Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why not eat lamb on Passover?

Passover is coming, the time for the eating of unleavened bread with bitter herbs and recounting the story of God's miraculous deliverance of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

But what about that other command?  You know the one:
They shall eat the flesh [of the Passover lamb] that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. (Ex. 12:8-9)
So how about it--why don't [some] Jews today eat lamb on Passover?  [See the note below!]  Well, these verses only tell part of the story.  If you continue reading on, you'll discover that the Torah has more to say on the matter.

First, keep in mind that what makes the pesach a pesach (and not just a lamb) is that it is a korban (Num 9:7), a word which is strongly connected to offerings made on the altar in the mishkan (Tabernacle/Tent) in the wilderness.   (A good Biblical lexicon should confirm that the word pesach refers not just to the lamb, but to the sacrificed lamb.  In other words, pesach is an abbreviation for korban pesach.)

Thus, when the children of Israel celebrated the first Passover in the desert (see Numbers 9), they would have offered the korban pesach on the altar in the mishkan.  (In fact, Rashi inferred that the korban pesach was only offered the first year and wasn't offered again until the Israelites had entered the land of Israel.)

In the concluding book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, we find Moses instructing the children of Israel:
Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, but at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you. (Deut. 12:13-14)
Moses even specifically addresses the korban pesach in chapter 16:
You may not offer the Passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, but at the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell in it, there you shall offer the Passover sacrifice, in the evening at sunset, at the time you came out of Egypt. (Deut. 16:5-6)
This is confirmed in 2 Chronicles 30, which describes how the korban pesach was offered in the Temple.

It seems that Yeshua and his followers also participated in this commandment:
And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, "Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?" And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us." And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover. (Mark 14:12-16)
I'm specifically noting (a) that they were in the city to make their preparations and (b) that Mark specifically mentions the sacrifice of the Pesach lamb (although of course he's mentioning it for symbolic reasons as well).  (However, if their meal was not an official Passover seder (as John 18:28 seems to suggest), then of course they would not yet have eaten the korban pesach.)

Generally the offering of sacrifices in places other than the Temple is presented negatively in Tanakh--probably because of the connection to idolatry.  Examples include the "unauthorized" sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12), as well as the "high places" mentioned throughout the Deuteronomistic history.  You also get echoes of this in the prophets--mentioning Gilgal, Bethel, Dan, Beersheva--in Amos 4:4, 5:5, 8:14, Is. 4:15, Ezekiel 7:24--who refer negatively to "high places" and "sanctuaries."

The mandate to sacrifice the korban pesach in the Temple was retained by the rabbis of the Talmud, whose general reaction to the destruction of the Temple was to accept it as a (painful) judgment from God their father, who had thus made it impossible to offer korbanot.  They believed that the proper response to this judgment was to make teshuvah and pray for the Temple's restoration, rather than attempting to sidestep God's discipline by ignoring the clear requirement of a Temple (Deut 12:13-14, 16:5-6) for offering korbanot.

According to Wikipedia, "the ritual is no longer performed today [in Judaism] except by certain minority groups generally regarded as heretical."  The Ashkenazic tradition is to place a shank bone, known as a zeroa--on the seder plate--as a reminder of the korban pesach which we are unable to bring.

"Our Seder Plate" by Sam Felder, on Flickr
[Correction: The traditional elements of the "seder plate" are typically drawn from Ashkenazic practice and culture.  However, there is a diversity of Passover traditions--Sephardic, Moroccan, Yemenite--some of which may include the eating of lamb!]


Anonymous said...

Is the logical conclusion, then, that messianic Jews should eat lamb at Pesach?


Anonymous said...

*That's would I would do, eat lamb, I should say.


Yahnatan said...

Thanks for the clarifying question, Joseph.

No, I don't see eating lamb at Pesach as a logical conclusion. Since Biblically the Temple was required as the place in which the korban pesach was to be offered, I think it's impossible nowadays to fulfill the Torah's command to eat lamb on Passover (since the command isn't actually to eat lamb per se, but to eat the korban pesach, which was a sacrifice).

It's possible, of course, to argue that eating lamb is merely a REMINDER of the command to eat korban pesach (instead of an attempt to fulfill the command itself). However, I think the inclusion of a shank bone is just as effective a reminder--perhaps a better one in that it avoids any confusion.

Yahnatan said...

I forgot to note that, in addition to the symbolism of the roasted shankbone, many commentators understand the afikoman itself to be symbolic and/or a replacement for the korban pesach.

Gabi said...

Hi Yahnatan! So, contrary to the opinion of this post, I actually made roasted lamb for Pesach this year.

You said in one of your comments:

"It's possible, of course, to argue that eating lamb is merely a REMINDER of the command to eat korban pesach (instead of an attempt to fulfill the command itself). However, I think the inclusion of a shank bone is just as effective a reminder--perhaps a better one in that it avoids any confusion."

I would agree that the shank bone is a reminder, but for me, it has never been very effective and I wanted this seder to be different.

My desire was to construct a meal that pointed more towards the original Pesach. The end result was a tangible experience that flooded my mind with thoughts and dreams about the time and place our ancestors lived. I realize that I am more of a romantic than some, but for me, the meal fulfilled its purpose.

You know that I respect your opinion and thoughts, but I'm having a hard time understanding the benefit of not eating lamb during Pesach. If we are not attempting to make a sacrifice, why is it an issue to partake of the same animal that was eaten by the Israelites? Why not remember in this way, or at least honor the commandment in some way.

These are true questions. Again, I disagree with the conclusion, but I have a lot of respect for you and your opinion. I'd love to keep the conversation going.

Side note:
Number 9:7-10 says

7Those men said to him, “Though we are unclean because of the dead person, why are we restrained from presenting the offering of the LORD at its appointed time among the sons of Israel?” 8Moses therefore said to them, “Wait, and I will listen to what the LORD will command concerning you.”
9Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 10“Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If any one of you or of your generations becomes unclean because of a dead person, or is on a distant journey, he may, however, observe the Passover to the LORD.


Unless I'm completely misreading, there seems to be some strong exceptions here. Is it possible that the larger point is to keep the commandment - even if it is not done perfectly? Thoughts?

Yahnatan said...


First off, I'm really glad your seder was a rich and meaningful experience!

Second, if I were to write this post again, I would try to be a little more clear that there is some diversity within the Jewish world on this practice. That said, the seder meal practices regarding not eating a whole roasted lamb, having a shankbone, and the significance of the afikoman are codified in the Shulchan Arukh, a 16th century law code written by Joseph Karo, a Sephardic Jew, and later adopted by the Ashkenazic Jewish community. The practices themselves, of course, predate this codification by quite a ways.

Third, great point in bringing in the Numbers passage here. I would make the additional observation that in verse 11, God institutes a formal day on which those who missed the Pesach the first time around could celebrate it. As I read it, the larger point was the significance of the Pesach: the men who came to Moses were concerned about missing the opportunity to offer the sacrifice with the other Israelites at the appointed time (9:7). So God appointed a "second Passover" they could celebrate it in an authorized way. To me, 9:13 actually seems to underscore the seriousness of "doing it perfectly." But I can see your point too.

Constructing a meal in which we relive the first Passover was definitely part of the agenda of the sages who created our seder. They intended for seder participants to have the sense that each of us personally was brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, your question--what benefit is there in not eating lamb during Pesach?--is an excellent one to ask. What do you think?--if these sages were so concerned with reliving the first Passover, why did they cut out the part about the lamb?

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Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this article just exactly as it was written. We no longer practice sacrifices (Messianic and traditional Jews alike). Messianic Jews know that Hebrews has told us that Yeshua is the once-and-for-all perfect atonement or [blood] sacrifice. Any further blood sacrifices could imply that we no longer see him as that fulfilment. The very idea of the EMPTY shank bone is a reflection that we no longer do this sacrifice. On all traditional Jewish seders I have participated in, we ALWAYS avoided using lamb for the very idea, as you say, to "avoid confusion." Chicken or vegetarian meals have always accompanied the seder in my experience (whether Orthodox, Reform or Conservative Jewish). Messianic Jews who are "reinventing" Jewish observance as they go, often mistakenly, but with sincere intent, serve "Passover lamb" and even proclaim it a "mitzvah." Unless we have a "Temple" and our Saviour has "not yet" been our sacrificed Lamb, then we should obviously eat the lamb, not as merely a lamb (or even a goat) but as the "korban" as you very excellently point out. Thank you for this article, and I sure wish more people would read what you have written here!

Anonymous said...

Appreciate this info.! Blessings!