“Ancient Customs in a New Light”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Due to the festival of Passover, the regular Torah reading from the book of Leviticus is not read until after the holiday. Instead, during the holiday, various selections concerning the Passover festival are read from the Torah. On the first day of Passover, a portion from Exodus 12 is read that describes the observance of the first Passover in Egypt.

One of the fascinating, yet obscure, rules that we read concerning the Pascal sacrifice is found in Exodus 12:46: “V’eh’tzem lo tish’b’roo vo,” no bone [of the lamb] shall you break. This perplexing rule appears rather out of place, especially when contrasted with the numerous rules that the Torah records regarding the Pascal lamb that relate directly to the holiday. Among these rules and instructions are the following: The dramatic slaughtering of the Pascal lamb by all of the congregation of Israel, the prohibition of eating chametz–leavened bread once the Pascal sacrifice has been offered on the altar, the commandment to eat the Pascal lamb together with bitter herbs, that the eating of the Pascal sacrifice is reserved only for those of the Jewish faith, and that the sacrifice must be eaten together in family groups. After all, what possible relationship to Passover is there to the prohibition of breaking a bone of a Pascal lamb?

The author of the Sefer Hachinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) suggests that the celebration of Passover and the feast that accompanies the celebration is seen by the Torah as a celebration by former slaves who have been transformed into an aristocratic people. Kings and nobles do not rush from feast to feast, they eat slowly and deliberately. Therefore, the Pascal sacrifice is always eaten within a single house. Kings and nobles do not break the bones to get at a hidden bit of meat or marrow. The former Egyptian slave was supposed to have broken away from his “slave mentality” and is therefore expected to show proper table manners. There is no place here for primitive eating practices, such as breaking the bones of the animals and sucking out the marrow.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) comes to the exact opposite conclusion and maintains that at the time of the Exodus, the Pascal offering had to be eaten in haste. Consequently, there was no time for the people to play with the bones. While we today have no time constraints at our Passover seders,(there are, thank G-d, no Egyptians chasing us!) we try to recall and reenact the way in which the first Passover was observed.

Like the author of Sefer Hachinuch, the Me’am Loez (a monumental Ladino commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible, 17-18th century) suggests that after the Exodus the Jewish people were transformed from slaves into nobility. In fact, scripture calls them the “Children of G-d.” Now that they have reached this new level of sophistication and importance, it is not appropriate for the people to behave in an unseemly manner. That is why Jews throughout history are commanded each year not to break the bones of the Pascal sacrifice to remind them of the great miracles that G-d wrought in Egypt. After being at the lowest depths of indentured servitude, we have been raised higher and higher, to this level of true aristocracy.

The Radbaz (David ben Zimra, 1479-1573 spiritual leader of Egypt for over 40 years) suggests that breaking the bones and sucking out the marrow reflects an individual’s overpowering desire to destroy, literally to the last bone, one of the creatures of G-d. Since Passover is a time when the children of Israel celebrate their own freedom, they must not appear to the world as destroyers. Judaism therefore councils dignity and moderation, not to break or suck the bones.

The Me’am Loez cites an additional reason for not breaking the bones, recalling that the central reason for the ten plagues and the miracles of the Exodus was specifically to discredit the Egyptian worship of the lamb as a deity. If the bones of the lamb are not broken and remain intact, they then serve as visible evidence that the Jews not only slaughtered the lamb, the Egyptian deity, and smeared its blood on the lintels, but also ate the animal. After the meal, these bones would be scattered around and the dogs would eat them, underscoring the worthlessness of the so-called Egyptian god!

While we no longer have a Pascal sacrifice to offer to the Al-mighty, we must keep in mind that these seemingly obscure rites and customs have much to teach us about how the Passover Exodus transformed the ancient Israelites into a new and dynamic people.

Let us make certain that the passage of time and the absence of a Temple has not caused us to forget or abandon the essence of our Judaism and Jewish observance.

May you be blessed.

Reminder: The second days of the Passover holiday are observed this year on Tuesday evening, April 18 and on Wednesday and Thursday, April 19 and 20, 2006. Wishing you all a happy and kosher Pessach.