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The Egyptian Sanctuary of the Exodus

April 2, 2017

As part of the ritual of the paschal offering in Egypt, Moses instructed the people (Exodus 12:22-23):

And you shall take a bundle of hyssop and immerse [it] in the blood that is in the basin, and you shall apply to the lintel and to the two doorposts the blood that is in the basin, and you no man shall not go out  from the entrance of his house until morning. The Lord will pass to smite the Egyptians, and He will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, and the Lord will pass over the entrance, and He will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses to smite [you].

Rashi and other rishonim bring a midrash to explain why the Israelites were instructed to stay within their houses all night:

This tells [us] that once the destroyer is given permission to destroy, he does not discriminate between righteous and wicked. And night is the time that destroyers are given permission…

I always found this explanation insufficient. The sages, starting with Onkelos’s translation, explained that it was not literally the blood on the doorpost that saved the people, but rather the merit of the performance of the commandment that saved the Israelites, just like it does not literally mean that God passed over anything, but rather that he took compassion on the people. That is, staying in the house did not necessarily protect them, and the sages even mention that if an Egyptian firstborn attempted to hide himself in an Israelite house that night, he was still smitten. Further, why were all the people bidden to remain inside all night if only the firstborns had what to fear? As we will see later, the firstborn male Israelites were only about 20,000 out of 600,000, and the women may have been a similar fraction. Also, the sages say that all of the firstborn were killed exactly at midnight. By some hours later, the Egyptians, including Pharaoh, were out in the streets trying to drive out the Israelites, and say, by 3 o’clock or so they would see that all those out in the streets were not miraculously dying. By an hour or two before sunrise, it should have been safe for the Israelites to begin to leave their homes in order to reach the rallying point from which they would make their Exodus.

All of these issues lead me to interpret this verse along the lines of the Mechilta’s commentary to the earlier verse wherein God originally gave Moses the commandment to apply the blood of the Passover to the dooorways, 12:7:

And they shall take [some] of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they will eat it.

To which the Mechilta adds:

…We thus learn that they had three altars in Egypt: the two doorposts, and the lintel. Rabbi Ishmael says, they were four: the basin, the two doorposts, and the lintel.

That is, as we learned in this week’s parasha, Wayiqra, the altar’s main function is to receive the application of the blood from the sacrifice, and this is also the main rite that affects the atonement from any sacrifice. In Egypt, the Israelites had no sanctuaries and high places, so they needed some place to perform the paschal sacrifice. After all, if there was no altar and offering, in what sense was the consumption of the lamb in their houses considered sacrificial? In light of what we saw two weeks ago, namely, that the tent of the patriarchal families, and by extension, the Jewish home, stood in the place of the sanctuary before there was a sanctuary, we understand why the doorways stood in for the altars. The Israelites could not place altars even a few feet from their pitiful hovels, because the sanctity and purity of the Jewish home did not extend into the unclean Egyptian street, but as we see, the altar is meant to stand in the open area in front of the entrance of the true sanctuary. Thus, only the doorway, which was just beyond the home but not yet in the street, took the place of the altar. (This idea may be alluded to by an expression in the original Hebrew in this week’s parasha, “the altar that is at the entrance to the tent of meeting,” which is actually missing a word describing where the altar is in relation to the tent, and can be read “the altar that is the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.”)

With this in mind, we can understand that in Egypt, the Israelites had to stay within their houses the night they performed the paschal offering just like they would stay overnight in Jerusalem centuries later. In Deuteronomy, Moses describes the commandment to offer the sacrifice in the time to come (16:7):

And you shall roast [it] and eat [it] in the place which the Lord, your God, will choose, and you shall turn away in the morning and go to your tents.

To which Rashi brings a rule found in a number of places in the Talmud:

This teaches that [the pilgrim] is required to remain [in Jerusalem] the night when the Festival terminates. 

A law known as lina, staying overnight in Jerusalem, which is formulated by Maimonides thusly (Laws of First Fruits, 3:14):

[When bringing] the first fruits, it is necessary that one remain [in Jerusalem] overnight. What is implied? When a person brought his first fruits to the Temple, made the declaration, and offered his peace offerings, he should not depart from Jerusalem that day to return home. Instead, he should stay in Jerusalem overnight and return to his city on the following day, as [Deuteronomy 16:7] states: ‘you shall turn away in the morning and go to your tents.’ All occasions when you turn from the Temple when you visit it should only be in the morning.

That is, when one brings any sacrifice to the Temple, he has to stay within the confines of Jersusalem, the annex of the sanctuary which is designated for the consumption of the sacrificial meat, that night, even if he has already finished consuming the meat, and the Paschal offering is the case from which the rule is derived for all other offerings.

Thus, in Egypt, the Israelites were similarly commanded to remain within their houses the night they ate the paschal sacrifices, precisely because their houses had been sanctified as the sanctuaries and places of consuming the holy food. They stayed home until morning because the halacha of lina applied to the paschal sacrifice even in Egypt because the Jewish home has always been a model sanctuary.


From → original, parasha

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