A Sacred Lambchop

“This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. You shall eat it in a hurry; it is your Passover offering to the Lord.”

Exodus 12:11


Imagine my shock at opening up yesterday’s Washington Post food section and seeing a recipe for matza that actually does not qualify for the mitzva but was advertised as tasting better. Of course it tastes better. It’s actually bread by Jewish legal standards. And then there was the roasted rack of lamb as part of what was labeled the Karaite Passover, the Karaites being a religious sect of non-Jews who take the words of the Hebrew Bible literally. It advises that the lamb be roasted in true biblical fashion when in rabbinic Judaism we specifically do not have roasted meat on Passover today, especially not lamb. The paper’s idea was more to cultivate an exotic foodie than to observe the actual holiday with its sensitivities and established traditions.


The paschal lamb sacrifice, represented today by the shankbone on the Seder table (the one board piece that Jason Bateman wanted to be at the Seder he attended as told to Jon Stewart), is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the Seder. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his masterful Haggadah explains the reason we do not eat roasted meat at the Seder: “Unlike the two other foods, we do not lift or point at the roasted bone on the Seder plate, lest this gesture be misinterpreted as dedicating it as a sacrifice. Even after the destruction of the Temple it was not unknown for individuals to eat meat prepared to resemble the Paschal lamb. The sage took exception to this, and we are therefore careful to avoid any act that might look as if we were bestowing special status on the object symbolizing the Paschal offering.”


We honor the memory of our ancient Temple and its loss by not doing something that would mimic an offering, despite the fact that in all other ways, we try to relive that night of escape through symbolic foods at the Seder. But the paschal lamb was not a sacrifice in the typical manner of Temple gifts since there was no Temple at the time we were slaves. We were commanded to take a lamb and keep it in our homes for about two weeks and then at twilight to slaughter it, roast it, feed it to our household and guests, take blood from the slaughter and brush it with the small leaves of a hyssop plant and paint a small marking on any doorpost so that God would pass over our homes that night. It sounds like this was more of a holy B-B-Q than it was a sacrifice.


And then we read the verse above and being to understand what it really was. Before you ate, you needed to gird your loins – be ready for war – put on your sandals and have your personal staff in hand. In other words, like the matza, this was a take-out meal meant to be eaten in a hurry, filling us up before sending us out into a time of freedom and uncertainty. But haste is not the only thing emphasized here. The war imagery is meant to warn the Israelites that their next move was filled with risk. The Egyptians revered sheep. Slaughtering and roasting thousands of them at the same time would create a powerful shared aroma for the slaves and the smell of offense for the Egyptians. Maimonides mentions in The Guide for the Perplexed that killing the lamb was a theological statement, a violent rejection of a host culture’s religion. With that brazen act, they would not only want to leave Egypt, they would have to leave. The sacrifice was really their own. With this act, they gave up life as they knew it, protesting slavery and rejecting the culture of gods and pyramids.


Speaking of pyramids, Rabbi Saks tells a wonderful personal story in his Hagaddah. In 2000, he was invited to Windsor Castle to give a prestigious lecture in the presence of Prince Philip. He was the first Jew in England’s history accorded this honor. When nervous, he reminded himself of a verse from Psalms: “I will speak of Your statutes before kings and not be ashamed (119:46). Here is a snippet of what he told the esteemed audience: “Jews will never own buildings like Windsor Castle. We are not that kind of people. But we own something that is, in its way, no less majestic and even more consecrated by time. The Jewish castle is built not of bricks or stone, but of words.


We will share many of those words together in a few nights’ time. In rejecting the culture of pyramids, we began building our own majestic castle of words that transcended time and space and touch upon eternity.


Shabbat Shalom. Have a joyous Passover.