The Korban Pesach
“Good evening, Rabbi. Sorry to bother you during this busy season. Can I discuss something with you?”
“By all means, Reb Chaim. How can I help you?”
“I know this is not exactly a practical halachic question, but, seeing how there are several references to the Korban Pesach during the Seder, I was wondering what it was like to offer a Korban Pesach.”
“This is an excellent question, Reb Chaim, and a very important topic to discuss! Firstly, b’ezras Hashem, we will very shortly merit to see the Avodah in the Beis HaMikdash. Also, the Chofetz Chaim writes extensively on the importance of learning the halachos of korbanos. The possuk says (Yirmiyahu 33:18), “And for the Cohanim who are from Levi, there will never be cut off a man from before Me, who offers an elevation-offering and burns meal-offerings and performs peace offerings all the days.” The Yalkut relates an incident where someone said to Rabbi Yosi that we see from this possuk that the Torah is false, as we do not find Cohanim offering sacrifices anymore. Rabbi Yosi responded, chas veshalom! The Torah is Truth! Hashem says to the Cohanim: If you involve yourselves in the laws of the korbanos, I will consider it as if you brought an elevation-offering every day.
“The Chofetz Chaim bemoans the fact that we are lazy and do not learn these halachos. If the Beis HaMikdash were standing, how much effort and money would we spend to go there and offer a korban in order to gain atonement for some sin? Here the Yalkut tells us that we do not have to spend money! Just sit and learn the halachos!” (See the Chafetz Chaim’s introduction to Sefer Avodas HaKorbanos, written by his son-in-law, HaRav Aharon HaCohain, who was the Rav and Av Beis Din of Michalishok)
“So how did a person get ready to offer a Korban Pesach?”
“The first thing one had to do was to come to Yerushalayim. The Korban Pesach is considered kodshim kalim, a sacrifice of lesser holiness, and had to be eaten within the walls of the city.”
“What do you mean by “lesser holiness” – lesser than what?”
“There are two categories of korbanos: kodshei kodoshim and kodshim kalim, those of higher and lesser holiness. There are several differences between them, but for the purpose of our discussion, we will focus on where these korbanos were eaten and by whom. Kodshei Kodoshim, which includes a Korban Chatas, a korban brought if one inadvertantly transgresses a negative commandment, can only be eaten by Cohanim in the Azarah of the Beis HaMikdash. This was the area containing the actual building of the Beis HaMikdash and the Mizbay’ach. Kodshim Kalim, on the other hand, which includes Korban Todah, which was brought to thank Hashem for having been saved from a dangerous situation, and Korban Pesach, and may be eaten anywhere within the walled city.”
HOW MANY PEOPLE?
“So, that means that most of country’s population came to Yerushalayim. How many people were there?”
“It was not just people from all over Eretz Yisrael, but large groups came from Bavel as well. As to how many people there were, the Gemara (Pesachim 64b) relates that King Agripas took a census by asking the cohain gadol to take a kidney from each Korban Pesach. They counted 1,200,000 kidneys! The Gemara continues to relate that there was a maximum of ten people eating each korban. Although there are other opinions (see Midrash Eichah 1:2) that up to a hundred people ate from each korban, let us suffice with the smallest number. According to this, there were 12,000,000 people in Yerushalayim who were eating the korban! This does not include all the people who could not eat the korban, such as those who were tamei, sick or old.”
“But, the walled city of Yerushalayim is so small! How was it possible for all those people to find place?”
“Wait, there is more! Not only did every person have to find a place to eat the korban, he had to find a place on the ground floor! The Gemara says that although the korban had to be eaten within the walled city, it could only be eaten on the ground floor, since upper levels and rooftops were not awarded the unique sanctity of the walled city. Also, one must take into consideration that when eating the korban they were reclining on couches which necessitated even more room!” (Pesachim 85b)
“You have just strengthened my question. How was it possible?”
“I want to point out that the present walls of the Old City of Yerushalayim are for the most part not the walls that define the halachic boundaries of the city. Rather, they were built at a later date. During the time of the Beis HaMikdash, the walled city was slightly larger than it is now. Even so, it does not make much of a difference, because physically there still was not enough room.
The real answer is that one must keep in mind the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:7) that lists ten miracles that occurred in the Beis HaMikdash. The last of which is, ‘A person never said to his fellow, the space is insufficient for me to stay overnight in Yerushalayim.’ Although the Mishnah refers specifically to the fact that there was always room for people to spend the night, and they could sleep on the upper floors, it is obvious that the miracle extended to other areas as well. For example, a person never had a problem finding an oven to roast his Korban Pesach.” (Avos D’Rabbi Noson, chapter 35)
“In order to eat the korban, didn’t they need to purify themselves from tumah?”
“That is correct. For most types of tumah, such as touching the carcass of an animal that died, it is sufficient to immerse in a mikvah and wait until nightfall. However, with the more stringent type of tumah, tumas meis, a more involved process is required. Anyone who came in contact with or was under the same roof as a dead body, or walked over a grave, is tamei. The only way this tumah is removed is by being sprinkled with water in which the ashes of the parah adumah were mixed. This was done on the third and seventh days of the seven-day purification process.
“There were specific streets in Yerushalayim where one could go to be sprinkled upon. Someone stood in a window on this street and sprinkled the water on the passersby. There were so many people being purified that the street became slippery due to the great amounts of water.” (Parah 12:4)
“Is that not the reason we read Parshas Parah during Adar; in order to remind everyone that they need to purify themselves in preparation for Pesach?”
“That is a correct observation, Reb Chaim.
“After the seven day purification process, he needed to immerse in a mikvah. In addition, not only people who were tamei needed to immerse, but according to some opinions, anyone who entered the Azarah, the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash, needed to immerse, even if he was completely tahor. (See Rashi and Tosafos to Mishnah on Yuma 30a)
“Using the numbers we discussed earlier, there were 1,200,000 people bringing Korban Pesach. All of these people had to immerse before entering the Beis HaMikdash! To facilitate the flow of people, the mikvaos were built with two sets of stairs, one for entering and one for exiting. Even so, assuming it took a minimum of ten seconds to go down, immerse and come up, this would require over 3,000 hours! There had to be a significant number of mikvaos available in order to allow everyone a chance to go to mikvah get to the Beis HaMikdash. This need was even more pronounced on Yom Tov itself, when there was a mitzvah for every male to enter the Beis HaMikdash. There were millions of people immersing!”
“You quoted the Gemara that there were well over a million animals brought as the Korban Pesach. Where did they get so many animals?”
“Certainly many people brought the animals with them, but many also needed to buy them in Yerushalayim. The Sanhedrin required all the cattle dealers in the area surrounding the city to bring their animals, so they should be available for purchase (see Rav MiBartanura to Shekalim 3:1, s.v. v’hein granos shel ma’aser). According to the testimony of a Roman living during the time of the second Beis Hamikdash, one could not see the grass on the hills surrounding Yerushalayim due to the multitude of animals.” (quoted in the Siddur of Rav Yaakov Emden)
LAMBS AND GOATS
“What type of animals can be used for the Korban Pesach?”
“The Korban Pesach must be an unblemished, male lamb or goat within the first year of its life. Also, as with all other korbanos, the animal can only be offered as a korban from the eighth day of its life.”
“In Mitzrayim the Jews were commanded to choose the lamb or goat to be used for the Korban Pesach on the tenth of Nisan, even though they were not going to use the animal until Erev Pesach. The Midrash comments that they tied the animal to their beds for four days. Does this apply to future generations as well?”
“The Gemara (Pesachim 96a) concludes that only the Korban Pesach in Mitzrayim had to be purchased on the tenth of the month, while future korbanos did not. However, the korban still requires four days of examination to ensure that it has no blemishes.
“Once the animal has been purchased and examined, the owner sanctifies it as a Korban Pesach.”
WHY IS THIS KORBAN DIFFERENT THAN ALL OTHER KORBANOS?
“How was the Korban Pesach different from other korbanos?”
“Korban Pesach has many unique requirements which we do not find by other korbanos. With all other korbanos, the owner can invite anyone who is tahor to partake of the korban, even after the korban has been slaughtered. But with the Korban Pesach, one must become a member of the group that will eat that particular animal, and this registration must take place before the animal is slaughtered.
“Once the group (Chaburah) has been formed, there are many halachos that apply to the members of the Chaburah. Although the mitzvah of destroying chametz dictates that no one is allowed to own chametz from chatzos on Erev Pesach, anyone in the Chaburah who owns any chametz at the time the korban is offered, transgresses the additional negative commandment of “You shall not slaughter with chametz the blood of my sacrifice.” (Shemos 34:25) Aside from the members of the Chaburah, this also includes anyone involved in the primary forms of offering the korban: slaughtering, throwing the blood on the altar or burning the parts of the animal that are burnt on the altar.
“All the members of the Chaburah have to: 1) be able to eat a kazayis of the korban; 2) make sure that they and all of their children and non-Jewish slaves have been circumcised; 3) be all tahorim.”
THE KORBAN PESACH AND THE NON-JEW
“You mention that everyone has to be circumcised. Does this mean that a non-Jew cannot eat the korban?”
“Actually, the prohibition of giving a non-Jew to eat of the korban has nothing to do with whether he is circumcised. In fact the Torah specifically prohibits non-Jews even when they are circumcised and even if they accept upon themselves not to worship idols. (See Shemos 12:43, 45 and Rashi there)
“As an aside, this halacha of not allowing a non-Jew to eat from the Korban Pesach is the basis for the misconception that it is forbidden to invite a non-Jew to the Seder. Technically speaking, as far as the halachos of the Seder are concerned, there is nothing wrong with having a non-Jew participating. However, inviting a non-Jew to a Yom Tov meal runs afoul of Hilchos Yom Tov. This halacha is a topic for a future discussion.
“The Gemara (Pesachim 3b) relates a fascinating story about this. There was a non-Jew who would go to Yerushalayim every year disguised as a Jew and partake of the Korban Pesach. One year, he boasted to Rabbi Yehudah ben Besaira that although the Torah prohibits a non-Jew from eating the Korban Pesach, he eats it every year. Rabbi Yehudah ben Besaira asked him whether he ever ate the fatty tail. When the non-Jew answered that he had not, Rabbi Yehudah ben Besaira slyly told him that the next time he goes, he should ask for that part. This was a plot of Rabbi Yehuda ben Besaira to trap him.
“When the non-Jew went to the Beis HaMikdash, he asked for the tail. The other members of the Chaburah were surprised at this request, since the tail is burnt on the mizbai’ach. When he told them that Rabbi Yehudah ben Besaira told him to ask for the tail, they realized that there was something unusual going on. They investigated and discovering his true identity, put him to death. They sent a message to Rabbi Yehudah ben Besaira, ‘Peace to you, Rabbi Yehudah ben Besaira! You sit in Netzivin, and your net is spread in Yerushalayim.’”
“Why did they kill him? Is it a capital offense for a non-Jew to eat the Korban Pesach?”
“There is a discussion as to the reason for killing him. One of the reasons given is he transgressed the prohibition of stealing. This was because had the other members of the Chaburah known that he was a non-Jew when they sold him his portion of the korban, they never would have sold it to him. The halacha is that a non-Jew who transgresses one of the Seven Noahide Laws is put to death even if he was not warned beforehand that this act carries the death penalty.” (Ein Eliyahu)
“Taking into consideration what a person had to do to prepare for Pesach when we had the Beis HaMikdash, nowadays, making Pesach is a piece of cake – Pesachdik of course. He had to become tahor, purchase and check a lamb or kid goat, organize a Chaburah to eat the korban, and a place to eat it and go to mikvah.”
“Yes, it is true. Pesach then was very busy. However, the spiritual rewards were beyond measure! They were able to see the constant miracles in the Beis HaMikdash. During the Yom Tov, the cohanim pulled back the Paroches so everyone could see how the Keruvim were hugging each other, which indicated Hashem’s love for His People.” (Yoma 54)
ENTERING THE BAIS HAMIKDASH
“What happened next?”
“On Erev Pesach after having immersed in a mikvah, people made their way to the Beis HaMikdash. The Korban Pesach was slaughtered after the Korban Tamid of the afternoon, approximately three and a half hours before sunset. If Erev Pesach was on Erev Shabbos, they would bring both the Korban Tamid and the Korban Pesach ahead one hour. The reason was to allow time to roast the Korban Pesach before Shabbos. (Pesachim 59)
“Before continuing, let me give you a brief description of the various areas of the Beis HaMikdash that are relevant to our discussion. A person who wished to enter the Beis HaMikdash would first arrive at the Har HaBayis, which was a large enclosed area where the Beis HaMikdash compound stood. He would then enter the area where the Simchas Beis HaSho’eivah took place on Succos, which was called the Ezras Nashim. He then proceeded into the Azarah, or Temple Courtyard. This was divided into two areas: Ezras Yisrael and Ezras Cohanim. Generally, the Yisraelim, or non-cohanim, stood in the Ezras Yisrael. However, when it was necessary to do the Avodah, they were also allowed into the Ezras Cohanim. (See Kalim 1:6) The Ezras Cohanim contained, among other things, the mizbay’ach and the actual building of the Beis HaMikdash. The dimensions of Ezras Yisrael and Ezras Cohanim were one hundred and thirty-five by one hundred and ten ammos, or two hundred and twenty feet by one hundred and eighty feet. After subtracting buildings, this comprised an area of approximately 39,600 square feet.”
“Is the size significant?”
“Yes. You will see shortly how important this fact is.
“Everyone is now converging on the Beis HaMikdash with their lambs and goats. The Gemara tells us (Pesachim 64) that the Korban Pesach was slaughtered in three groups. People would enter the Ezras Yisrael until it was full and the doors would miraculously close, according to one opinion (ibid.).”
HOW MANY PER SQUARE FOOT?
“How many people fit in there?”
“According to Agripas’ census, there were 1,200,000 korbanos. Each Chabura sent at least one person with their korban. The Gemara tells us that the third group was the smallest of the three. Therefore, let us assume that in the first two groups 500,000 people and an equal number of lambs and goats, entered the Ezras Yisrael and Ezras Cohanim, and the remaining 200,000 entered as the third group.”
“That’s impossible! You said that the area of Ezras Yisrael and Ezras Cohanim was only 39,600 square feet. That means that more than twelve people, not counting animals, stood in each square foot!”
“Technically, you are correct. But, we are dealing with the Beis HaMikdash. The same Mishnah which I quoted earlier that there was always room to sleep in Yerushalayim, also says that in the Beis HaMikdash they would stand packed together and bow down on the floor with ample room.”
BRINGING THE KORBAN
“What was the procedure at this point?”
“When the shechita started, the Levi’im started singing Hallel. Whenever the Levi’im would start Hallel, three tekios were blown from trumpets. If the Levi’im concluded Hallel and the shechita had not yet been completed, they would start again. Although, it never happened, if it were necessary, the Levi’im would recite Hallel a third time. This was true with the first two groups. However, the third group, as I mentioned was smaller. Therefore, the Levi’im never reached ‘Ahavati’ even once when reciting Hallel for the third group.
Even someone who was not a cohain could do the shechitah. However, a cohain had to catch the blood in a sanctified vessel. The four primary activities done to the korban: slaughtering, catching or ‘accepting’ the blood, transporting the blood to the mizbay’ach and pouring it on the wall of the mizbay’ach, had to be done with the intent that this is for the sake of the Korban Pesach and for the sake of its owners. If at anytime during these primary tasks the one doing it had a different intent, the korban is invalid. (Rambam, Pesulei HaMukdashin 15:1)
FASTER THAN A SPEEDING BULLET
“In order to facilitate the process, the Gemara tells us (ibid. 64) that there were rows of cohanim leading from where the korban was slaughtered up to the mizbay’ach. A cohain would catch the blood in a vessel and pass it to his friend, who would pass it along until it reached the mizbay’ach. The cohain closest to the mizbay’ach would pour it on the wall of the mizbay’ach above the Yesod.”
“What was the yesod?”
“At the base of the mizbay’ach there was a ‘step’ one ammah high and one ammah wide, specifically on the northern and western sides. The blood had to be poured above the yesod; otherwise the korban was invalid.
“Each row of cohanim had either silver or gold vessels. These vessels were traveling in two directions: the full vessels towards the mizbay’ach and the empty ones back towards the slaughtering area. Each cohain in the row would pass a full vessel and then receive an empty one. According to the testimony of the Roman non-Jew from that time, the cohanim were passing the vessels with such speed that they appeared like flying arrows.”
“The thought just occurred to me, that the slaughtering also bordered on the miraculous. You told me that they started the shechitah three and a half hours before sunset. That means that they only had three and a half hours to slaughter 1,200,000 lambs and goats. Even assuming that there were one hundred people slaughtering at the same time, that still worked out to be approximately one animal per second!”
“Yes, that is a correct observation, Reb Chaim.”
“What happened after the shechitah?”
“The korban had to be skinned. There were hooks on the walls of the Azarah and on pillars. They hung the animal on the hooks and skinned it.
“After this, they cut open the stomach and removed certain internal organs and fats called the eimurim. The eimurim were then placed in a vessel, salted and burned on the mizbay’ach.
“This entire process was repeated for each of the three groups. Once they finished bringing all the korbanos, they needed to clean the Azarah of all the blood. There was a stream of water which flowed through the Azarah. Whenever they wished to wash the floor they would plug up the stream’s point of exit. The water would overflow and collect all the dirt and blood from the marble floor. They would then unplug the hole and the water and dirt would drain out.”
“When did the people return home with the korbanos?”
“That depended on whether Erev Pesach was on Shabbos or during the week. If Erev Pesach was a weekday, once each group completed their korban, they left the Beis HaMikdash. However, if it was Shabbos, they could not leave the enclosed area of the Beis HaMikdash because of the prohibition of carrying. Therefore, the first group took their korbanos and waited on Har HaBayis. The second group waited with their korbanos in the area called the Chail. This was a fenced in section on Har HaBayis surrounding the walls of the Ezras Nashim and the Azarah. The third group remained in the Azarah. Once Shabbos was over, everyone was able to leave.”
ROASTING THE MEAT
“How was the Korban Pesach prepared?”
“The Torah gives us detailed instruction how the korban is to be prepared. It must be roasted by fire and not cooked with any type of liquid. It must be completely roasted and not underdone, and certainly not raw. Also, it must be roasted whole, with the innards on the spit outside the body.
“Based on these requirements, Chazal determined that the spit used for roasting has to be made of pomegranate wood. This is because, if the spit were to release water during the roasting, the meat that comes in contact with the spit would be considered cooked and not roasted. Pomegranate wood is the only wood that does not release water when heated.
“Also, one may not use a metal spit since the heating of the metal outside the body causes the metal on the inside to get hot. The meat touching the spit in this case is considered to be roasted by the metal and not by the fire.”
“As long as we are on the topic of roasting, let me point out an interesting tidbit based on our earlier calculations of the number of korbanos. It is very possible that every Chaburah had its own oven for roasting. This is especially true when Erev Pesach was on Shabbos, and everyone was roasting the korban at the same time when Shabbos was over. If each oven was three feet square, the ovens alone would cover an area of almost four square miles!”
“Are there any other mitzvos when eating the Korban Pesach?”
“Yes there are. We are commanded to eat matzah and marror together with the korban. There is a mitzvah not to break any bones of the korban. If someone wishes to cut a piece of meat that has a bone, he is only permitted to disconnect the bones at the joint.
“When a chaburah eats the korban, they must eat it in an enclosed area. If two chaburos are eating in one room, they must make a partition between them. One is not allowed to take the meat of the korban from one chaburah to another even in the same house and certainly to a different house.”
“There seem to be so many mitzvos related to the Korban Pesach!”
“Yes. All together, the Chinuch enumerates nine mitzvos directly related to the Korban Pesach. He explains that the reason behind each of these mitzvos is in order to remember the miracles that Hashem did for us during the exodus from Mitzrayim. In addition to the mitzvos of Korban Pesach, there are many other mitzvos that share the same reason.”
“Why do we need so many mitzvos to remind us of the same thing? Would it not have been sufficient to give us one mitzvah to remind us of the miracles?”
“That is an excellent question! In fact, the Chinuch addresses this issue (#16). He explains that the nature of a person is that he is affected by his actions. If a wicked person would involve himself with good deeds and Torah learning even to a small degree, he will immediately be drawn after other mitzvos. And if a virtuous person were put in a position where he was forced to do wicked actions, he will turn into an evil person.
“This is the meaning of what Chazal said (Makos 23b), “HaKadosh Boruch Hu wanted to bestow merit to Yisrael, therefore He increased for them Torah u’mitzvos.” The more mitzvos we do, the better people we become. Therefore, concludes the Chinuch, we should not wonder why there are so many mitzvos which remind us of the miracles of Yitzi’as Mitzrayim, for this is a tremendous foundation of our Torah. By doing the many mitzvos that remind us of this great event, the more we will internalize it.”
Chag Kosher v’Samayach!
(Most of the material regarding the mathematical calculations in this article was taken from the pamphlet “HaHallel b’Hakravas Korban Pesach,” by HaRav Hillel Brisk of Yerushalayim.)