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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Have You Done Your Korban Pesach Yet?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on April 1, 2016)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Mikdash, Korbanot and Kohanim, Moadim/Holidays, Pesach, Sefer Vayikra, Shemini, Torah

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Parashat Parah commemorates the process of purification that would precede the bringing of the korban Pesach. Appropriately, sometimes we read it at the end of Parashat Shmini, which describes how, after the completion of the dedication of the altar, the sacrifices would henceforth be desired and received in Heaven: “And there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces” (Vayikra 9:24). We are thus reminded that the best we can do today is evoke the memory of the korbanot and of the korban Pesach; we are unable to bring them in practice or to do the ideal worship described in the Torah.

Things however are not so black and white. There are those who petition the Israeli government regularly for the right to bring the korban Pesach on the Temple mount. From a halakhic point of view – political realities aside – this is not as absurd as it may sound.

Let us start with the theme of Parashat Parah, the need for ritual purification. Although we are all considered to be temei met, impure due to contact with a corpse (or being under the same roof with one, as often occurs in a hospital), this is overridden for a communal sacrifice: tumah hutra bi’tzibbur, communal impurity is set aside for communal sacrifices. While the korban Pesach is brought by all individuals, not by the community as a corporate entity, and is, therefore, not technically a community sacrifice, it nevertheless has this status. As the Gemara Yoma (51a) tells us, it is ba bi’knufya, it comes en masse, with every individual of the Jewish people bringing it together.

But what about the fact that there is no Temple? This also need not be a halakhic barrier. The Gemara in Megillah (10a) states that the sanctity of Jerusalem and the Temple from the time of Joshua still remains today. The same Gemara goes on to quote Rabbi Yehoshua who states that, as a result of this sanctity, it is possible to offer sacrifices on the Temple grounds even without a Temple: “shamati she’makrivim af al pi she’eyn bayit,” “I have heard that one can offer sacrifices even without a Temple.”  So while we are ritually impure and without a Temple, it would seem that sacrifices can still be offered.

As far as the kohanim are concerned, the general halakhic approach is that kohanim nowadays are only bichezkat kohanim. That is, they are presumed to be kohanim, but this is not taken as a certainty since their exact lineage is unknown (see Rema YD 331:19, Maharit 1:85, and Shevet HaLevi 3:160). While we would ideally want definite kohanim to serve in the Beit HaMikdash, without certain knowledge we should be able to rely on the presumption, as we do in other areas of halakha. We also don’t have the bigdei kehunah, the priestly garments, but these could be manufactured (and Mechon haMikdash has already done so!). Because of the materials needed, it would be impossible to construct the garments of the High Priest, but this is not a problem since sacrifices can be offered without the High Priest. Thus, with the manufacture of the proper bigdei kehunah, it would seem that our kohanim could halakhically offer the korban Pesach.

All of these arguments were made by Hatam Sofer in a teshuva (YD 2:236), and he concludes that a korban Pesach can be brought halakhically in modern times. Although written in nineteenth-century Hungary, this responsa was not merely addressing a theoretical question, for he had been asked to appeal to the political leader of Jerusalem to grant Jews this right. He stated that this would not be possible, as the political leadership would only grant Muslims the right of worship on the Temple Mount.

In the following generation, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher, a student of Hatam Sofer, tried to make this theory a reality. Rav Kalisher wrote an entire book, Drishat Tzion, where he argues for the obligation to bring a korban Pesach and tries to put this at the top of the communal agenda. There was a larger historical context for Rav Kalisher’s initiative: It coincided with the beginning of the Reform movement, and high on their agenda was the rejection of the significance of the Land of Israel and the return to the Land of Israel. This naturally included the rejection of the whole institution of sacrifices. It was thus important for Rav Kalisher to reassert the centrality of the Land of Israel, the Temple, and the sacrifices.

Rav Kalisher, hoping to get other rabbis to sign on to his initiative, sent his book to another staunch opponent of the Reform movement, Rav Yaakov Ettlinger in Altona, Germany, for his approval. Rav Ettlinger did not sign on, and in response (Teshuvot Binyan Tzion, 1), he offered a surprising counter-text to the passage in the Talmud stating that one can bring sacrifices without a Temple. He quotes the Biblical verse, “And I will lay waste your Sanctuaries, and I will not smell the pleasing odor of the sacrifices” (Vayikra 26:31). According to Rav Ettlinger, this verse tells us that, although the Sanctuary retains its sanctity even after its destruction and one can technically still bring sacrifices, God does not desire such sacrifices. These would not be considered li’rayach nichoach, as a sweet savor, and it is a halakhic principle that a sacrifice that is not considered li’rayach nichoach is invalid. In an astounding move in a halakhic, Torah she’b’al Peh argument, Rav Ettlinger asserts, “although the Talmud says that one can still bring sacrifices, God states: ‘I will not smell their pleasing odor’!” — God trumps the Talmud!

But what about the statement that sacrifices can still be brought? Rav Ettlinger answers that this only applies when God is no longer “laying waste to the Sanctuary.” Thus one can bring sacrifices when the Temple is being built but has not yet been completed, as in the beginning of the Second Commonwealth or as will be in Messianic times. But as long as the Temple is laid waste, God is telling us that God does not want our sacrifices.

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin – the Netziv – endorsed Rav Ettlinger’s general approach, but disagreed with him in regards to the korban Pesach (HaAmek Davar, Devarim 16:3). Netziv argues that the korban Pesach can still be brought nowadays because it is the only sacrifice that is not described in the Torah as being offered li’rayach nichoach. It thus makes no difference that God will not accept it as a sweet savor – it is valid without this!

This insight points to a unique feature of the korban Pesach: it is the one sacrifice that is not brought primarily to be offered on the altar but to be eaten. This is evidenced in the fact that all other sacrifices that can be offered in cases of communal impurity, can nevertheless not be eaten in a state of impurity, with the exception of the korban Pesach: “for it is only brought at the outset for the sake of being eaten” (Mishna Pesachim 76b). Remember, also, that there was no altar for the first korban Pesach, only the doorposts of the houses on which the blood was placed. The key verse for this korban is, “and they shall eat the meat on that night” (Shemot 12:8). The focus is on the home ritual, on the eating of the meat, and not on the offering of the korban. As such, argues Netziv, it can be done today, as there is no need for it to be considered li’rayach nichoach.

There are many people who live in the tension between Rav Ettlinger and the Netziv. On the one hand, they find it hard to identify with the offering of sacrifices as something that God desires, but on the other, they sense that something is religiously lacking from our less embodied, less physical forms of worship. The Godly connection and religious community created through the shared eating of the korban Pesachis echoed today in the Pesach Seder in our homes, but the echo is a faint one. Even when sacrifices are no longer part of our religious worship of God, it is our duty to find ways in which we can continue to live a powerful, embodied religious and communal life so that all of our service should be li’rayach nichoach, received as a sweet savor, by God.