THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Bo – פרשת בא
February 1, 2020 – ו שבט תשפ
This essay is sponsored by Honey & Sol Neier and Claire & Sam Krumper in memory of Roslyn Levine.
The Unbroken Bone
The original Paschal Lamb was slaughtered on the penultimate day of the Israelites’ presence in Egypt and was consumed on their final night in the house of bondage. Among the sundry regulations pertaining to the sacrifice there is a curious detail. “No bone shall you break in it (Exodus 12:46).”
Scripture baldly sets forth the law; no explanation is given for the prohibition on bone-breaking. Mekhilta notes that the law does not apply to all sacrificial carcasses; it is specific to the Paschal Lamb. The Talmud further limits the extent of the prohibition to bones attached to an olives’-bulk volume of meat (Pesahim 84b).
The typical reason for breaking a bone is to gain access to and consume additional meat or bone marrow. In light of the separate prohibition on leaving over uneaten meat until morning (Exodus 12:10), it might seem odd for Scripture to prohibit an action conducive to consuming the meal in its entirety.
Rashbam related the prohibition on breaking bones to the rule mandating that the Paschal Lamb be eaten in haste (12:11). When one eats in a state of חפזון there is no time leisurely to break bones and suck out marrow. Enthusiasm for the impending Exodus was to take priority over savoring the meal.
Hizkuni noted that the Paschal Lamb was ideally consumed while one was nearly sated. The Torah commands one to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs together with, or possibly prior to, eating the Paschal Lamb (12:8). In Temple times the Hagigah sacrifice was eaten as the main course, with the Korban Pesach functioning as dessert eaten on a relatively full stomach. The goal was to eat the Paschal Lamb in a dignified manner and not in a state of ravenous hunger. Breaking the bones would give the unseemly appearance of gluttony and savagery. The strength of this interpretation is its connection to the first half of Exodus 12:46. “In one house it shall be eaten; you shall not take any meat from the house.” The ideal Passover meal was conducted in one setting from start to finish. Greco-Roman practice was to fan out upon the end of a celebratory meal and bring the eating, drinking and debauchery into nearby residences. It was this debased practice to which the sages were referring when they prohibited Afikoman (Pesachim 119b). In this view, both requirements of the verse -- the prohibitions on transferring sacrificial meat and breaking sacrificial bones -- set the tone for a respectable holiday feast.
Sefer Ha-chinuch essentially agreed with Hizkuni but took this idea further. He noted that on the night of the Exodus the Israelites had to comport themselves in the manner of emancipated people and monarchs. On that basis, it would be beneath the dignity of the Israelites to break bones in the course of the feast. (The later custom of reclining during the Seder is similarly explained.)
Hizkuni offered a second interpretation, which focuses on the distribution of sacrificial parts. The Paschal Lamb was eaten in a group setting by those who had pre-registered to partake of that particular animal. Each participant was given an equal share of the meat. In the commandment not to break bones, Scripture instructs those consuming the sacrifice not to demand an equitable division of the inedible portions of the animal. This explanation has no bearing on table manners, and instead stresses the unity of the carcass as being significant in its own right. Similarly, Robert Alter sees in the prohibition of bone-breaking the idea of the wholeness of the sacrificial meal. “The lamb is fire-roasted whole, after which only the meat that can be cut away is consumed.” Kaufmann Kohler and Julian Morgenstern saw in our verse a belief in resurrection and reincarnation for a carcass preserved with its bones intact.
The Zohar offers a radically different understanding of our verse. The bones of the Paschal Lamb were to remain intact because the whole skeletal structure of the animal was to be placed outside the home the next morning. Dogs would then pounce on the carcasses, break the bones, and drag them off. The Egyptians, who worshipped the lamb as a manifestation of their deity, would be mortified by the sacrilege. They would desperately attempt to collect the strewn bones and bury them out of canine reach.
The trouble with this interpretation, as is often the case with the Zohar, is that it adds significant elements to the narrative that do not appear in the text. Yet there is merit to this theory because it helps explain an earlier verse: “And I will cross through the land of Egypt on this night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt from man to beast, and from all the gods of Egypt I will exact retributions (Exodus 12:12).” God kept his promise to smite the firstborn of Egypt. But nowhere in the text does it clarify how God exacted retribution from the Egyptian deities. The greatest retribution God could exact from the false gods of Egypt would be to have their adherents come to realize how powerless those gods truly are. The charade involving the unbroken bones of the Paschal Lamb adequately served that purpose.
One should not derive from the Zohar that Judaism advocates provocatively offending the religious sensibilities of others. Certainly, in the Land of Israel there is an obligation to extirpate all forms of idolatry (Deuteronomy 12:3). We are taught that all forms of mockery are forbidden except the mocking of idolatry (Megillah 25b). However, we are also told to get along well with others during our sojourn in the diaspora. Prudence dictates that we not belittle the host nation’s majority faith, especially if it wields a bloody sword. The Talmud warns us not to antagonize any wicked person who is enjoying his “moment in the sun” (Berachot 7b). But even beyond reasons of enlightened self-interest, we ought not to have any desire to offend the religious sensitivities of otherwise honest and upstanding polytheistic neighbors. We no longer live in an era where one can equate theological error with moral turpitude or barbarism.
Accordingly, the provocative unbroken bone of the Paschal Lamb must be seen as a rare exception. As tormentors of the Israelites, the Egyptians deserved the plagues that befell them. They believed their deities to be more powerful than the God of Israel and countenanced our ancestors’ enslavement. This made nullification of their gods an essential component of the Exodus story. In that hour of Divinely-wrought salvation, when God rescued the Hebrews from a nation that knew Him not, it was necessary and appropriate to cast aside the usual inhibitions and to treat false belief with disdain.