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.
- 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 – Sforno 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 "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 Mekhilta.
- 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 – Sforno 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.
- 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 Sforno13 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 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
- 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 – Sforno 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
Sacrifice to Hashem
The Pesach strengthened the bond between the Children of Israel and Hashem, in preparation for the Exodus.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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 doorframe – Zvi Karl 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
- 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.
The Pesach was a Korban Todah, a celebratory peace offering thanking Hashem for the nation's impending salvation.
- 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
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
Mocking the Egyptians
The public slaughter of the sheep and smearing of their blood proved to the Egyptians that their gods were powerless.
- 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.
It is possible to combine the above approaches and suggest that the various aspects of the Pesach ceremony each had different objectives.