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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

A Pseudo-Korban Pesach

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on March 12, 2010)
Topics: Halakha & Modernity, Moadim/Holidays, Moed, Pesach, Pesahim, Shabbat & Yom Tov, Talmud

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There is good evidence that the practice of a pseudo-korban pesach existed – not on bringing it on Har HaBayit without a Beit HaMikdash, but outside of the environs of the Beit HaMikdash and Jerusalem. The Tosefta in Ohalot (3:9) tells of a burial that took place in Beit Dagan on erev Pesach. The men, who had not become tamei, then went and ate their korban pesach in the evening. Now, it is not clear when this recorded event took place – maybe it happened when the Beit HaMikdash was still standing. However, Beit Dagan is near Tel Aviv, about 35 miles from Jerusalem, so it would seem impossible that these men got to Jerusalem on the same day to arrive before the beginning of Yom Tov at nightfall. Similarly, another Tosefta (Ohalot 18:18) states that R. Pinchas ben Yair reported regarding the halakhic status of Ashkelon, that its inhabitants would go the mikveh in the day and eat their korban pesach that night. Now, Ashkelon is a good 50 miles from Jerusalem, and it would be impossible that these people got to Jerusalem by evening time. It is clear from these two sources that Jews were eating a pseudo-korban pesach outside of Jerusalem, and were even undergoing an act of taharah, of ritual purification, to prepare for this event. It further seems reasonable to assume that this was taking place after the chorban, the time when R. Pinchas ben Yair lived (late 2nd Century), for when there was a Beit HaMikdash there would be no need for such a pseudo-korban.
Now, if this truly was a post-Temple pseudo-korban, would they really have called it a pesach, a Pascal lamb? Wouldn’t this have made it seem like they were eating sacrifices outside the Temple? This was exactly the concern of the majority of Hazal, and they expressed their opposition to this ritual, when enacted with such a degree of verisimilitude. The mishna in Beitzah (2:7) records that Rabban Gamliel (immediately post-Destruction, end of 1st century – beginning of 2nd) allowed people to make a gedi mekulas, a roasted goat, for Pesach, while the Sages prohibited it. What was this gedi mekulas? The Tosefta records that it was a kid goat that had been roasted entirely, just like the korban pesach, and that was prepared on the first night of Pesach. However, if any part of it had been prepared differently – even if just one piece had been cooked rather than roasted – or if it had been prepared on a different night, it would be permissible. What we have then, is a seemingly popular practice to create a pseudo-korban pesach, which some of the rabbis allowed fully (or perhaps even supported), while others insisted that some small difference be present, so it would not look exactly like the korban pesach itself.

The Tosefta ends with a fascinating historical fact:

Rabbi Yossi said: Todos a man of Rome accustomed the people of Rome to take lambs on the eves of Passover and they made them mekulasim. They said to him: He was very close to feeding them sacrifices outside the Temple, because the people called them “Pascal lambs.”

Here we see that that this practice spread outside of the Land of Israel, and that in some communities – for the Jews of Rome – it had become a widespread practice. We also see that these goats were actually called pesach, and that this explains the events recorded in the Toseftas of Ohalot, of people outside of Jerusalem eating a “pesach.” Finally, we see the rabbinic objection to this practice – not that it was completely objectionable, but that it could not be so similar to the actual korban pesach so that it would be confused with the korban itself – nireh k’okhel kodshim ba’chutz, appearing like eating sacrifices outside the Temple.

Now, we find another story with Rabban Gamliel and the korban pesach. The Mishna in Pesachim (7:2) states that one cannot roast the korban pesach on a metal spit or grate, because then it would be roasted by the heated metal and not directly by the fire. The mishna then records the statement of Rabbi Zaddok: “A story with Rabban Gamliel who said to Tevi his slave, ‘Go out and roast for us the Pascal lamb on the grate.'”

On the face of it, this is a dissenting opinion that allows the korban pesach to be roasted on a metal grate. However, there is a serious problem here, as the Rabban Gamliel who had a slave name Tevi, was the same Rabban Gamliel mentioned above, the Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh who lived after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. So, what was this korban pesach he was preparing? Reshash (R. Shmuel Shtrashon of Vilna, printed in the back of the Gemara) hits upon the answer, connecting this story of Rabban Gamliel with Rabban Gamliel’s own stated position regarding the gedi mekulas:

In my humble opinion it appears that this event occurred after the destruction of the Temple. And because we find that he is of the opinion in the Mishna that one can make a gedi mekulas on the eves of Passover, and Rashi explains that it is as a remembrance for the Temple, therefore because of its dearness he would call it a Pascal lamb. … For Rabban Gamliel because he wanted to show that it was only a remembrance and people should not think that he is eating sacrifices outside the time, he commanded to do it differently and to roast it on the grate…

That is to say, that Rabban Gamliel himself did the practice of gedi mekulas and went so far as to call it a pesach. However, even he accepted that something needed to be done to distinguish it from the actual korban pesach, so he commanded Tevi his slave to mike a minor change in its preparation – one that would have invalidated it had it been a real korban pesach, but one that was subtle and not to noticeable – he had him roast it on a metal grate.

It is possible that this also connects to the famous saying of Rabban Gamliel in the Hagaddah, quoted from the Mishna Pesachim (10:5) that one who does not say pesach, matzah, and marror does not fulfill one’s obligation. Now, in the hagaddah we say, “The pesach that our forbearers used to eat…”. But the text in the mishna is “The pesach is on account of…”. Is it not possible that Rabban Gamliel had a gedi mekulas at his seder, called it a pesach, and when he got up to this section of the seder, said: “This pesach is on account of…”? This ritual would have taken the place of the korban pesach, and had a role – perhaps a central role -at the seder night.

This pseudo-Pesach, with or without small changes to mark its non-korban status, was practiced in the generations immediately following the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. This is completely understandable. The major ritual of Pesach in the time of the Beit HaMikdash was not matzah or the telling of the Exodus, it was the eating of the korban pesach. The very name of the Yom Tov itself – in the Torah known only as chag haMatzot – was named after the korban pesach. The transition away from this mitzvah as the mitzvah of the Yom Tov and of the seder did not happen overnight. People – and even some of the Rabbis – did not want to give it up so quickly. So, in the absence of bringing a true korban pesach, the ritual of a pseudo-pesach was born.

In the following generations, when the memory of the actual korban pesach in the Beit HaMikdash began to fade, this ritual continued but became somewhat attenuated. We no longer find people calling goats pesach, but we do find the practice to eat roasted meat on Pesach: ” A place that has the custom to eat roasted meat on Passover eve may do so. A place that has the custom not to eat, may not eat” (Mishna Pesachim 4:4). It seems that the custom referred to here was not just to allow roasted meat on the seder night, but a specific custom to make sure to eat roasted meat in memory of the korban pesach. This perhaps explains the Mishna’s text of the mah nishtana: “For on all other nights we eat meat that is roasted, double-boiled, or boiled, but on this night, only roasted” (Mishna Pesachim 10:4). While many have assumed that this text is from the period before the churban, the Temple’s destruction, it is explicit in the previous mishna (10:3), that the rituals being described here are from a post-churban period. It seems, rather, that this text of the mah nishtana reflects the practice, even after the churban, to eat roasted meat – and only roasted meat – on the seder night.

This practice of eating roasted meat to keep the experience of the korban pesach alive finds a startling expression in a text of the Hagaddah from the Cairo Geniza. In that text we find the following brakhot, after the second cup of wine is drunk:

Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who takes bread from the land.
Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has commanded our forefathers to eat matzah, bitter herbs, and fire-roasted meat, to remember His acts of might. Blessed are You, Who remembers the covenant.

What is clearly reflected here is a practice to eat roasted meat, and to incorporate it with the mitzvah of matzah, to have a real koraich – the eating of matzah together with marror and roasted meat.

Now, in the time of the Talmud, Hazal took extra steps to make sure that people would not confuse the meat eaten during the seder night with that of the pesach, declaring that it was forbidden to say “this meat is for Pesach,” and that one should not lift the meat when talking about the Pesach (Pesachim 53a, 116b). In Ashkenaz these concerns dominated, and the practice is to not eat any roasted meat on the seder night, in keeping with the places mentioned in Mishna Pesachim (4:4) “where the custom is not to eat roasted meat” (see Shulkhan Arukh, OH 473, and Mishne Brurah). However, many Sefardic communities still have the practice to eat roasted meat – even roasted goat or lamb – on the seder night, still keeping alive the memory of the eating of the korban pesach. I was even told by one of my students of a Moroccan practice to buy a lamb a few days before Pesach, and to have it in the house until erev Pesach, and then to slaughter it and roast eat and eat it on the seder night, all in keeping with the reading this week from Parashat HaChodesh – “On the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man … a lamb for a house.” (Shemot 12:3). Some practices take a long, long time to fade.

Two important themes emerge from the above discussion. The first is the question about where we go after the churban. Do we continue to hearken back (or forward) to a time of bringing korbanot, or do we come to grips with our current reality and recognize that we live in a world without korbanot. This, of course, is the theme we raised in another article regarding the bringing of an actual korban pesach nowadays, with both sides having strong proponents in Hazal and in the poskim.
The other theme is the tension between a deeply felt religious impulse coming from the people and rabbinic concerns of propriety (nireh k’okhel kodshim ba’chutz). To a degree, this is the story of many minhagim, where the practices may have challenged certain rabbinic sensibilities, but were not opposed out of respect for the people’s religious impulse. In this case, that dialectic played out in an interesting way – it initially gave great latitude to this pseudo-ritual, respecting the practice of places that adopted the ritual, and at most demanding that some small marker of difference be present. In the end, more demands were raised, and while some communities (Ashkenaz) weighed fully in favor of the rabbinic concerns, others (particularly certain Sephardic communities) gave fuller expression to the minhag, and to the religious sensibility of the people. This dialectic remains with us today and continues to play itself out in many areas in our religious, halakhic life.