Pesach, Parashat Tzav and Shabbat Hagadol in the shadow of Coronavirus

What will we miss? Only our friends, family, and other guests?
Or the single most essential component of Pesach, the Pesach Sacrifice?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Offering the Passover sacrifice
Offering the Passover sacrifice

Maybe the single most frightening sentence you can say to any Jew is: “This Shabbat is Shabbat ha-Gadol! Pesach is less than a week away: have you finished cleaning for Pesach yet?!”

The Shabbat which immediately precedes Pesach is שַׁבָּת הַגָּדוֹל – the Great Shabbat. It derives its name “from the great miracle that was performed thereon” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 430:1).

The Tosafot (Shabbat 87b, s.v. ואותו יום חמישי בשבת היה) collates various Midrashim to define what this great miracle was: On the 10th of Nisan, which was a Shabbat (just like this year, 5780), each Jewish family in Egypt took a lamb – which was the Egyptian god! – and slaughtered it publicly, while their erstwhile enslavers watched in impotent fury, powerless to prevent their erstwhile slaves from showing their contempt for their idolatrous religion.

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Shabbat ha-Gadol in non-leap years (as this year) invariably coincides with Parashat Tzav. (In leap years Shabbat ha-Gadol coincides with either Acharei Mot or Metzora.)

Parashat Tzav continues the theme of the Book of Leviticus which began last week in Parashat Vayikra – the procedures and laws of sacrifices – and details five sacrifices:


-the מִנְחָה (Minchah), Meal-Offering (6:7-11); the offering, one which every Kohen (Priest) brings the first time he performs the service in the Mishkan (later in the Holy Temple), and two, which the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) brings on the day he assumes office and every day subsequently (6:12-16);

-the חַטָּאת  (Chattat), Sin-Offering (6:17-19);

-the אָשָׁם (Asham), Guilt Offering (7:1-8);

-the תּוֹדָה (Todah), Thanks-Offering (7:11-18).


The general rule is that no chametz accompanies any sacrifice or offering. Whether the offering consists of animal, bird, wheat-flour, barley-flour, oil, wine, or any combination of these, the bread is almost always unleavened: “Every Minchah/Meal-Offering which you sacrifice to Hashem shall not be made leavened, because you shall cause no leavening or honey to go up in smoke as a fire-offering to Hashem” (Leviticus 2:11).

There are only two exceptions to this rule:

  • The seven lambs, one bull, and two rams which are sacrificed on Shavuot (Leviticus 23:17).

  • The Thanks-Offering which is the final sacrifice mentioned in Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 7:11-18);

These sacrifices are both offered with leavened bread; although in both cases, none of the leavened bread is placed on the Altar, in accordance with the prohibition in Leviticus 2:11.

The Shavuot-offering is not our topic here. There is, however, a connection between the Thanks-Offering and the Pesach-offering. As we already noted, the Thanks-Offering is the final sacrifice which appears in Parashat Tzav, which in non-leap years is invariably Shabbat ha-Gadol; so the Thanks-Offering is the final offering that we will read about before Pesach.

In some ways the Thanks-Offering and the Pesach-offering seem to be opposites: the Thanks-Offering is distinguished by being one of the only two offerings (and the only voluntary offering) which includes chametz, while the Pesach-offering, and of course the Pesach-Festival itself, is distinguished by the prohibition on chametz.

Yet paradoxically, both the Thanks-Offering and the prohibition on chametz on Pesach fulfil the same function.

There were four situations after which a Jew would express his gratitude to G-d by offering the Thanks-Offering: safely crossing the ocean, safely crossing a desert, recovery from sickness, and release from prison (Berachot 54b and Rashi’s commentary to Leviticus 7:12).

The purpose of the Thanks-Offering was that the Jew publicise his gratitude to G-d. The offering consisted of a single animal (male or female sheep, goat, or cattle) and forty loaves of bread.

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ma’asei ha-Korbanot/Laws of Execution of Sacrifices 9:17-21) details exactly how these forty loaves of bread were prepared:

The bread was divided into four batches of ten loaves each. The sacrificer would first take 20 issaron (approximately 5 litres/three-quarters U.S. gallon) of flour, and from that make ten loaves of leavened bread and 30 loaves of unleavened bread – 10 kneaded and oven-baked, 10 thick wafer-like loaves, and 10 scalded in boiling water, partially baked, fried in a pot like doughnuts, and finally deep-fried.

The 10 leavened loaves were prepared without oil; for the 30 unleavened loaves the sacrificer would use half a log (approximately 0.15 litres/one-third U.S. pint) of oil.

These measurements indicate the considerably large volume of bread involved in the Thanks-Offering.

Of the animal that was sacrificed, the breast and thigh would be eaten by the Kohen and his family. The rest of the animal could be eaten by anyone – typically the sacrificer and his guests.

One loaf of each type would go to the Kohen, in accordance with the instruction in Leviticus 7:14 (See Rashi there, also Menachot 7:2, Pesachim 37a-b, and the Rambam, Laws of Execution of Sacrifices 9:21). The remaining 36 loaves could be eaten by anyone – again typically the sacrificer and his guests.

The meat could be prepared in any way – cooked, roasted, boiled, spiced, flavoured, cooked with other foods (Laws of Execution of Sacrifices 10:10). There were only two limitations: the first was that the bread and meat could be eaten anywhere in the Israelite camp but only within the camp; when the Holy Temple was built, it could be eaten anywhere in Jerusalem but only in Jerusalem. And the second limitation was that it had to be eaten by midnight on the day of the sacrifice (Zevachim 5:6, Laws of Execution of Sacrifices 10:5, 8).

To eat such a large quantity of food within the time allotted, the sacrificer would perforce have to host a fairly large party. And this guaranteed that the salvation which G-d had granted him would be publicised, and in all probability would become a memorable occasion for everyone involved.

Like the Thanks-Offering, the Korban Pesach (the Pesach Sacrifice) too could be eaten anywhere in Jerusalem but only in Jerusalem, and had to be eaten entirely by midnight (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:9 & Zevachim 5:8; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Korban Pesach/Laws of the Pesach Sacrifice 8:15 and Hilchot P’suley ha-Mukdashin/Laws of Disqualified Consecrations 6:12).

And like the Thanks-Offering, the Korban Pesach would be shared by a large group of people. None of it could be left over till the morning, and therefore to ensure that all the meat of the lamb or kid would be eaten, there would probably have to be at least a dozen people, and maybe as many as fifty people, in each group assigned to any given Korban Pesach.

Tragically we have offered neither Todah nor Korban Pesach in centuries. The last time any sacrifice at all was offered in the Holy Temple was some 1,950 years ago, before the destruction by the Romans.

544 years later, in the year 4374 (614 C.E.), Binyamin of T’verya (Tiberias) led the Jews of Israel in an alliance with King Khosrau II of Persia to wrest the Land of Israel from the Roman Empire. The Jews defeated the Byzantine garrison in Jerusalem after a 20-day siege, governed the city for three years, began rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and briefly re-instated sacrifices, even though the Holy Temple was not standing.

Since then there have been sporadic Pesach-sacrifices on the Temple Mount, but the last seems to have been more than 700 years ago.

Nevertheless, the underlying rationale of both the Thanks-Offering and of the Pesach-Sacrifice remains: we are obligated to thank G-d publicly for His salvations – the mundane and routine individual events (such as recovery from sickness or completing hazardous journeys safely) no less than the epoch-making history-changing miraculous national salvation from Egypt.

Though the one is distinguished by being celebrated with chametz and the other one is distinguished by being celebrated without chametz, and they thus seem to be opposites, nevertheless the Thanks-Offering (the last sacrifice we will read about before Pesach) and the Korban Pesach both convey the same ideology. When G-d sends His salvation, we are obligated to celebrate it in public. We are obligated to publicise it.

The Jew cannot celebrate alone. The Thanks-Offering and the Pesach-Offering are both designed such that they must perforce be celebrated as part of a large group – “because in the multitude of the nation is the glory of the King” (Proverbs 14:28).

And this casts a dark and giant shadow over this year’s Pesach celebration: we all love celebrating the Seder Night with family, with relatives, with friends, with our communities. It is precisely the communal experience that makes the Seder Night what it is.

Indeed we begin the Seder Night with an open invitation:

כָּל דִכְפִין – יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל!; כָּל דִצְרִיךְ – יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח!, “Anyone who is hungry – let him come and eat! Anyone who needs – let him come and celebrate Pesach!”

This is what defines the Seder Night: celebrating with the community.

This year, millions of Jews the world over will sorely and sadly miss the community experience, the celebration with friends, family, and assorted other guests.

No doubt you too, dear reader, feel the acute disappointment. Something will be missing. This coming Seder will of course be smaller than ever.

But is that really all that’s missing?

You know what’s REALLY missing, and has been for millennia?

– The Korban Pesach, the Pesach Sacrifice. That’s what is missing, and that’s what has been missing from the Seder Service throughout your life.

Because without the Korban Pesach, we have not celebrated Pesach at all!

We conclude the Seder Night with the brief declaration חֲסַל סִדּוּר פֶּסַח כְּהִלְכָתוֹ:

“The Pesach-service is completed according to its halachah,

According to its judgment and its law;

As we have merited to arrange it,

So may we merit to do it!

“O Pure One, Dweller on High!

Raise up the Congregation of ‘Who can number it?’ ;

Soon lead the plants of Your vineyard [Israel]

Redeemed, to Zion, in joyous song!”

And then the resounding climax of the Seder Night:

לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בִּירוּשָׁלַיִם הַבְּנוּיָה!

“By next year, in rebuilt Jerusalem!”

Yes we have done the Seder Service in all its details – but that is emphatically NOT the actual Pesach service.

The actual Pesach service is the Pesach Sacrifice, the Korban Pesach which must be sacrificed in the precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and eaten within Jerusalem by midnight.

And all that we do is in memory of the Korban Pesach. The Seder Service which we so love and with which we are so intimately familiar is but a poor substitute to recall what once was and what will once again be. (Which is, for example, why we are forbidden to eat anything after midnight, the latest time for eating the Korban Pesach.)

“The Pesach-service is completed according to its halakhah,


As we have merited to arrange it,

So may we merit to do it!”

Having finished reading the Seder Service, we pray that nest year we will not merely read it from our Haggadah, but actually do it – bring the Korban Pesach in its place and in its time.

The Talmud and the Midrash cite the principle that “in every place to which they [the Children of Israel] were exiled, the Shechinah [the Divine presence] was exiled with them. They were exiled to Egypt – the Shechinah was exiled with them… They were exiled to Babylon – the Shechinah was exiled with them… And similarly, when they will in the future be redeemed, the Shechinah will be with them, as it says ‘And Hashem will return with your return’ (Deuteronomy 30:3). It does not say that Hashem will הֵשִּׁיב [non-reflexive ‘return’, as in ‘He will return them’], but rather שָׁב  [reflexive ‘return’, as in ‘He will return them’]. This teaches that G-d Himself will return from the exile with them”.

The Talmud (Megillah 29a, Yerushalmi Ta’anit 1:1) cites this in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay, the Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Parashat Bo, Massechta de-Pis’cha 14 and Sifrei Bamidbar, Beha’alot’cha 84) cites this in the name of Rabbi Akiva, who was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay’s teacher and mentor.

As long as we, G-d’s children, remain exiled from Har ha-Bayit, the Temple Mount, the Shechinah Herself remains exiled from there.

If we, due to circumstances beyond our control, subject to irresistible physical force, are unable to ascend to the Temple Mount to bring Korban Pesach – do we mourn for the lack? Do we have pangs of sorrow at being unable to bring our Korban Pesach as G-d has commanded us to? Do we, at the very least, feel the terrible lack?

This year, the Seder Night will be a test that we, as a nation, have never faced before in our history:

What will we miss?

– Only our friends, family, and other guests?

Or the single most essential component of Pesach, the Pesach Sacrifice?

For which will we yearn more?

And for the restoration of which will we fight more tenaciously?

Almost as though Hashem Himself embraces us in His arms, as He weeps for His exiled Shechinah, and entreats us:

As you sit at your Seder table, as you miss those whom you love – at last you know how I Myself feel, as My beloved Shechinah still wallows in exile.

Join with Me – says Hashem Himself – and let us say together, more powerfully, more passionately, than ever before:

לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בִּירוּשָׁלַיִם הַבְּנוּיָה!

“By next year, in rebuilt Jerusalem!”