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Parshat Bo – Korban Pesach Today: Can we? Should we?

Shevat 5783 | January 2023


Pesach Dorot

When Moshe tells Israel to bring the Korban Pesach (Paschal Offering) in Egypt, he also informs them, “When you come to the land that the Lord will give you as spoken, you shall observe this [sacrificial] service.”[1] The midrash learns from here that the future obligation to bring the Korban Pesach is dependent on settlement of the Land of Israel.[2] Indeed, throughout the forty year sojourn in the wilderness the People of Israel only brought the Korban Pesach once, in the first year, when God explicitly commanded them to do so.[3]

Rambam rules that since the time of Kings David and Shlomo the Korban Pesach must be brought on the Temple Mount, in the azara (sanctuary), and not on a private altar (bamat yachid).[4] This does not mean that the Temple itself is necessary. There is a clear tradition that the returning exiles offered sacrifices on the Temple Mount before the Second Temple was built.[5] Several notable rabbanim and academic scholars interpret rabbinic and historical sources to claim the Korban Pesach was offered after the Second Temple was destroyed.[6] These claims are contested. There are no clear accounts that offerings were brought on the Temple Mount in accordance with halakha; the clearest accounts relate to offerings brought outside Jerusalem, against what is now accepted halakha.[7]

Even before the establishment of the modern State of Israel there were attempts to reinstitute the Pesach sacrifice. In the 13th century Rav Yechiel of Paris, one of the Ba’alei Tosafot, seems to have intended to bring offerings when he arrived at Jerusalem. Although his plan did not come to fruition, his contemporary Rav Ashtori HaParchi discusses the halakhic issues involved and deems them surmountable.[8] With the growing Jewish settlement in the 19th century the halakhic discussion was renewed. Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, one of the foremost proponents of renewing the sacrificial service at that time, discusses 3 central halakhic obstacles involved:

“1. It is very difficult to build a Temple according to the characteristics, which are intelligently designed from the Lord.

  1. We are all tameii meit (ritually impure due to proximity to dead bodies) and we do not have the ashes of the para aduma (red calf) to purify us, so how can our feet tread on the abode of the blessed Divine Presence?
  2. Finding a Kohen Meyuchas (a Priest with verified lineage) from the seed of Aharon, for who will tell us that there is nothing illegitimate in his forebears (that would invalidate him from serving)?”[9]

Rav Kalischer concludes that none of these are obstacles. Rabbi Akiva Eiger and the Chatam Sofer are ultimately convinced, and the former even asked the latter to use his connections with powerful people to advance the issue.[10] But as we shall see, not all agree. Some raise additional concerns, claiming that communal offerings must be funded by the makhatzit hashekel, or that the service is prohibited because we lack the priestly vestments and the knowledge of the proper dyes to make them.[11] These rabbinic authorities were not oblivious to the current structures occupying the Temple Mount and there are those who explain that even if all the ritual halakhic concerns are addressed the political repercussions are part of the halakhic discussion.[12]

Ritual halakhic issues

The lack of a Temple

According to an account in the Mishna, sacrifices can be brought on the Temple Mount even if the Temple is not there.[13] The gemara relates that the three prophets of the Return to Zion each taught an essential law – one testified as to the [size of] the altar, one the place of the altar, one that offerings may be made on the altar even if there is no Temple.[14]

Rambam teaches that the Temple Mount and Jerusalem were sanctified by Shlomo HaMelekh for Divine service, and that sanctity remains.[15] Next he rules that sacrifices may be brought in the place of the sanctuary even if the physical Temple is destroyed.[16]

Makom HaMizbeakh – the location of the altar

Rambam explains that the size and placement of the altar may not be changed, as it is the same place where the earth to create Adam was taken, where Avraham built an altar for Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac), and where Adam, Kayin and Hevel, Noach, and later David and Shlomo all offered sacrifices.[17]

Rav Kalischer explains that prophets’ testimony was necessary to determine the location of the altar for the Second Temple because the Babylonians had destroyed the Temple down to the foundations. Today the case is different, as we have some structural remains and accounts of the layout in Mishna Middot, the gemara, and Rambam. He believed that using these measurements we can calculate where to build the altar.[18]

Some object to his plan based largely on this assertion. They demonstrate that there is no practical modern halakhic consensus as to this location and without it the entire venture is impossible. Others counter that the precise location is not necessary; if the altar is built on the larger area of the azara there are ways it can be built to ensure its location is acceptable. The solutions they offer are partially based on Rambam’s ruling that offerings brought on an altar with imprecise dimensions are still valid.[19]

Rav Yaakov Etlinger methodically refutes these claims. Using mainly aggadic sources he argues that traditional descriptions of the reestablishment of the sacrificial service once the Temple is built is not merely conjecture, but rather halakhic imperative. He adds that in the absence of prophecy it is impossible to properly build the Temple, locate the place of the altar, or validate Kohanim to serve.[20]

While Rav Kook did not endorse Rav Kalischer’s ideas, he objected to the idea that prophecy is necessary to determine the location of the altar.[21] He states that there is Ruakh HaKodesh, Divine inspiration, in every generation, and that is sufficient to guide the building of a small altar in the proper place.[22]

Tuma – ritual impurity

The Temple Mount is divided into areas of ascending sanctity and people with certain types of tuma are not allowed past certain points.[23] As we rule in accordance with Rambam that the Temple Mount is still sanctified, one must follow these laws on the Temple Mount.[24] Someone who is tahor from all forms of tuma except for tumat meit is allowed on the Temple Mount, but barred from the azara, sanctuary.

As Rav Kalisher mentioned, there is a general halakhic assumption that people today are considered tameii meit.[25] Someone who is tamei meit is not only prohibited from entering the azara and accessing the altar, they are also barred from bringing the Korban Pesach and eating from it. So how can some claim we can bring it today?

Rambam deals extensively with the laws of sacrifices and rules that korbanot that have fixed times, which includes all communal offerings, override prohibitions of Shabbat and tumat meit, although other forms of tuma are still prohibited.[26] This law is derived from the verses on Pesach Sheni, which offers individuals who were tamei meit an opportunity to offer the Korban Pesach a month later.[27] The Torah teaches that  this law applies to “individuals,” which teaches us that if the majority of the Jewish People, the Kohanim (Priests), and/or the Temple vessels are temeii meit they may offer the korban in its proper time.[28]

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Penet argues that even though the sacrifice overrides Shabbat and tumat meit, the building of the altar does not, just as it does not override Shabbat. Therefore, he claims that there is no halakhic way to build the altar without the ashes of the para aduma, which he claims will be revealed by a prophet in the times of redemption.[29] Others counter this claim with explicit sources allowing someone tamei to maintain otherwise restricted areas of the Temple Mount when there is no one tahor who can do so.[30]

Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss raises a related issue based on the difference between claiming that tumat meit is permitted (hutra) when it is the majority and saying it is overridden (dekhuya). Those who claim it is permitted do not have a problem, but if it is merely overridden then it’s necessary to have a mechanism to atone for the less than ideal Divine service. Traditionally, it was understood that each of the vestments of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) was a form of atonement for various wrongdoings. As the tzitz, golden diadem, atones for tuma, people with tumat meit may not build any part of the Temple without a Kohen Gadol in his full raiment to atone. He adds that we do not currently have sufficient knowledge for this to happen and so this must wait until there is Divine intervention to teach us.[31]

Halakha, hashkafa, and politics

The halakhic discourse continues with each of the issues mentioned above, following a similar format. On one side there are those who find solutions and leniencies and call for action. On the other side are those that say we must wait. The former argue that we have the power to overcome these halakhic challenges by applying the same traditional tools rabbinic authorities have used for centuries to address practical halakhic concerns. The latter counter that the chain of tradition is missing too many links for us to act without Divine intervention in the form of prophecy or an even greater miraculous redemption. These discussions seem to relate to a general dispute regarding the path to redemption – will it be natural or miraculous, instigated by the people or by God?[32]

Yet we would be remiss if we did not note that even those that contend that redemption can be a largely natural process and that it is essential for the Jewish People to actively work and build toward that goal may object to reinstating korbanot at this time.

Rav Shlomo Eliezer Alfandri suggested that even though it may be possible to work out the halakhic and political problems involved in offering sacrifices, it may not be advisable. In Vayikra, God warns that if Israel does not follow the Torah: “I will destroy your Temple and I will not smell your rayakh nikhoakh (pleasant scent).” Perhaps the Temple has not been rebuilt because God still does not desire our sacrifices. [33] Maybe this is the reason there are so many obstacles to reinstating sacrifices, any why most leading rabbis in previous generations never attempted such a thing, and the few that did were unsuccessful.[34]

Tzitz Eliezer raises other concerns, noting that the lack of halakhic agreement even among observant Jews means that any attempt to reinstate the Korban Pesach would cause dangerous spiritual turmoil that is only compounded by the inevitable involvement (or opposition) of people who do not observe halakha. Additionally, he claims that all this is moot in the current reality, just as it has been since the Second Temple was destroyed. Israeli sovereignty makes little difference when building an altar would result in hundreds of millions of people declaring holy war against Israel.

Concluding thoughts

These are just a few of the many objections to the reinstatement of the Korban Pesach.[35] Those who support the issue have answers for each concern. To simplify their claim, it is not merely halakhically permissible to reinstate korbanot, it is a necessary step in the path to reestablishing our connection with our Creator, infusing our lives with kedusha, and bringing about the ultimate redemption. We need to rouse ourselves and take the first steps, then the One Above will come to meet us.[36]

Personally, I agree that we must not only yearn for the ultimate redemption, for a life infused with kedusha, and a stronger and fuller relationship with the Holy One, blessed be He, we must also take concrete action to achieve those goals. I am not sure that this can be accomplished by a small group of people pushing to impose their will to reestablish the sacrifices without the support of the greater halakhically observant community, the majority of the Jewish People, and the world at large.

But while we are not tasked with completing the work, we are not free to stop working.[37] There are organizations that work to train the Kohanim and make the clothes and vessels, but as Rav Eliezer Waldenberg noted, these are not the main obstacles. We must work for people to see all that is not and should be. We need love and respect within the Jewish People, healthy discourse and tolerance of makhloket l’shem shamayim (conflict for the sake of Heaven, and not ego), and a yearning for Torah and a greater connection to our Creator.

Our relationship with non-Jews is more difficult to navigate, but perhaps if we repair our internal deficits and our relationship with God we will be more successful in our mission to “repair the world through the Dominion of God” and consequently our esteem in the eyes of the nations of the world will grow. Yishayahu gives us a vision of the redemption, the peaceful gathering of all nations to the established Temple Mount to learn Torah and seek justice, ultimately ‘beating swords to plowshares,’ abandoning the pursuit of war to focus on growth and development. It’s possible that renewing the Divine service will bring this reality, but it is at least as likely that working to this reality will bring a renewal of the Divine service.[38]

[1] Shemot 12:25

[2] Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 12:25

[3] Bamidbar 9:1-4. See Rashi and Gur Aryeh there.

[4] Hilchot Korban Pesach 1:3, based on Mishna Zevachim 14:8. This  is based on the halakha that once the First Temple was built bamot (external altars) were forbidden. Zevachim 14:8

[5] Ezra 3:6, Rashi TB Megilla 10a “kla’im l’heichal”

[6] For some of the discussion see Responsa Maharatz Chajes 76, Responsa Yaavetz I 89

[7] Rambam rules that even after the Temple’s destruction it’s prohibited to bring sacrifices outside of the Temple Mount in Hilkhot Ma’aseh HaKorbanot 19:15.
Sources that indicate Jewish people continued to consume Korban Pesach, or perhaps a “remembrance” lamb include Tosefta Ohalim 18:18, TB Pesachim 41a (although this may be hypothetical), Procopius Historia Arcana Chapter 28. Some attempt to prove that the Pesach sacrifice was offered in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple citing Talmudic sources concerning Rabban Gamliel II (TB Pesachim 74a, Responsa Maharatz Chajes 76) and Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira (TB Pesachim 3b), but while these men lived after the destruction of the Second Temple, they also lived while it stood. There is also some confusion as there are two sages known as Rabban Gamliel.

[8] Kaftor va’Ferach Chapter 6

[9] Emuna Yeshara, Chapter 3

[10] Responsa Chatam Sofer 236

[11] Chafetz Chaim, Zevakh Toda on Massechet Zevakhim Chapters 5 and 8; Rav David Friedman in She’ilat David, Kuntras Drishat Tzion v’Yerushalayim

[12] Tzitz Eliezer XII 47 and Responsa Chatam Sofer 236

[13] Eduyot 8:6

[14] TB Zevachim 62a

[15] Hilkhot Beit HaBekhira 6:14-15, see TB Pesachim 66b

[16] Ra’avad comments on the former and disputes the claim that the Temple Mount sanctity remains. Therefore, he rules entering these areas when tamei no longer incurs karet (untimely death). But as Ra’avad does not comment on Rambam’s subsequent ruling that sacrifices may be offered on the Temple Mount without the Temple, and it is possible he would allow this even without sanctity. Hasagot Ra’avad Hilkhot Beit HaBekhira 6:14

Though some poskim agree with Ra’avad, today general halakhic consensus is that the Temple Mount is sanctified, in accordance with Rambam. Rav Ovadia Yosef brings a comprehensive list in Yechave Da’at 1:25.

[17] Hilkhot Beit HaBekhira 2:1-4

[18] Emuna Yeshara, Chapter 3. See also Responsa Chatam Sofer YD 236, Responsa Shaarei Tzedek OC 102, Rav Zalman Koren “Chatzrot Beit HaMelekh

[19] Based on TB Zevachim 59a and 92a and Tosfot s.v. “mizbeakh shishim ama”, Hilkhot Beit HaBekhira 2:17, Rav Yosef Elbaum, “Chiddush HaAvoda b’Zman ha’Zeh”, Techumim V Section 3, especially note 64

[20] Responsa Binyan Tzion 1

[21] We will deal more with questions regarding the necessity and desirability of prophecy.

[22] Mishpat Kohen 92

[23] Mishna Keilim 1:6-9, Hilkhot Beit HaBekhira 7:11, Hilkhot Bi’at HaMikdash 3:1-6

[24] The laws of tuma and tahara (ritual purity) are not generally observed today because they are mostly irrelevant; the main issue with tuma is that it is a barrier to accessing kedusha (holiness), and we no longer interact with objects, food, or locations with kedusha on a regular basis.
Therefore, if one decides to go up to the Temple Mount they must ensure they are tahor in every way aside from tumat meit. Those rabbinic authorities who allow ascent caution people to remain in the periphery to ensure they do not enter the area of the azara. Others oppose entry even under these conditions. (Yabia Omer V YD 26)

Aside from tumat meit, the forms of tuma that exist today generally relate to bodily emissions. Once the emissions have ceased the person must wait a certain amount of time and can then immerse in the mikva and become tahor. There is some discussion if someone who has yet to immerse is barred from the entire Temple Mount or may enter until the Ezrat Nashim (Women’s Courtyard). (TB Yevamot 7b, Tosafot Pesachim 92a ‘tvul yom’)

[25] Even though most people have not touched a dead body, one can become tamei meit through various other means, such as being under the same roof as a dead body. Even if one can’t think of a time this has happened, most people in the developed world are born in hospitals where there is a good chance someone died in the building at the same time. Therefore, it’s generally accepted by rabbinic authorities that people should presume they are tamei meit. Most discussions concerning ascending to the Temple Mount begin with the assumption that people today are tamei meit.

[26] Bamidbar 19:11-22, Hilchot Bi’at Hamikdash 4:9-12. Someone who is tamei meit may only become tahor (halakhically pure) through a procedure using the ashes of a para aduma, red calf. We no longer have these ashes.

[27] Bamidbar ibid, Hilkhot Bi’at HaMikdash 4:16

[28] Hilkhot Korban Pesach 7:1

[29] Responsa Sha’arei Tzedek OC 102, 104.

[30] TB Eruvin 105a and Rambam Hilkhot Beit HaBekhira 7:23

[31] Tzitz Eliezer VI 133

[32] When asserting the strength and reliability of the chain of transmission of the Oral Torah, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi argues that if we were commanded to offer sacrifices today, we would know all the necessary details including where. Rav Yehudah HaLevi also teaches that the Jewish People must desire for the redemption to come and work to make it happen. Sefer HaKuzari Book III 57, Book II 24, Book V 27

[33] Vayikra 26:31.

Interestingly, the Netziv uses this verse to teach that the korban Pesach is the only offering that may be brought after the Temple is destroyed. He claims this verse indicates that we are prohibited from bringing any offering that is referred to as rayakh nikhoakh, and lists where each type of offering is referred to as rayakh nikhoakh. He concludes that the korban Pesach is the only offering not referred to in this way, and therefore may be brought today. (Netziv Ha’Emek Davar Devarim 16:1-3)

[34] Responsa Maharsha OC 15

[35] In his commentary on Shir HaShirim 2:7 the Gra (Vilna Gaon) asserts that the injunction against forcing the time of the redemption, lidkhot et haketz, means that we may not build the Temple before the arrival of Mashiach.

Rav Gavriel Saraf of Yeshivat Kerem b’Yavneh brings this idea and adds that even though we do not decide halakha based on aggada, since there is no current obligation to build the Temple or offer sacrifices, the desire to do so is not enough to override the concern of loss of life due to the current political reality. Interestingly, he brings the interpretation that the actions associated with the redemption – mass aliyah and building the Temple – are only allowed with the permission of the nations who govern us in exile. (B’Inyan Hakravat Korbanot Bizman HaZeh, Mitoch Dvar Halakha, Kerem b’Yavneh

Some teach that mass aliyah is permitted as the establishment of the modern State of Israel was ratified by a UN vote. Is Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount enough to allow Jews to build the Temple as well? Or must there also be international support for such actions?

[36] This is part of a greater disagreement; some seminal sources include:
Devarim 30:1-10 describes a process where the People of Israel take steps to return and God reciprocates.

Midrash Shmuel 5:13:4 states that the Temple, sacrifices, and House of David will not be reinstated until the people yearn for them.

Midrash Eicha Rabba 5:25 relates that while Israel demands that God return to us, God demands that we return first. Each claimed the other was the first to leave.

Sanhedrin 97b and the surrounding pages discuss whether the redemption will be miraculous or natural. Natural is connected to human instigation.

[37] Mishna Avot 2:16

[38] Our present spiritual state may also explain why so many people do not really desire a Temple or the service – it seems that most of us are unable to understand the importance of these mitzvot. It’s possible that a deeper connection to God and greater Torah observance will lead to deeper comprehension. There are also a few who hint at the possibility that the reality of redemption may bring new forms of Divine service.

Yearning for sacrifices does not necessarily mean we yearn to slaughter animals and sprinkle their blood. It can mean that we yearn to serve our Creator in the most meaningful way possible, to embrace the entirety of the Torah and do whatever we can to get closer to God and fulfill the Divine will. Personally, sometimes have trouble yearning for these things, so instead I yearn to yearn for these things. “My God, open my heart to Your Torah, that my lifeforce should pursue Your mitzvot.”

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.