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!]

Friday, March 25, 2011

Parasha Shemini: Fire on the Eighth Day

Cross-posted from The Set Table.

Our parasha draws its name from the opening phrase—Vay’hi ba’yom ha’shemini—”On the eighth day.” (9:1) After seven days of preparations for the mishkan led by Moses, the dedication of Aaron and his sons as priests is completed on the eighth day. On the significance of the number eight, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe comments:
The number “seven” signifies the normative order of the world…[days of the week, years in the Sabbatical cycle]…Seven, therefore, is the symbol for the order of nature. The number “eight” is beyond “seven,” alluding to the supra-natural, an emanation of G-dliness which, like a miracle, transcends the normative order.  (Living with Moshiach, p. 83)
In this case, the transcendent miracle which the people await is God’s visible acceptance of the offerings on the altar. The people know that the purpose of the mishkan is for God to dwell among the people. However, they also remember their sin with the golden calf. Thus, they are eager to see a manifestation of God’s presence which will assure them that atonement has been made.
In Leviticus 9:6 Moses foretells the appearance of the presence of the LORD as a response to their obedience. This becomes a sign of restoration and a cause for rejoicing for Israel:
…and the presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fats on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.
(Leviticus 9:23b-24)
We noted that our parasha began with the word “Vay’hi“—which, the sages have observed, is a word indicating misfortune. This is revealed when Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer alien fire on the altar:
And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died before the LORD.
(Leviticus 10:2)
Praises turn to shock and grief. The entire community mourns, save Aaron and his surviving sons, who are forbidden to do so. Pesikta d’Rab Kahana provides an overview of numerous shortcomings of Nadav and Avihu proposed by rabbinic commentators: they ventured too near to God’s presence; they brought a superfluous offering; they offered strange fire; they stared at the Presence of God; they took no counsel with each other; they lacked the prescribed number of garments; they presumed to render a halakhic decision in the presence of Moses their master; they “treaded on the heels” of Moses and Aaron, saying “In no time these two old men will die, and in their place we shall assume authority over the community” (Piska 26.6-11).

Yet Moses statement of comfort to his brother Aaron suggests a further interpretation:
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said, “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.
(Leviticus 10:3)
Thus R. Hiyya bar Abba asks: “Since Aaron’s sins, [Nadav and Avihu], died on the first of Nisan, why does Scripture mention their death in connection with the Day of Atonement? [c.f. Lev. 16:1] To teach that as the Day of Atonement atones for Israel’s sins, so the death of the righteous atones for Israel’s sins” (Piska 26.11). Despite Nadav and Avihu’s shortcomings, their death becomes a means of glorifying God, and points to the atonement made through the death of the righteous.

All of this transpired “on the eighth day.” The Talmud connects the number eight to the days of the Messiah (see Arachin 13b). If the miracle of God’s presence on the eighth day of the mishkan brings with it a burning judgment, how much more will the future revelation of God’s glory throughout the whole earth at the days of the Messianic era also bring a judgment like fire from God’s presence? This is a judgment of sanctification, as it says: “I will be sanctified by those near to me.”

As we seek to prepare ourselves and the world for the entrance of the Messianic era, let us live lives of holy fear before the God who is a consuming fire.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Announcement: new blog co-author!

So it's been a while since I've posted to the Gathering Sparks blog...some of you might have wondered whether I'd hung up my blogging hat for good!  Well, no worries, friends--I'm still here, and a busy schedule won't keep me from gathering various sparks wherever they may be found and posting them here for your edification.

I'm also pleased to announce that the Gathering Sparks blog has gathered another contributor.  That's right, occasional guest-poster (and my lifelong friend) Jonathan R. is becoming an official co-contributor to Gathering Sparks.

Look for a new post from Jonathan later on in the week, and stay tuned for lots more good Sparks material to come!