Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bo 5768/ January 12, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Passover Sacrifice – From Individuals to Community


Rabbi Yehudah Zoldan


Midrasha for Women


Sacrifices in the Jewish tradition fall into two principal categories:

  1. Private sacrifices, those given in order to discharge a duty or as a voluntary offering, by a single person or a partnership of many people (offerings of thanksgiving, gifts, or sin offerings).
  2. Public sacrifices are offerings in the name of the entire Israelite community made by representatives of the public, such as a priest or the high priest (in this group are the daily offerings [tamid] and additional sacrifices [musaf] for the festivals).

These two categories are distinguished from each other from the halakhic point of view.  A public offering has a fixed time, supercedes the Sabbath, and is above matters of impurity [it may be offered even on behalf of those who are ritually unclean], whereas the private offering does not have a fixed time at which it must be made, and it does not supercede the Sabbath nor the laws of impurity (Yoma 50a).

In relation to all these characteristics, the Passover offering is unique, as Maimonides notes:  “There is a private sacrifice which in a way is like a public sacrifice, namely the Passover sacrifice, which every individual slaughters on the fourteenth day of Nisan.” [1] The Passover sacrifice has a fixed time:  the fourteenth of Nisan at twilight (on the eve of the fifteenth), but it is not offered by the priests on behalf of the general public; rather, all Israel are commanded to offer it themselves, unlike the case with other public sacrifices.  I would like to propose that the special place occupied by the Passover sacrifice, between that of a private and a public offering, comes to express our   transformation on Passover from individuals to a people.  Rav Kook notes on the subject:

The holiness of Passover binds together the public through the general, national strength of the Jewish community, making all Jews as it were into a single person, so that the private offering of each individual is considered an offering of the public.  The general public as a whole unites in this, not as a social fabric composed of a group of isolated individuals, who by their daily contacts and dealings form into a unit; rather, there is a unique divine revelation on Passover that makes athe generality of the public into veritably a single persona. [2]

It is not social, economic, or other factors that join the individuals together, making them into a single entity; rather it is a metaphysical, spiritual union that transforms the individuals into a public group, into a nation.   The focus is on the whole as a single organism.  In the Passover sacrifice individuals are given prominence, for by combining them together the whole comes into existence and each of the component parts are joined into a nation.  The private individual thus attains the status and weight of a public community.

When the Temple stood, this idea was internalized every year through the offering of the Paschal lamb. It was an annual reenactment to remind us of our beginnings as a nation upon this earth:   from an extensive and blessed family we became a people.


Passover in the wilderness

The Passover sacrifice that out ancestors were commanded to make in Egypt was unique in terms of certain commandments that pertained only at that time and were not observed in later generations.  We quote from the Mishnah: [3]

What is the difference between the Passover offering in Egypt and the Passover offering of succeeding generations?  The Passover offering in Egypt had to be acquired on the tenth [of Nisan] and required sprinkling with a bunch of hyssop upon the lintel and upon the two doorposts and was eaten in haste during one night, but Passover of all succeeding generations had to be observed throughout seven days.

Preparing in advance, remaining in their homes, and sprinkling the blood on the lintels and doorposts reinforced the feeling that from families unto themselves they were undergoing a new process – being forged into a nation.   Subsequent generations need not remain in their homes or sprinkle their lintels and doorposts, nevertheless some characteristics of the transition from private individuals to a public group still remain.

The first festival of Passover celebrated in the format to be observed by subsequent generations was held one year after the exodus from Egypt:  “And they offered the Passover sacrifice in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai.   Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites did” (Num. 9:5).  It was celebrated two weeks after dedication of the Tabernacle, as Rashbam notes:  “Now that the Tabernacle had been built, they had to be commanded to do it primarily as commanded for all generations and not as the Passover sacrifice made in Egypt” (commentary on Num. 9:2).

Building the Tabernacle was an important progressive step in shaping the public life of the Israelite people, even though the Tabernacle itself was temporary and the Israelites had not yet reached their permanent home in the land of Israel, where they were supposed to live a full life as a nation.  Offering the Passover sacrifice differently, one year after leaving Egypt, stimulatingly refreshed the purpose of the exodus:   “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).

So, one might think that the following Passover should be done at a fixed spot, in the Temple in the land of Israel.  However, several months after the first Passover in the wilderness, the Israelites sinned in the affair of the spies, and that generation was condemned to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, during which time they could not circumcise the newborns; and whoever is not circumcised may not offer the Passover sacrifice, as it says in Scripture:  “Now, whereas all the people who came out of Egypt had been circumcised, none of the people born after the exodus, during the desert wanderings, had been circumcised” (Josh. 5:5).

Why could they not be circumcised?  The Talmud explains:   “Throughout the forty years that the Israelites were in the wilderness, there was no northerly wind.   What was the reason? … Because they were being reproved” (Yevamot 72a). They were being reproved because of the sin of the spies, and aside from the punishment of that generation not entering the land, there was also no northerly breeze, which is considered to bring healing, so it was impossible to circumcise the babies who were born.   In any event they could not eat the Passover sacrifice, as it says in this week’s reading:   “But no uncircumcised person may eat of it” (Ex. 12:48).  Those who had been circumcised could have made the Passover offering, but in fact we are told that “they did not celebrate [in the desert] more than the one [Passover].” [4]   Something in the public dimension of the Israelite people was flawed during those forty years, therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, brought about circumstances such that they could not circumcise their newborns, in order that they not be able to celebrate anew, every year, that which marked the transition from individuals to community, at least not with the same intensity of the first year.

Passover upon entering the land

Only after all of the generation of the spies had died was it possible to reenact annually the story of the exodus from Egypt, which now returned in a format suitable to the land of Israel. The Israelite people crossed the Jordan River on the tenth day of the first month, on the day on which they had set aside the Passover offering in Egypt; and the book of Joshua recounts at length why the commandment of circumcision now had to be performed (Josh 5:2-9):

At that time the Lord said to Joshua: ”Make flint knives and proceed with a second circumcision of the Israelites.  So Joshua had flint knives made, and the Israelites were circumcised at Gibeath-haaraloth.

This is the reason why Joshua had the circumcision performed:  All the people who had come out of Egypt, all the males of military age, had died during the desert wanderings after leaving Egypt.   Now, whereas all the people who came out of Egypt had been circumcised, none of the people born after the exodus, during the desert wanderings, had been circumcised.   For the Israelites had traveled in the wilderness forty years, until the entire nation – the men of military age who had left Egypt – had perished; because they had not obeyed the Lord, and the Lord had sworn never to let them see the land that the Lord had sworn to their fathers to assign to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. But He had raised up their sons in their stead; and it was these that Joshua circumcised, for they were uncircumcised, not having been circumcised on the way.   After the circumcising of the whole nation was completed, they remained where they were, in the camp, until they recovered.

And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.”

This paved the way for the entire people of Israel to once again offer the Passover sacrifice, for the first time in the land of Israel (Josh. 5:10-11).   Public renewal characterized this Passover, as the people looked forward to continuing to inherit and settle in their own land.  The gap that had formed during the forty years in the wilderness had been closed, and now the story of the exodus from Egypt could resume its course, so to speak, perhaps even in the same format and same rate that it would have progressed, had it not been for the sin of the spies.  The new generation that was born in the wilderness and that had not shared in the experience of the Passover sacrifice in Egypt and did not understand its significance at first hand now for the first time observed the commandment of the Passover sacrifice and had to internalize and learn the significance of the characteristics of this offering in order to appreciate the great destiny of the people:  no longer a collection of private individuals drawing together to provide for common needs and desires, rather a public that functions as a nation in its own land, a public that has lofty objectives and an important destiny.



[1] Maimonides, Preface to the Mishnah, Seder Kodashim, Kapah ed., p. 7.

[2] Olat Re’ayah I, pp. 178-179.

[3] Pesahim 9, 8.

[4]  Tosafot Yevamot 72a s.v. mishum.