26 Adar Bet 5774
Parashat Tazria/Shabbat Hachodesh: Blood of Redemption
by Daniel Pinner
Dedicated to the memory of Dr Toni (Taube) Conrad z”l, born in Poland, survived the Holocaust, fought against the Nazis in Poland and Russia, survived a forced-labour camp in Germany, and passed away last Thursday, 18th Adar II (20th March) aged 91. May she rest in peace.
This year 5774, as in all leap years and only in leap years, Parashot Tazria and Metzora are read separately. And this year, as in about two-thirds of all leap years, Parashat Tazria coincides with Shabbat Hachodesh.
Shabbat Hachodesh is the Shabbat which either coincides with or immediately precedes the first of Nisan. The Maftir-reading is Exodus 12:1-20, the immediate prelude to the Exodus: “Hashem said to Moshe and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying, This month shall be the beginning of your months, it is the first of the months of your year” (Exodus 12:1-2).
This, the mitzvah to institute and calibrate a calendar, is the first national mitzvah that God ever gave us.
God continues with His charge to Moshe and Aaron: “Speak to the entire Congregation of Israel saying, On the tenth of this month they shall take for themselves – each man – a lamb or kid for each family, a lamb or kid for each household… You shall keep it under guard until the fourteenth day of this month, then they shall slaughter it – the entire community of the Congregation of Israel – towards evening. Then they shall take of its blood and daub it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they will eat it. They shall eat the meat on that night, roasted in fire, and matzos; they shall eat it with bitter herbs” (vs. 3-8).
This was an act of defiance, difficult for us to comprehend. God commanded the Jews to take a lamb or kid (the Hebrew word “se” connotes either), the god which the Egyptians worshipped, to keep it under guard for three days, tied to their bed-posts (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Parashat Hachodesh s.v. dabru; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 191) before slaughtering it in sight of the Egyptians.
For a nation that had been enslaved by the Egyptians for generations, conditioned to defer to them and cringe before their whips, trained throughout their lives to relate to the Egyptians as overlords with the power of life and death, slaughtering their erstwhile masters’ god in public provided the catharsis they needed to smash the last emotional and spiritual chains binding them to Egyptian servitude.
The Midrash has a very beautiful and very moving allegory. “Why did the Torah decree that the Pesach sacrifice be taken four days before its sacrifice? – Rabbi Mattia ben Cheresh said: [The prophet] said, ‘I passed above you and I saw you, and behold, your time was a time of love’ (Ezekiel 16:8). The time had come for God to fulfil His oath to Abraham our father, that He would redeem his descendants. But they had no mitzvot to perform in whose merit they would deserve redemption, as [the prophet] continues, ‘your breasts were full and your hair was grown, but you were bare and naked’ (ibid.) – naked of all mitzvot. So God gave them two mitzvot – the mitzvah of the Pesach sacrifice and the mitzvah of circumcision – for them to perform so that they could deserve to be redeemed, as [the prophet] said, ‘I passed above you and I saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said: In your blood you shall live, and I said: In your blood you shall live’ (v. 6)” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Masechta de-Pis’cha 5 s.v. ve-hayah lachem le-mishmeret).
The prophet Ezekiel repeats the phrase “in your blood you shall live”, suggesting that we would “live” – meaning be redeemed – in the merit of two mitzvot involving blood: the blood of the Pesach sacrifice and the blood of circumcision.
God had commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males of his household when he was 99 years old, and all his male descendants were commanded to be circumcised at age eight days from that day henceforth (Genesis 17:10-27). However, God formally gave the nation as a whole the mitzvah of circumcision 402 years later, in the opening verses of Parashat Tazria: “A woman who conceives and gives birth to a male…on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:2-3).
The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743), commenting on Parashat Tazria, asks why God saw necessary to repeat the mitzvah of circumcision here, after He had already given it to Abraham and his descendants. “If it is in order to tell us that we must circumcise by day [‘…the eighth day…’] and not by night, and if it is to inform us to circumcise [on the eighth day] even if that day is Shabbat…then this is still puzzling: why did God not write the details of these laws back in the section of the circumcision in Parashat Lech Lecha? Maybe God did not decree these details when He commanded Abraham so that no one should think that God subordinated Shabbat to circumcision only for the forefathers who had not received the Torah and the severity of Shabbat, but that Israel, who had been commanded by God that ‘those who desecrate [Shabbat] will be put to death’ (Exodus 31:14), were not to over-ride Shabbat” (commentary to Leviticus 12:3).
The Talmudic tractate Kritot begins by listing all 36 sins which are punishable by karet (literally “being cut off”). Karet is variously explained as dying prematurely (Sifra, Emor 14:4), either before the age of 50 (Moed Katan 28a, Yerushalmi Bikkurim 2:1, Semachot 3:8, Tosafot Shabbat 25a) or between the ages of 50 and 60 (Rabba’s opinion in Moed Katan 28a). Karet is also explained to mean being “cut of” both in this world and in the next world (Sanhedrin 90b, Sifrei Shelach Lecha 112); also that “if he has children he will bury them, if he has no children he will die childless” (Yevamot 55a).
Of the 36 transgression which incur karet, 34 are negative – that is to say, the Jew incurs karet by committing a specific forbidden action, such as worshipping an idol, eating forbidden fats (chelev) or blood, eating chametz during Pesach, or eating on Yom Kippur.
The only two positive commandments which incur karet for transgressing them are circumcision and the Pesach sacrifice – that is to say, these are the only two mitzvot for which a Jew can incur karet by doing nothing.
During the centuries of Egyptian subjugation, most of the Jews had abandoned the mitzvah of circumcision; only the Tribe of Levi were still circumcised, resisting assimilation when times were good and persecution later on (Shemot Rabbah 1:8 and 19:5).
Now, on the very threshold of redemption, God told Moshe and Aaron to give the Children of Israel two mitzvot, both of which involved blood, in whose merit they would earn their redemption. Circumcision and the Paschal sacrifice – two mitzvot which are intimately intertwined.
The Midrash depicts this beautifully: “When Israel saw that uncircumcised men were forbidden to eat of the Pesach sacrifice, all Israel arose without delay and circumcised their servants and their sons and all those who were to leave with them… This is like a king who made a banquet for his beloved friends. The king said: If my seal is not on every one of the guests, then none of them may enter! Similarly, when God made a banquet of meat roasted in fire with matzos and bitter herbs upon redeeming them from suffering, He said to them: If Abraham’s seal is not in your flesh, you may not taste of it! Immediately all those who had been born in Egypt were circumcised without delay… The blood of the Pesach sacrifice mingled with the blood of the circumcision, and God passed above them and took each one of them and kissed him and blessed him, as it says ‘I passed above you and I saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said: In your blood you shall live, and I said: In your blood you shall live’ – you will live in [the merit of] the blood of the Pesach sacrifice, you will live in [the merit of] the blood of circumcision” (Shemot Rabbah 19:5).
And the intimate connexion between circumcision and redemption continues: “Shimon the Yemeni says, in the merit of circumcision I split the sea for them” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach, Masechta de-Vayehi 4, s.v. vayomer Hashem el Moshe; Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bay Yochay 14; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 233).
And forty years later, when Joshua led us across the River Jordan into the Land of Israel on the 10th of Nisan (Joshua 4:19), forty years to the day after they had been circumcised in Egypt. And immediately after entering the Land, “Hashem said to Joshua: Make stone knives [alternatively: sharp knives] and circumcise the Children of Israel again” (Joshua 5:2), because the Children of Israel had neglected the mitzvah of circumcision during the forty-year desert trek due to the hardships and dangers of circumcising while travelling (vs. 4-8).
Now, back home in their Land and about to offer the Pesach sacrifice for the first time in a generation, they perforce had to prepare themselves by being circumcised.
At that time and under those circumstances, circumcision demanded considerable self-sacrifice. For our generation today, circumcision is so acceptable and well-organised that it demands minimal self-sacrifice.
The Pesach sacrifice, by contrast, is infinitely harder. True, one who is forcibly prevented from offering the Pesach sacrifice on the Temple Mount is exempt from the obligation (Pesachim 9:1; Rambam, Laws of Pesach Sacrifice 5:1-2). Given the unfortunate reality today, every Jew is forcibly prevented from offering the Pesach sacrifice on the Temple Mount by the combined forces of the Waqf and the Israeli police.
Nevertheless, we can pray and – more importantly – actively strive to bring the Pesach sacrifice on the Temple Mount. The Pesach sacrifice can be offered even without the Holy Temple having been built yet: it can be slaughtered anywhere on the Temple Mount (Zevachim 5:8) and its blood dashed against an altar 1 cubit by 1 cubit (about 45 cm or 18 inches) and 3 cubits high.
Now it is frequently argued that the Pesach sacrifice cannot be offered by a Jew who has contracted the ritual uncleanness that derives from a dead body, and since we all have this uncleanness today, and it can be cleansed solely by means of the Red Cow (which constituted last week’s Torah-reading), it would appear that consequently today we cannot offer the Pesach sacrifice.
However the Mishnah tells us that “the Pesach sacrifice that is brought in ritual uncleanness is eaten in ritual uncleanness, because its sole purpose in being brought was to be eaten” (Pesachim 7:5), which is the halachah in practice (Rambam, Laws of Pesach Sacrifice 7:5).
The Mishnah continues: “If the [entire] Congregation, or the majority of it, became ritually unclean, or if the Kohanim are ritually unclean but the Congregation is ritually clean, the [Pesach sacrifice] is performed in ritual uncleanness” (Pesachim 7:7), which again is the halachah in practice (Rambam, Laws of Pesach Sacrifice 7:1 and Laws of Entering the Temple 4:12).
This, indeed, was the halachic ruling in recent generations of Torah giants such as Mahara”tz Chayot, Rabbi Ya’akov Emden, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, and Rabbi Yehoshua of Kutna.
And as the Midrash tells us, “in the merit of the blood of the Pesach sacrifice and the blood of circumcision you were redeemed from Egypt, and in their merit you will in the future be redeemed from the fourth Kingdom” (Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 354).