The Pascal sacrifice was a core institution of the 2nd Temple period. Families would travel throughout Eretz Israel to Jerusalem bringing with them offerings for sacrifice including a lamb for the pascal offering. On arriving at the Temple, they would offer up the lamb for a burnt offering on the altar via the Priests and then would be handed back the burnt lamb for their own consumption in the Temple precincts. Thus began the eating of a meal in family groups at the time of the Passover sacrifice.
However once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, only the symbolic reminders of the Pascal sacrifice could be celebrated at the emerging ceremony of the Passover Seder. Thus we find the burnt shankbone on the seder plate accompanied by the burnt egg as well as maror and charoset, understood as condiments to the sacrificial offerings. While the writers of the Mishnah (in tractate Pesachim) were considering all the legal requirements of fulfilling the new Pesach requirements, the writers of the Midrash (both Midrash Rabbah and Pesikta de Rav Kahana) were asking questions about the very nature of sacrifice.
So Rabbi Aha said in the name of Rabbi Hanina bar Papa, “In the past we used to offer up sacrifices and engage in the study of them; now that there are no sacrifices, is it necessary to engage in the study of them?’. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, “If you engage in the study of them, I will account it to you as if you had offered them up.” Study of Torah replaced the actual offering of sacrifice and became a substitute for it. This enabled Rabbinic Judaism to claim that it was a continuous evolution of Biblical Judaism despite the fact that it looked like a very different animal! Study, prayer and good deeds now fulfilled God’s will for the Jewish People rather than sacrifice and offerings in the Temple. As Progressive Jews, we would completely sympathise with this attempt to reform traditional practice that had been abandoned and found out of date.
The rabbis of the Midrash went even further perhaps even surpassing our modern reforming tendancies: Rabbi Abba bar Kahana and Rabbi Hanan said: This may be compared to the story of a king who had two cooks. One of them cooked a dish for him; he ate it and it was agreeable to him. The other also cooked a dish for him; he ate it and it too was agreeable to him. We would not know which dish the king found more agreeable but from the circumstances that he gives an order to the second cook saying: make me another dish like that one. We know that the second had been the more pleasing to him. As the distance in time from the Temple period increased, the rabbis came to view the biblical sacrifices as a first and lesser mode of coming close to God. It was the shift to the synagogue, to communal prayer and study along with the establishment of the Passover Seder at home that became the normative development of Jewish life.
As Progressive Jews about to celebrate Pesach this year in full recognition of its biblical and rabbinic roots and its contemporary significance in our modern world, we may ask in what way is the second better than the first and particularly for us in what ways can the third be better than the second!!
Rabbi Dr Michael Shire
(previously published 2009)
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.