Purpose of the Pesach

Introduction

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Pesach for Protection?

Chapter 12 of Sefer Shemot presents the first commandment observed by the nation of Israel, the taking, slaughtering, smearing of the blood, roasting, and eating of the Pesach. What was the purpose of this ceremony?

At first glance, the answer seems obvious: Hashem directed the Israelites to apply the blood of the Pesach to their doorposts so that they would be spared during the Plague of the Firstborn. This appears to be stated explicitly in Hashem's summation:

EN/HEע/E
(יב) וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים אֲנִי ה'. (יג) וְהָיָה הַדָּם לָכֶם לְאֹת עַל הַבָּתִּים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם שָׁם וְרָאִיתִי אֶת הַדָּם וּפָסַחְתִּי עֲלֵכֶם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָכֶם נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית בְּהַכֹּתִי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
(12) And I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and I will kill every firstborn in the land of Egypt from man to beast, and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments, I am Hashem. (13) And the blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will come upon you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.

Additionally, when the Torah describes how Moshe relayed to the nation Hashem's instructions regarding the Pesach, the only details it sees fit to mention are the guidelines relating to the application of the blood and its accompanying protection:1

EN/HEע/E
(כא) וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְכָל זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מִשְׁכוּ וּקְחוּ לָכֶם צֹאן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶם וְשַׁחֲטוּ הַפָּסַח. (כב) וּלְקַחְתֶּם אֲגֻדַּת אֵזוֹב וּטְבַלְתֶּם בַּדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסַּף וְהִגַּעְתֶּם אֶל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְאֶל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת מִן הַדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסָּף וְאַתֶּם לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ עַד בֹּקֶר. (כג) וְעָבַר ה' לִנְגֹּף אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת הַדָּם עַל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח ה' עַל הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף.
(21) And Moshe sent for the elders of Israel and said to them: "Draw out and take sheep according to your families, and slaughter the Passover. (22) And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and you shall smear the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood from the basin; and none of you shall go out the door of his house until the morning. (23) And Hashem will pass through to smite the Egyptians, and He will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, and Hashem will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite you.

Finally, the name Pesach itself seems to draw a direct connection between the sacrifice and God's protecting of the blood-marked homes.2 All of these factors seem to clearly indicate that the ceremony was apotropaic3 in nature.

Did Hashem Need a Sign?

The above approach, though, leads one to wonder: Why was such a sign necessary to save the nation? Could Hashem not have protected the Israelites even without this blood? R. Yishmael in the Mekhilta DeRabbi YishmaelBo Pischa 7Bo Pischa 11About the Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael poses this very problem:4

EN/HEע/E
והלא הכל גלוי וידוע לפניו, שנאמר: ידע מה בחשוכא ונהורא עמיה שרי (דניאל ב':כ"ב), ואומר גם חשך לא יחשיך ממך (תהלים קל"ט:י"ב), ומה ת"ל וראה את הדם?!
But is not everything revealed and known before Him, as it says: "He knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with Him" (Daniel 2:22), and it says: "Even darkness shall not be dark to You" (Tehillim 139:12), so what does it mean "and He saw the blood"!?

Moreover, as Hashem distinguished between Israelites and Egyptians in many of the prior plagues without any need for an identifying sign,5 why should the Plague of the Firstborn have been any different?6 Additionally, if the Pesach was meant merely to save the firstborn sons, why was every person commanded to partake and not just the firstborns (or perhaps also their families)?7 And, finally, who or what is "the destroyer" ("הַמַּשְׁחִית") that appears in verses 13 and 23, and what is its relationship to Hashem?

These puzzling theological issues constitute the primary factors which motivate many exegetes to reexamine the assumptions regarding the purpose and nature of the Pesach. However, the following additional considerations also play a role.

Accompanying Actions

The blood smearing, though highlighted, is but one of an entire series of actions which together constituted the Paschal ceremony. The Torah gives detailed directions for these other steps of the process – the taking, slaughtering, roasting, and eating of the Pesach lamb – leading to the inference that these stages also constituted a central part of the ritual. As such, it behooves us to consider the objectives of each of their features and how they illuminate the purpose of the process as a whole.

  • Why was the lamb taken four days before it was to be slaughtered?
  • Why did the Pesach have to be eaten roasted, whole, and accompanied by matzah and bitter herbs?
  • Why was a year old lamb (or kid) chosen as the animal to be slaughtered?
  • Was there any significance to eating the meat while belted, with shoes on and staff in hand, or was this simply meant to ensure that all would be ready to depart Egypt at first opportunity?

Pesach Mizrayim and Pesach Dorot

In attempting to understand the nature and purpose of the very first Pesach in Egypt ("פסח מצרים"), it is natural to look at "פסח דורות," the annual Pesach sacrifice of all generations. What is the relationship between the two? Do they shed light on each other?

  • The annual Pesach is clearly a sacrifice, but was this true also of the original Pesach (and, if so, what was the character of this sacrifice)? While the ceremony in Egypt contained the sacrificial features of unblemished animals, sprinkling of blood, and prohibitions of leavened bread and leftovers, the central elements of an altar and priest were conspicuously absent.
  • Other laws of the Pesach, most notably the blood-smearing, are not part of the annual rite. If this was the main focus of the original ceremony how can we explain its absence in the commemoration? Could this be a sign that, perhaps, the original Pesach itself also had some other purpose unrelated to the blood?
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