We have already learned that free adult Jewish men are required to eat the paschal offering — but many others, like women and children, are encouraged to participate as well. But here’s another category of people that doesn’t always get discussed in this context: the incarcerated.
For one who is promised to be released from prison … one slaughters the paschal lamb on their behalf.
If a man has been imprisoned, and is set to be released on Erev Passover, someone else can fulfill the mitzvah of slaughtering the paschal lamb for him on the assumption that he will be free to complete the ritual by eating it on the first night of Passover. The mishnah continues with an important caveat:
We do not slaughter the paschal lamb on their behalf if they are by themselves, either as individuals or in a group composed entirely of such people, because perhaps they will cause the paschal lamb to become disqualified.
The rabbis of the Mishnah are concerned that a paschal lamb assigned only to someone or someones due to be let out from prison on Erev Passover will fail to connect with that designated consumer. In that case, it would go uneaten and will be made pasul, invalid. The Gemara explains the concern — that the jailers will renege on their promise to release their prisoner:
Rabba bar Huna said that Rabbi Yohanan said: They taught this only if he is in a prison belonging to gentiles; but if he is in a prison belonging to Jews, one slaughters on his behalf even if he is by himself and not included in a group with other people. Since they promised him they would release him they will certainly release him, as it is written: The remnant of Israel will not do iniquity nor speak lies. (Zephaniah 3:13)
Perhaps Rabbi Yohanan understands that a prison run by Jews is more likely to be sensitive to the ritual needs of a lamb assigned to a prisoner due for release on Erev Passover and make sure that prisoner is released on time to complete the mitzvah. Rav Hisda adds a bit more nuance to this distinction, stating that it is also acceptable to slaughter a paschal offering for a prisoner who is held in a gentile prison. The logic here is that if the jailers fail to free him in time to eat the paschal offering, his friends can bring the meat to him in his prison cell.
In reading today’s daf, I am as struck by what is not there as I am by the text itself. There is no discussion of the imprisoned man’s crimes, or his guilt and liability in committing them. There is no assumption that he must have been imprisoned unjustly by a hostile empire — indeed, the Gemara is explicit that these rulings apply to men imprisoned in Jewish prisons (which they assume are not administered by hostile Romans). Instead, this is a discussion about a guilty man who has served his time and is now re-entering society, willing and able (and perhaps even required!) to rejoin ritual and communal life.
The daf makes it clear that being formerly incarcerated is no barrier to ritual participation. Even more intriguing, the last statement opens the door to the possibility that, if it is feasible, even one who is still incarcerated should participate in the paschal offering.