Where will you be in 21 years? That’s the next time we’ll do what we did yesterday, reading the portion of Aharei Mot (Lev. 16-18) on Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath preceding Passover. It gives us a chance to examine one of the most unusual mitzvot in the Torah: the prohibition of external slaughter (shehutei hutz).
If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or slaughters it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to present it as an offering to the Lord before the Tabernacle of the Lord, he shall be held guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood, and he shall be cut off from the people. (Lev. 17:3-4)
Jews of the Exodus generation were not getting their fresh beef from Postville, Iowa; every domesticated animal had to be slaughtered before God.
This restriction is loosened once the Jews cross the Jordan, as described in Deut., ch. 12 and Talmud Zevahim, ch. 14; in the Promised Land, sheep, goats and cattle may be slaughtered just for a barbecue. Moreover, if one does want to make it into an offering, that can be done on private altar, a bama. Only when the sacrificial service is centralized does it become forbidden to bring offerings in one’s own backyard.
However, there is one exception: the paschal lamb/ kid.
You are not allowed to sacrifice the passover in any of your towns which the Lord your God is giving you; but at the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name, you shall sacrifice the passover in the evening at sunset, at the time that you came out of Egypt. (Deut. 16:5-6)
This leads to one of the most unusual disputes among the ban-counters. Maimonides famously lists all 613 commandments in his Sefer HaMitzvot, and the Sefer HaHinukh expands on them. There is only one mitzva which Maimonides omits but the Hinukh counts (#487): the prohibition to slaughter the passover privately. Maimonides does include the law in Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Passover 1:3), but he apparently views it as a historical footnote, not an everlasting command, as the bama has been categorically forbidden since the Temple was built in Jerusalem. The Hinukh disagrees, and he is not alone; 500 years before Maimonides, the Gaonic list of commandments, Halakhot Gedolot, includes this prohibition as one of the 613 as well. Why?
In fact, it is quite bizarre that the passover, of all offerings, must not be sacrificed in one’s backyard. After all, the original passover in Egypt (which Shabbat HaGadol commemorates) is commanded in the following way in Exodus 12: “They shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house” (v. 3) and “Draw out, and take you a lamb, according to your families, and slaughter the passover” (21). If there’s any offering that would belong on a private, family bama, it seems like it would be the passover!
Let’s return to Aharei Mot. While in the desert, the Israelites are compelled to bring their animals to the Sanctuary. Whatever one’s tribal or familial or socioeconomic status, everyone has to come to this central location. This creates a certain social cohesiveness in the nation of former slaves, a cohesiveness which they had lost in Egypt. True, Goshen had a higher population of Israelites than the other regions of Egypt (a remnant of Joseph’s era), but the Hebrew slaves for the most part lived among their Egyptian masters. (That, after all, is why God needs to “pass over” the Jewish houses when He smites the Egyptian homes.) Thus, this carnivorous centralization serves an important purpose.
But how is it possible to do so after crossing the Jordan? Trekking from Dan or Beersheba to Jerusalem for shawarma is impracticable. Nevertheless, there is one occasion upon which all Israel can come together: the annual observance of Passover. Everyone must come to God’s chosen place to offer the passover, and this gives them the opportunity to feel the Exodus experience.
This is fundamentally different from the paschal service in Egypt; at that time, it was more important to establish the concept of independence and autonomy in the nuclear family, an idea which their masters had tried to eradicate. But for every subsequent Passover, the issue is commemoration. We need to feel the experience of forging a nation, to symbolically gather around one fire and become one people. That is why the story we tell at the Seder does not conclude with our departure from Egypt, but includes the Splitting of the Sea, the Giving of the Torah, and crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. In fact, the famous poem Dayenu ends with the building of God’s chosen house–the one place which is irrevocably and unfailingly the focus of our service. No matter our geographical or historical distance from the Temple, every Jewish soul turns to it.
Let’s remember this Passover to keep our doors and our hearts open to all those who are in need. After all, we’re all in this together.