When we began our journey through this tractate four months ago, we reminded readers that Passover in antiquity looked quite a bit different than it does today. Though we associate Passover today with a seder meal and symbolic foods, for Jews of antiquity the meat of the ritual (lousy pun intended) was the paschal sacrifice.
This tractate has borne that out. We worked our way through many discussions mired in the minutest details of the paschal sacrifice before we finally reached more familiar ground — seder rituals — in this tenth and final chapter. (Though who knew there were going to be pages bristling with demons too?) We hope that our extraordinarily talented authors have brought these discussions alive for you.
Today, as we finish the tractate, we return once again to the sacrifice. Specifically, the rabbis close the page by discussing the blessing one says after consuming the paschal lamb, because you cannot put Passover to bed without saying the final blessing. And so we have come full circle.
Or maybe the sacrifice was there all along? Though many of the rituals documented in this last chapter — four cups of wine, matzah, maror, Hallel, and more — are hallmarks of the contemporary Passover seder, this chapter has looked nothing like a Haggadah. (The first full Haggadah, along with the first full Jewish prayer book, was actually penned by Saadya Gaon in the ninth century — hundreds of years after the Talmud.) That’s because the rabbis were not, in this chapter, scripting a seder as a replacement for the paschal offering. What they were describing is the ritual meal one makes to eat the paschal lamb. The truth is, we never really left the sacrifice at all.
The rabbis didn’t inflate the significance of the paschal sacrifice — it was baked into Jewish tradition from the very beginning. Indeed, knowing the rabbinic obsession with the paschal sacrifice can help us to read the biblical story of the Exodus with new eyes.
If you look carefully at the prolonged negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, you see that Moses doesn’t begin by demanding the Israelites’ freedom. “Let my people go” is not even close to his first line. Instead, he begins by asking permission to take them into the wilderness to celebrate a festival — language that implies they will offer a sacrifice to God (Exodus 5:1–3). Why would he do this? The text explains: the Israelites couldn’t offer sacrifices to God in Egypt because doing so was an affront to Egyptian religion. The problem with slavery, from the Bible’s perspective, was not primarily a lack of personal freedom — it was the fact that the Israelites could not properly make sacrifices to God.
When Pharaoh denies this request for an out-of-town festival, Moses escalates his demand to complete freedom. But every time he makes this demand, he indicates that the Israelites must be freed to serve the Lord (see Exodus 7:16, 8:16, 9:1, 9:13, and 10:3). This language of “to serve” means specifically to bring sacrifices to God.
Of course, as many will remember, Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites take their requested worship holiday, God brings plagues and hardens Pharaoh’s heart, further refusals ensue, and Moses escalates his demands to nothing less than complete liberation. Nine plagues later, the climax comes on the eve of the Exodus. Israel is told to slaughter a lamb and mark the doorposts of their homes with its blood. Then the slaves huddle inside and wait for the Angel of Death, who is coming to kill the firstborn Egyptians, to pass over their homes.
Except, that’s not what the text says. God tells Moses that the paschal offering will be an ot lachem, a sign for you. It’s not a sign for the Angel of Death at all! (This actually makes sense: If God could target the first nine plagues at the Egyptians, certainly God knows how to make the tenth a precision strike as well.) No, the paschal offering is a sign for people. For the Israelites, it’s a public declaration of faith in God. For the Egyptians, it is a deliberate affront to their cult and gods. The offensive blood of the paschal offering is boldly smeared up, down and around the entrance of every Israelite house even as the Egyptian homes witness the horror of spilled human blood — deaths that their gods cannot prevent. By performing the paschal offering in Egypt before the Exodus, the Israelite slaves stage the ultimate act of defiance and victory. This is the real redemption — and they do it themselves.
Tuning our attention to the paschal sacrifice allows us to understand a critical dimension of the Passover story. Yes, the redemption would not have happened without God’s might or Moses’ leadership; but it also would not have happened without the Israelites’ decision to enact their own liberation, despite the dangers. As we celebrate Passover in the modern day, and as we sit down to seders that move from commemorating that first redemption to looking forward to the future messianic redemption, we can remember that no redemption, past or future, takes place without us.
Read all of Pesachim 121 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 22nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.