Tora Thoughts: Shabbat Hachodesh 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Matzah and Maror as “Main Dishes”
This is a very particular Shabbat, when we read from three different Torah Scrolls (!). We begin the reading of the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, and that’s the reading for the first scroll. As we are celebrating the beginning of the month of Nissan (Rosh Chodesh Nissan) we read the appropriate paragraph regarding this minor holiday from the second scroll. Finally, the Shabbat before the month of Nissan begins, or the Shabbat when Nissan begins, as this year, is called Shabbat Hachodesh. During this Shabbat we have a special Torah reading (this year, from the third Torah scroll), that describes the first night of Passover. This passage (Exodus 12:1-20) connects us with the very first Pesach, and also encourages us to begin the preparations for our Pesach. The countdown to Passover is starting right now!
On this occasion, I would like to say a word about one of the verses for the Passover paragraph for this Shabbat. It reads,
“And on this night, they shall eat the flesh, roasted over the fire, and unleavened cakes; with bitter herbs they shall eat it.” (Exodus 12:8)
The verse is describing what the Children of Israel should eat during the night of the first Passover. This verse and others will be the basis for the development of the customs associated with the Passover Seder.
If you pay attention, the verse describes the three foods that had to be eaten during the very first Pesach night. I am sure you recognize the “unleavened cakes” (the Matzah) and the bitter herbs (the Maror). We still include them in our Passover Seder, and in fact eating Matzah and Maror are two of the most important mitzvot we fulfill during the Passover Seder.
However, what about the “flesh roasted over the fire?” It refers to the lamb that had to be sacrificed at twilight of the fourteenth day of Nissan (Exodus 12:6). This is known as the Paschal Sacrifice. The blood of that animal was to be used to mark the doors of the Israelite houses. The roasted flesh was to be eaten during that night.
As I wrote above, the Torah is here talking about the ritual to be observed during the eve of the Exodus. But the offering and eating of the Paschal Sacrifice (in Hebrew, Korban Pesach) came to be the center of the Passover experience for centuries, during the time of the first and second Temple of Jerusalem. It was so important that actually, according to Jewish Law, it has to be eaten with Matzah and Maror. But if one cannot afford to have Matzah and Maror, one can fulfill the obligation by eating only the Paschal sacrifice.
As you know, it is forbidden to offer sacrifices outside the Temple of Jerusalem. Therefore, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70, the Paschal sacrifice was not offered any more. During the times of the Temple, the main Passover ritual was sacrificing and eating the Pachal Sacrifice. It was eaten with Matzah and Maror as sides to the main dish. However, for the last almost two thousand years we have been celebrating the Passover Seder eating Matzah and Maror as “main dishes,” while having the Pachal sacrifice as a topic for study. We cannot even have it as a side dish! We only remember this offering when we eat the Afikoman at the end of the Seder dinner.
I believe this is an amazing example of how the Jewish people were able to cope with the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple many people might have thought that Passover was doomed to die without its main ritual (the Paschal sacrifice). However, the old side dish became the new main dish, and the old main dish remained as a remembrance and a topic of study. Only a tradition that wants to survive and thrive can produce such dramatic transformation!
During this Shabbat I invite you to think about Pesach (it is around the corner!) and reflect on how the Jewish tradition could survive and blossom again after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. I hope this example inspires us to think about creative ways in which we, in our days, can still experience our ancient tradition, adding to it new meanings and understandings. As we say in the Conservative Movement, we need both “Tradition and Change!”