve this function. Ibn Ezra12 and Seforno13 note the parallel between our story and Yechezkel 9,14 where there is a similar marking of innocents in order to protect them from a "מַשְׁחִית".‎15
  • Repellent – Ibn Daud,16 in contrast, asserts that the blood (and slaughtered sheep) had some inherent powers to ward off the harm of the "מַשְׁחִית", deterring him from entering the Israelite homes.17 Both Ibn Ezra and Ibn Daud18 compare our episode to the story of Moshe in the lodging place in Shemot 4. There, too, a bloody rite (circumcision) was used to ward off evil and potential death.19
  • Calming effect – In contrast, R. Yosef ibn KaspiBereshit 9:15Shemot 4:25Shemot 12:13About R. Yosef ibn Kaspi contends that the blood had no effect whatsoever on Hashem or the "מַשְׁחִית"‎,20 but was intended merely to allay the fears of the Israelite masses.21 He explains that, in that era, people believed that blood was a panacea for fears and tension.22 Thus, Hashem commanded the Israelites to apply blood to their doors, so that they would not panic upon hearing the screams of the Egyptians over the deaths of their firstborns. Ibn Kaspi notes that, sometimes, Hashem will take into consideration the people's concerns even though they are unfounded.23
  • Demarcation of sanctified territory – The slaughtering of the Pesach and the smearing of its blood transformed the Israelite homes into quasi-altars.24 This holiness and the ensuing Divine presence caused the homes to have extra-territorial status and be off-limits to the "מַשְׁחִית".‎25
Meaning of the verb פסח
  • Have mercy / protect26 – Shemot Rabbah and one opinion in Ibn Ezra. According to them, Hashem is the subject of the verb.27
  • Pass over28 – Jubilees, Ibn Ezra in the name of R. Saadia, R"Y Bekhor Shor, and Seforno. They attribute the action to the "מַשְׁחִית".‎29
Inner or outer doorpost? R"Y Bekhor Shor states that the blood was smeared on the outside of the door so that the "מַשְׁחִית" would see it, and Ibn Daud writes that the blood was smeared on the gates. Ibn Ezra, however, stresses that it was not put on the gates of the courtyards,30 but rather on the openings of the home.
"לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ" – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, Ibn Daud, and Seforno, the command not to leave the house was essential for the people's survival; only those that were behind the protection of the blood smeared doorposts would be saved.
Details of the commandment – Some of these commands may also be related to the purpose of protection:
  • No broken bones – Jubilees suggests that the command to roast the Pesach whole and not to break any of its bones was symbolic of the nation emerging whole and unscathed from the Plague of the Firstborn.
  • Haste – Ibn Ezra understands the commands relating to haste, not as a way of insuring the nation would be ready to leave at a moment's notice, but as a directive to finish eating by the time the destroying angel arrived, lest they not be granted protection.
  • Timing – Seforno explains that, unlike all other sacrifices, the Pesach was offered close to sundown, so as to be in as close proximity as possible to when the "מַשְׁחִית" would be killing the Egyptian firstborn.31
"לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים" – Ibn Ezra explains that this refers to Hashem's protection of the Israelites from the "מַשְׁחִית".‎32
פסח דורות – Jubilees posits that the annual celebration of Pesach, like the original ceremony, was also instituted for the purpose of protection,33 so that no plague should visit the nation throughout the year.34 In contrast, R"Y Bekhor Shor states that while the original Pesach was needed for protection, the annual ritual was only for the purposes of commemoration "לְזִכָּרוֹן"‎.35
Israelites' religious identity – This approach does not take a particular position on the nation's religious observance or beliefs.
Purpose of sacrifices in general – Ibn Ezra maintains that sacrifices in general comes as a replacement for the person ("כופר נפש")‎.36

Sacrifice to Hashem

The Pesach strengthened the bond between the Children of Israel and Hashem, in preparation for the Exodus.

Meriting Redemption

The Israelites needed to accumulate mitzvot in order to atone and compensate for their sinful behavior in Egypt37 and be worthy of Hashem's deliverance.38

Focal point of the commandment – Following Hashem's instructions for the entire process, from the selection of the animal through the eating of the sacrifice, was critical for the nation's religious development.
Character of the sacrifice
  • Sin offering – The Tzeror HaMor suggests that the sacrifice came to atone.43 He then enumerates many of the elements common to the Pesach and general sacrifices, including the slaughtering of an unblemished animal, smearing/sprinkling of the blood, and the prohibition and burning of leftovers.44 He also explains that the absence of the altar was due to the impurity of the land of Egypt.45 While in a standard sin offering only the priest partakes from and not the sinner himself, it is possible that since the priests had not yet been chosen in Egypt, the entire nation functioned as priests,46 and were thus permitted to partake from their own sacrifices.47
  • Petitionary offering – R. D"Z Hoffmann posits that the Pesach was brought, in part, as a request for Hashem's protection from the Plague of the Firstborn,48 and the sheep represented the Israelites' dependence on Hashem to be their shepherd.49
  • Redemption of the firstborn (פדיון בכור) – Cassuto suggests that the Paschal lambs served as an exchange for the lives of the Israelite firstborns,50 and their blood symbolized the consecration of the Israelites to God's worship.51
Function of the blood and Biblical parallels – On its most basic level, the smearing of the blood was an outward display of the fulfillment of the Divine command and a replacement for the sprinkling of sacrificial blood on the altar.52 Thus, the blood was not needed so that Hashem (or the "מַשְׁחִית") could differentiate between Egyptian and Israelite,53 but rather functioned as evidence that the Israelites had indeed obeyed Hashem's command.54 Additionally, for some of these commentators, it had a symbolic meaning:55
  • Covenantal blood – R. Matya b. Charash in the Mekhilta (cited by Rashi) associates it with the blood of circumcision, and says that the phrase "בְּדַם בְּרִיתֵךְ" in Zekhariah 9:11 refers to them.56
  • Exchange of life – R. Hirsch, R. D"Z Hoffmann and Cassuto all see the blood as standing in for the lives of the nation, either by representing their willingness to dedicate their lives to Hashem,57 or in substituting for the firstborns otherwise destined to die in the Plague of the Firstborn.58
Nature of the "מַשְׁחִית" – According to this approach, the "מַשְׁחִית" refers either to Hashem Himself or His actions59 or to an angel acting under His direct instructions:60
  • Destruction – Avudraham maintains that the term "מַשְׁחִית" does not refer to a Divine being but rather to the destruction wrought by Hashem Himself.61
  • Hashem Himself – R. D"Z Hoffmann (in his first suggestion) proposes that the "מַשְׁחִית" is a personification of God's providence, while Tzeror HaMor asserts that it refers specifically to God's attribute of justice.
  • Angel – Rashi and R. D"Z Hoffmann raise the alternative possibility that it refers to an angel sent by Hashem to do his bidding.
Meaning of the verb פסח – The word can mean either "to have mercy"62 or to "pass over."63 Due to the nation's observance of the Pesach, Hashem was merciful and skipped over their homes.
Details of the commandment
  • Timing – R. D"Z Hoffmann explains that as the sacrifice was a request for salvation, it needed to be offered before the Plague came.
  • Doorposts and doorframeZvi KarlCommentary on Mishnayot Pesachim, pp.xii-xiv suggests that this reflected the common belief that the Divine presence was by the door.64
  • Haste – According to R. Hirsch, eating this way served to reflect the atmosphere of worry and imminent danger that the nation was only saved from due to their partaking of the Pesach.65
Inner or outer doorpost? R. Yishmael contends that it was the inner doorpost since the blood needed to be seen only by Hashem.66
"לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ" – According to most of these commentators, this has nothing to do with the dangers lurking outside due to the plague, as once the Israelites had become deserving of redemption, they should not have been harmed.67 Thus, they provide alternative reasons for this prohibition:
  • Tzeror HaMor and Cassuto relate the command to the nation's departure. Tzeror HaMor asserts that Hashem simply did not want the nation to leave in the middle of the night, as if they were running away, but rather to exit in full daylight. Cassuto suggests more simply that Hashem wanted to ensure that they would be available to go at a moment's notice.
  • R. D"Z Hoffmann68 proposes that Hashem warned the nation against leaving their home lest they see God's presence when He came to slay the Egyptian firstborn.
"לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים" – This opinion could explain that Hashem was watching and waiting for the Children of Israel to be worthy of redemption.69
פסח דורות – R. D"Z Hoffmann says that after the construction of the Mishkan, it was no longer permitted to offer sacrifices in private homes, and thus the character of the Pesach and some of its laws changed.
Israelites' religious identity – According to this approach, the nation was lacking in merits and did not deserve to be redeemed. These commentators do not fixate on the transgression of idolatry in particular, but rather point to a more general lack of good deeds. For elaboration, see Israelites' Religious Identity.
Purpose of sacrifices in general – This approach might understand that general sacrifices also come for the purpose of affording an opportunity for the nation to serve Hashem and become closer to him.70

Thanksgiving Offering

The Pesach was a Korban Todah, a celebratory peace offering thanking Hashem for the nation's impending salvation.

Focal point of the commandment – R"C Crescas asserts that in slaughtering a sheep, the Israelites displayed their gratitude to Hashem that they themselves were not slaughtered. R. D"Z Hoffmann adds that the festive sacrificial meal was also an important part of the thanksgiving celebration.
Character of the sacrifice – R. D"Z Hoffmann proves that the Pesach is a type of peace offering (שלמים) from the fact that they share the unique properties of being called a "זֶבַח" ‎(12:27) and being eaten by the person bringing the sacrifice.71 The missing sacrificial components of the altar and priest were replaced here by the house (with the blood being placed on its doorposts) and the Israelites themselves.72
Function of the blood – According to R. D"Z Hoffmann, the smearing of the blood is simply part of the sacrificial service, the equivalent of the sprinkling of blood that occurs during the bringing of other sacrifices.73 In the absence of an altar, the Israelite house took on that function and, thus, the blood was sprinkled on the doorposts.74
Meaning of the name "פֶּסַח" – According to this approach, the word can mean either pass over or have mercy. The sacrifice is called by this name because the people are offering thanksgiving for this action of Hashem.
Details of the commandment
  • Male – Philo proposes that a male was chosen for the show of gratitude since Paroh's decrees had been aimed against the male children.
  • Sheep – R"C Crescas suggests that it was fitting to sacrifice the god of the Egyptians to highlight their undoing.
  • Timing – R. D"Z Hoffmann suggests that since the offering was also a request (and not just a show of thanksgiving) for salvation from the Plague of the Firstborn, it needed to be offered before the Plague occurred.75
  • Consumed by morning – R. D"Z Hoffmann notes that this parallels the law regarding the korban todah.76
  • Ready to go – The commands to eat the Pesach roasted, with matzah and bitter herbs, and while dressed for the journey may be intended to insure the completion of the meal before the Plague and to connect the thanksgiving offering with the actual exodus.77
Nature of the "מַשְׁחִית" – R. D"Z Hoffmann suggests that this is either a personification of God's providence, or an angel sent to do His bidding.
Inner or outer doorpost? It is unclear, according to this position, where the blood was spread.
"לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ" – According to R. D"Z Hoffmann, this serves as a warning lest the people leave their homes and see God's presence as he kills the Egyptian firstborns.78
פסח דורות – Philo maintains that the annual Pesach sacrifice is an expression of the gratitude due for our redemption from Egypt.79

Demonstrative Act Against Idolatry

Sheep were part of the Egyptian pantheon,80 and the slaughtering of the Pesach proclaimed the sovereignty of Hashem and His supremacy over the Egyptian deities.81 This approach subdivides regarding the intended audience:

Cleansing the Israelites

The Paschal rite facilitated and symbolized the Israelites' rejection of Egyptian idolatry.

Focal point of the commandment – This approach views the slaughtering of the sheep, the ultimate act of defiance against an Egyptian god, as the focus of the Pesach.83
Attaining atonement – Although all these sources view the Pesach as a necessary part of the nation's purification process, they highlight different aspects:
  • Active demonstration – Most of the commentators focus on the nation's need to actively demonstrate their rejection of idolatry in order to merit redemption. By slaughtering the Egyptian deity, the Israelites made plain their denunciation of Egyptian beliefs.84
  • Educational tool – Rambam and Ralbag focus less on the demonstrative aspect of the ritual, and view it instead as an educative process. In observing the Egyptian god killed and unable either to defend itself or wreak punishment, the Israelites learned its worthlessness.
  • Sin offering – Bemidbar Rabbah compares the Pesach to a sin offering brought for idolatry, suggesting that the Pesach might have served a similar expiatory function.85
Target audience of the blood
  • The Israelites – According to Ralbag, Akeidat Yitzchak, and Abarbanel, the blood was meant not for Hashem or the destroyer but for the Israelites themselves. It served as a sign and proof for them ("וְהָיָה הַדָּם לָכֶם לְאֹת") that they had abandoned their beliefs in the Egyptian gods and it was this rejection that led Hashem to have mercy on them and not kill them during the plague.86
  • The Egyptians – In contrast, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah87 asserts that the Egyptians were the intended audience of the blood. As part of the nation's process of repentance they needed to be willing to risk their lives for Hashem by slaughtering the sheep and putting its blood in full view of their Egyptian neighbors.88
  • Hashem – Bemidbar Rabbah does not say explicitly for whom the blood was intended, but its comparison of the Pesach to a sin offering would suggest that the blood was meant for Hashem to see the religious devotion of the nation.89
Inner or outer doorpost? Ralbag, Abarbanel and Akeidat Yitzchak assert that it was placed on the inner doorframe, while HaKatav VaHaKabbalah maintains that it was on the outer doorpost.90
Meaning of the name "פֶּסַח" – Ralbag and HaKetav VeHaKabbalah assert that the word means to have mercy or protect. After seeing the nation's demonstration of belief, Hashem decided to protect them during the plague.91 Abarbanel adds that it can also mean to pass over,92 and he proposes that Hashem skipped over the homes which displayed a sign of dedication to Him.
Nature of the "מַשְׁחִית" – Abarbanel raises two possibilities. It either refers to some foul and fatal air that killed the Egyptians or to the Egyptians themselves who might have tried to enter the Israelite homes and punish them.93
Details of the commandment – Many of the details of the Pesach are understood as ways of teaching the Israelites to reject the Egyptian gods, or, alternatively, as displays of their dedication to Hashem, despite the inherent dangers:
  • Choice of sheep – As the sheep was worshiped by the Egyptians, its slaughter was necessary to eradicate similar beliefs held by the Children of Israel.94
  • Four days – This gave the nation ample time both to display their intended slaughtering and to reflect on their new beliefs.
  • Unblemished male – Ralbag points out that in killing an unblemished male, viewed by the Egyptians as the most respected member of the species, and nonetheless, emerging unscathed, the nation would learn the worthlessness of the Egyptian god.
  • Hyssop branch – Ralbag suggests that the choice of a lowly plant to do the smearing of blood served to degrade the sheep in the eyes of Israel.
  • Doorposts and doorframe – Abarbanel notes (based on the verse in Yeshayahu 57:8) that the idolaters would place their idols behind the door ("אַחַר הַדֶּלֶת וְהַמְּזוּזָה"), and thus it was in this location that the blood of the Egyptian god was smeared.
  • Roasted – Ralbag proposes that since the Egyptians would normally punish by fire anyone who defied their gods, roasting the sheep whole was a further sign of disrespect and proof of the inability of the god to punish.
  • Matzah and maror – Rambam notes that idolaters would normally accompany their sacrifices with leavened bread and something sweet. As a reaction, Hashem commanded that the nation's sacrifices be accompanied by unleavened bread and salt, and prohibited leaven and honey. This could similarly explain the choice of matzah and bitter herbs.95
"לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ" – According to Abarbanel, this was a safety measure, so that the Israelites not come in contact with the distressed Egyptians who might take revenge on them.96
General purpose of sacrifices – According to the Rambam, sacrifices as a whole and many of the details of their commandments are a concession to the nation's foibles and a means to gradually pull them away from idolatrous leanings.97
פסח דורות – According to this approach, future Pesach sacrifices simply commemorate this first one, but do not serve the same demonstrative purpose.
Israelites' religious identity – This approach assumes that the Children of Israel had assimilated in Egypt and embraced idolatry. See Israelites' Religious Identity.

Mocking the Egyptians

The public slaughter of the sheep and smearing of their blood proved to the Egyptians that their gods were powerless.

Focal point of the commandment – This approach would view both the slaughtering and smearing of the blood as central to the ceremony.
Target audience of the blood – This approach removes the theological difficulty of God needing a sign by suggesting that the blood was aimed not at Hashem but at the Egyptian passersby.100
Details of the commandment – Chizkuni explains that nearly all the actions relating to the sacrifice were intended to both degrade the Egyptian idols and publicize their degradation:
  • Four days – This provided time for the Egyptians to see their gods tied up and bleating, without the ability to save themselves from the coming slaughter.
  • Unblemished young male sheep – This would not allow any excuse that could justify the sheep-killing; no one could say that a particular sheep was unworthy due to its being blemished and that was the only reason it was being killed.101
  • Twilight – This time was chosen to maximize exposure of the slaughtering to all those who were returning home.
  • Roasted – The cooking of the sheep on a open fire ensured that the sheep was both seen and smelled by all.102
  • Roasted whole – This insured that no one could mistake that what was killed was, in fact, the Egyptian god.
  • Dressed to go, bitter herbs – Choosing a condiment that was bitter rather than sweet and eating in a hurry were both signs of disrespect.
Inner or outer doorpost? R. Yitzchak asserts that the blood was smeared on the outside, where the Egyptians could see that their gods were powerless.103
Nature of the "מַשְׁחִית" – Chizkuni views the "מַשְׁחִית" as Hashem's messenger, acting on His orders. The verses which speak of Hashem seeing the blood or doing the killing actually refer to the "מַשְׁחִית" himself, who is referred to by the name of the one who sent him "שהרי שלוחו של השולח כשולח". Ramban, in contrast, emphasizes that it was Hashem Himself who did the killing of the Egyptians and that the "מַשְׁחִית" refers to a different angel who attacks in times of plague.
Meaning of the name "פֶּסַח" – Chizkuni and R. Bachya suggest that the word relates to skipping over. However, it is unclear why the sacrifice should be so named if its main purpose was to mock the Egyptians rather than save the Israelites.
"לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ" – According to Ramban, the nation was prohibited from leaving their homes lest they see God's providence as He attacked the Egyptians.
פסח דורות – Future sacrifices commemorate the original Pesach and Hashem's skipping over the homes of the Israelites, but they have no demonstrative purpose. This works well with the Rabbinic position that many of the commands that were instituted to mock the Egyptians applied only for the Pesach in Egypt.

Combination

It is possible to combine the above approaches and suggest that the various aspects of the Pesach ceremony each had different objectives.

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