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, 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 (like this year 5783) 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 – the procedures and laws of sacrifices – and details five offerings:
The מִנְחָה/Meal-Offering (6:7-11);
The offering which every Kohen brings the first time he performs the service in the Mishkan (later in the Holy Temple), and which the Kohen Gadol brings on the day he assumes office and every day subsequently (6:12-16);
The חַטַּאת /Sin-Offering (6:17-19);
The אָשָׁם /Guilt Offering (7:1-8);
The תּוֹדָה /Thanks-Offering (7:11-18).
The general rule is that no chametz at all can ever accompany 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. The Torah commands that “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 תּוֹדָה, Todah (Thanks-Offering), which is the final sacrifice mentioned in Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 7:11-18);
The seven lambs, one bull, and two rams which are sacrificed on Shavuot (Leviticus 23:17).
These are both offered with leavened bread. 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; the תּוֹדָה (Thanks-Offering) is. Specifically, the connexion between the תּוֹדָה and the Pesach-offering.
As we already noted, the תּוֹדָה is the final offering which appears in Parashat Tzav, which in non-leap years is invariably Shabbat ha-Gadol; so the תּוֹדָה is the final offering that we will read about before Pesach.
In some ways, the תּוֹדָה and the Pesach-offering are opposites: The תּוֹדָה is distinguished by being one of the only two offerings (and the only voluntary offering) which includes chametz, while the פֶּסַח is distinguished by the prohibition on chametz. Yet paradoxically, both the תּוֹדָה 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 תּוֹדָה:
safely crossing the ocean;
safely crossing a desert;
recovery from sickness;
release from prison (Berachot 54b and Rashi, commentary to Leviticus 7:12).
The purpose of the תּוֹדָה was that the Jew publicise his gratitude to G-d by means of an offering. This offering consisted of a single animal (male or female sheep, goat, or cattle) and forty loaves of bread.
The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, 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 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 of oil.
These measurements indicate the volume of bread involved in the Todah. An issaron is one-tenth of an ephah, which is approximately 25 litres (6½ US gallons), and one log is approximately 0.3 litres (0.7 US gallons). Hence these 40 loaves were made from approximately five litres (1.3 US gallons) of flour and 0.15 litres (one-third US pint) of oil.
Of the animal that was sacrificed, the breast and thigh would be eaten by the Kohen (Priest) 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 and 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.
The prohibition on chametz for the seven days of Pesach fulfils the same function. The seemingly endless cleaning, scrubbing, scourging, scouring for the weeks before Pesach, the different foods that we eat during Pesach – this all guarantees that the miracles which Pesach celebrates are publicised and seared deep into the memory of every Jew, and etched deep into our collective national consciousness.
Like the Todah, 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 and Zevachim 5:8; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Korban Pesach/Laws of the Pesach Sacrifice 8:15 and Laws of Disqualified Consecrations 6:12).
And like the Todah, the Korban Pesach would perforce 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 korban was offered in the Holy Temple was some 1,953 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 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 Todah and of Pesach remains. In the words of the Mishnah – made famous by being quoted in the Pesach Haggadah – “In every single generation one is obligated to see himself as though he personally had come forth out of Egypt… We are therefore to thank, to praise, to laud, to exalt, to aggrandize, to glorify, to bless, to elevate, and to extol He Who wrought all these miracles for our fathers and for us” (Pesachim 10:5).
Indeed, 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 Todah (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. We are obligated to publicise it.
And finally – the Jew cannot celebrate alone. The תּוֹדָה and the פֶּסַח 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).