Alec Goldstein
Alec Goldstein

The ‘Structure’ of Jewish Life: Home, Temple, and Passover

There is a famous story about someone asking the Kotzker Rebbe, “Where can God be found?” to which he replied, “Wherever you let Him in.”

While we should aspire to feel God’s presence anywhere, it isn’t a coincidence that nearly every religion has recognized the value in constructing buildings for religious devotion. The form and content of that worship will differ from one religion to another, but there is a common theme of a dedicated place of worship. Furthermore, this dedicated place is usually more than a geographic situs; it usually includes a physical edifice as well. While we should, as the Kotzker taught, strive to feel God’s presence everywhere, anthropologically it is easier to “let Him in” when there is a physical place to do so.

The standard term for “temple” in rabbinic literature, from the Talmud onward, is Bet HaMikdash, from the word bayit, meaning “house, home,” and mikdash, meaning “holy object, temple” so the Hebrew term for “temple” literally means house of something sanctified. The Jewish idea of “temple” is a projection of “house” and therefore is predicated on the meaning of a personal home. Home represents our primary existence. Home is where we spend most of our time (especially in a plague year), and it is the space we think most about: what amenities do we want, how do we want to arrange our furniture and organize our dishes in the pantry. 

So we really have two different paradigms of space: we have our personal residences, where we spend most of our time, and for most of us, it is the place we think about most of all. This is our default space, and the place of our greatest concentration. We also have the temple, i.e., God’s space. The temple isn’t our default space but is a distinct destination that transcends day-to-day existence. 

What is the relationship between these two spaces: the home and the synagogue, the private residence and the house of God? And how does this relate to the holiday of Passover?

Relationship Between the Home and Temple

The book of Samuel relates David’s first instinct in building the temple:

When the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had granted him safety from all the enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan: “Here I am dwelling in a house of cedar, while the ark of the Lord abides in a tent!” Nathan said to the king, “Go and do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you” (2 Sam. 7:1-3).

According to Rashi, David’s desire to build the temple at this time was based on Torah verses: once the Jews dwell safely, then there is an obligation to build the temple (see Deut. 12:10-11). Furthermore, Jewish law law teaches three acts are incumbent on Israel when they enter the land: to appoint a king, to eradicate Amalek, and the build the temple (Maimonides, Melachim 1:1). There is a clear commandment to build the temple (Sifrei Devarim 67, Semag 163, Maimonides Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, pos. 20, Hilchot Bet Ha-Bechirah 1:1, Sefer Ha-Chinuch 95).

While Rashi understood David’s motivations based on the text in Deuteronomy, Malbim goes even further, saying that it is not just a scriptural argument but a logical one as well (ha-sevarah mechayevet). It appears improper for the mortal monarch to dwell in the palace while the ultimate King lacks, as it were, a proper residence. 

God, however, is not pleased with this gesture:

From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in tent [ohel] and tabernacle [mishkan]. As I moved about wherever the Israelites went, did I ever reproach any of the tribal leaders whom I appointed to care for My people Israel: Why have you not built Me a house of cedar? (vv. 6-7).

This passage should not be used to argue that there is no need for a religious structure of any kind, because this prophecy is merely saying that until now (or even now) the tent and tabernacle are sufficient. In other words, God’s rebuke of David is about the temple but not about the tabernacle (mishkan).

Therefore, the rebuke doesn’t seem to be about the obligation to build it, but merely the proper timing, and King David could not be the one to build the temple. When Solomon, King David’s son, finally builds the temple, he seems remarkably aware of this point: “But the Lord said to my father David, ‘As regards your intention to build a House for My name, you did right to have that intention. However, you shall not build the House yourself; instead, your son, the issue of your loins, shall build the House for My name’” (1 Kings 8:18-19). Solomon testifies that his father’s intentions were good (hetivota, from the word tov, “good”).

According to one rabbinic source, the thousands of Jews who died during the wars of King David only died because they did not desire to build the Temple (Midrash Tehillim 17). This source is fascinating because it seems to work against the scriptural verses. Even though God frustrated David’s efforts, it seems that the Jews of that generation were supposed to yearn to build the temple. And not desiring to build the temple was considered a near capital offense. Generally, people are not punished for intentions alone, so this source does require some further analysis. We could say that the lethargy in desiring a temple removed the individual providence and left the soldiers more vulnerable in battle. 

Once the temple is built, there is a commandment to show it reverence (Lev. 19:30, Yevamot  6a-b, Maimonides Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Pos. 21, Bet Ha-Bechirah 7:1, Chinuch 254).

Maimonides gives a more rationalistic approach for this commandment. He explains, based on the Talmud, that in reality, showing reverence for the temple means showing reverence for God. After all, we do not worship physical objects, no matter how sacred. At the same time, there are things that we can do that arouse love and reverence of God, and one of them is experiencing the beauty and grandeur of the temple. 

The Sefer Ha-Chinuch, however, offers a more mystical interpretation: “And the truth is that the souls are closer to the good in that place than in other places and [that] the light of the face of [the] King shines upon them there” (e.g., 88). For the Chinuch, God’s presence, however we understand that term, is able to exercise greater influence in the temple.

On a personal note, in my own prayer life, I have found that there are some sanctuaries whose ambiance is able to arouse a better mindset for prayer, while in other venues I have found prayer difficult. While with aesthetics we can admit a certain degree of subjectivity, architecture and beauty can inspire a feeling that God is present in a certain place.

Ultimately, God’s rebuke is not an absolute rejection of the need for a house of worship, as I have seen some people claim. First of all, at the time of this prophecy, there was already a physical structure–namely the tabernacle (mishkan). Second, there is a commandment to build the temple, and apathy towards building the temple is considered a deficiency that might be cause the loss of God’s providential care. Third, a proper house of God truly can inspire a reverence of the Divine that cannot be achieved elsewhere. Rather, the rebuke is that the timing was not right–even though David’s heart was in the right place, this was not the moment to build the temple.

However, I am far less focused on the resolution of these verses than I am on King David’s initial assumption–there is a relationship between the palace and the temple, between the home and the synagogue, between the private residence and the house of God. 

Another classic source that compares the home to the Temple is the following:

“The altar was wood, three cubits high, and two cubits long; its corners, length, and walls were wood; and he said to me this is the table that is before the Lord” (Ezek. 41:22). It begins with “altar” and ends with “table.” R. Yochanan and R. Elazar both said, “While the Temple stood, the altar would atone for man, but now that the Temple is not standing, a man’s table atones for him” (see Berakhot 55a; Chagigah 27a, Menachot 97a).

How does the private table atone? We will present three broad possibilities. First, the table atones by welcoming guests–specifically poor guests. This is the approach of many traditional commentaries, including Rashi, Rabbeinu Gershom, Meiri, the Sefer Ha-Manhig, and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. All of these commentaries either conclude or imply that by welcoming the poor into the house and providing them food, the table is elevated to the status of an altar.

Yet the relationship between sacrifices and charity needs to be developed a little further. Surely both are Torah commandments and hold a prime place in Jewish thought, but why should we say that one replaces the other? 

The idea of sacrifice has at least two components. First, it has an act of surrender of something of value. If the individual does not donate something that has value, then there is no sacrifice. The donor does not experience the loss in a way that impacts his life. And if the donation is not consequential to the donor, then even if it sustains the beneficiary, it does not have the power to transform to person providing it. (Obviously giving any useful sum is consequential to the recipient, and if we are as donors fortunate enough to give meaningful sums without experiencing a diminishment in our own lifestyle, that is an incredible blessing that should not be disregarded; however it is not clear if such a gesture would have an aspect of “sacrifice” as described here, even if it clearly fulfills the paramount mitzvah of charity.)

Second, the idea of sacrifice is an act of elevation towards greater. If the individual takes something of value and wantonly destroys it, that is merely an act of destruction. There is nothing beneficial or constructive in destroying something of value in this manner. Rather, the act of surrender must also be accompanied with an act of elevation–the act of giving to something larger than oneself.

On some level, these two elements are present in both charity and sacrifice. In both cases, the individual surrenders something of his own, and specifically something of value, and dedicates it to the use and domain of another. In the case of sacrifices, they are to be “used” by God, and in the case of charity, for use by the poor. In both instances, the donor incurs a significant financial loss, but that loss is experienced for the sake of the other (or, the Other). Sacrifice and charity are acts of intentional self-impoverishment, or at least acts of calculated self-diminution. But they are also acts of elevation. They are acts of relinquishing goods that tangible, material, and valuable for the sake of something larger than oneself.

In fact, the anthropologist Marcel Mauss notes that in the Trobriand Islands in Papa New Guinea, the gods are believed to prefer charity to sacrifice, because immolation renders the sacrifice useless, while donating it can sustain the children and the needy. Based on this rationale, we can see how, on some level, charity can substitute for sacrifice–both teach about man’s desire to give of himself, in one case to God, in another to the poor. 

Maharsha offers a second interpretation why the private table has the status of a the temple altar. Maharsha (Menachot 97a) suggests that it really isn’t about the table at all, rather it’s the fact that words of Torah are spoken there. The Mishnah teaches:

Rabbi Shimon said: if three have eaten at one table and have not spoken there words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten sacrifices [offered] to the dead, as it is said, “for all tables are full of filthy vomit, when the All-Present is absent” (Isaiah 28:8). But, if three have eaten at one table, and have spoken there words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-Present, blessed be He, as it is said, “And He said unto me, ‘this is the table before the Lord’” (Ezekiel 41:22) (Avot 3:3).

Based on this approach, it is not necessarily the “table” nor the “eating” that is important; they are merely venues for Torah to be taught. 

Third, some of the commentaries draw a mystical connection between sacrificing properly and eating properly. The Torat Chaim (Shevuot 12b) explains: “this passage concerns the table of a righteous person [tzaddik], who only eats to satiety in order to sustain his soul, which enjoys the smell of the food, which resembles the ‘satisfying odor’ or the elevation offering.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov also adopts a mystical understanding: “when the altar is in a rectified state, meaning when eating is performed properly, then the evil forces, which is foolishness, are subdued…. And so, by eating properly, foolishness is subdued and the intellect is elevated” (Likkutei Moharan 17:3). He proceeds to draw a parallel: just as improper sacrificial procedure can bring chaos and catastrophe, even private improper consumption in private can be injurious to the individual. 

To conclude this section, there are several connections that can be drawn between the house and the temple. King David believed that once his palace was built, it was time to build the temple. The Talmud concludes that, at least post-exilic Judaism, the private table and temple altar have a similar atoning function. We observed a conceptual connection that sacrifice and charity both involve the donor surrendering something of value for a higher cause. The Maharsha suggested the table is a prime venue for teaching Torah. Finally, the Torat Chaim and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov drew a mystical connection between the consumption of the sacrifices and proper consumption of even ordinary food.

The Seder as a Sacrificial Service

Judaism often marks sacred days with bread, wine, and elegant repasts. At first glance, then, the fact that seder night is adorned with wine, matzah (in place of leavened bread), and fancy foods is no surprise. 

Should we consider the seder as just another festive meal, or is there another aspect of the meal as well? Specifically, should we consider the seder as a mere seudat yom tov (holiday meal) or is it also considered a korban (ritual sacrifice)? There are a number of factors that point to the idea that on seder night, the house is not merely the host of a holiday meal but that it is transformed into a temple. 

Prohibition of Chametz and Obligation to Eat Matzah

As a general rule, chametz (leaven) was forbidden in the temple (e.g., Leviticus 2:4). Similarly, on Passover, the Jewish home has a prohibition of chametz. Normally, Jews are permitted to own non-kosher food so long as it is clearly marked so that nobody accidentally eats it. However, on Passover, the rules are even more restrictive. Jews aren’t allowed to eat chametz, and they aren’t allowed to own it either.

The inverse is also true: There isn’t merely an interdiction of chametz, but there is also an affirmative obligation to eat matzah. We might consider it a coincidence that we eat matzah on seder night and that it’s also eaten in the temple, but it should be inescapably clear that there is a strong link between three types of matzah: the matzah from the Exodus, the matzah on seder night, and the matzah eaten in the temple. 

Maimonides, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Law of Yatza Chutz (Removing Beyond the Boundaries)

Sacrifices must be eaten in certain areas: most holy offerings must be eaten within the azarah, and lesser holy offerings must be eaten within the walls of Jerusalem. If, for whatever reason, the meat is transported beyond those boundaries, that meat becomes prohibited. A similar law applied to the korban pesach immediately after leaving Egypt. (In rabbinic literature, the first Passover is called pesach mitzrayim, while all subsequent observances are called pesach dorot.)

The Torah instructs the Jewish people, “It shall be eaten in one house: you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house; nor shall you break a bone of it” (Ex. 12:46). 

Maimonides explains, “When the meat of a Paschal sacrifice has been removed from its company–whether intentionally or inadvertently–it becomes forbidden to be eaten. It is comparable to the meat of sacrifices of the most sacred order that were taken outside the Temple Courtyard or sacrifices of a lesser degree of sanctity that were taken outside the walls of Jerusalem, in which instance, everything is considered like an animal that is treifah [meat that was improperly slaughtered]” (Hilchot Korban Pesach 9:2). 

This law is so technical that it is easily overlooked, but this statute creates a parallel between the home and the temple, since the regulation is common to both, and as Maimonides says, the two laws are “comparable.” On both cases, a relationship is established between the sacrifice and the place of eating it. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expands upon this idea further, based on this seemingly technical law: “every home in its own speciality receives the highest acknowledgment of its importance and sanctity…. these phrases elevate each separate home into exactly the idea of a sanctuary” (on Ex. 12:46).

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) and Urchatz and Wearing a Kittel

The Urchatz is another ritual that is technical but also shows the similarity to the temple. The Shulchan Aruch rules that there is an obligation to do a traditional handwashing before eating food that is dipped in a liquid (Orach Chaim 158:4). Even the Taz, living in the seventeenth century, already observed that people were lax in this practice, and seemed to criticize people for being excessively scrupulous–bordering on hypocritical–on seder night, and not the rest of the year, when this practice has generally fallen into desuetude. 

The Netziv (Haggadah shel Pesach Imrei Shefer) justifies the practice based on the rationale that the seder is eating at God’s table (achilat pesach hi mi-shulchan Gavoah ka’achil). Throughout the year, we are eating at our private tables, and therefore we don’t have to be as concerned with the practice to wash before dipping vegetables. However, on seder night, we aren’t eating in our own homes. Rather, we are eating at God’s table (shulchan Gavoah), i.e., a temple.

In that same passage, the Netziv also discusses the custom of wearing a kittel, a traditional white robe worn on certain solemn occasions: “It is proper to consume the Passover offering with awe and reverence [be-eimah u-ve-yirah], like at a time of prayer [kemo be-sha’at ha-tefillah], like one who is eating at the king’s table, who doesn’t wear an ‘eating garment’ like he does in his own house [kemo she-ochel be-veito]…. And we have comport ourselves like in the Passover [of Temple times], and for this reason we wear a white linen garment, which is the kittel.” The Netziv is likely drawing on the opinion that when Moses was officiating in the tabernacle inauguration, he wore white garments (Taanit 11b, Rashi, Lev. 8:28). When Moses was officiating at the inauguration of the tabernacle, he had the status of a priest (kohen) and wore white. On seder night, we too are priests (or at least the leader of the seder has the sacerdotal status), and for that reason we wear white. We aren’t eating in our own homes (ochel be-veito) but rather at God’s table (shulchan Gavoah).

Philo of Alexandria

Philo writes, “On this day every dwelling-house is invested with the outward semblance and dignity of a temple. The victim is then slaughtered and dressed for the festal meal which befits the occasion. The guests assembled for the banquet have been cleansed by purificatory lustrations, and are there not as in other festive gatherings, to indulge the belly with wine and viands, but to fulfil with prayers and hymns the custom handed down by their fathers” (Special Laws 2:148).

Earlier, we quoted the opinion of Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yochanan that the private table is considered like the altar (Menachot 97a, etc.). At a surface level, Philo appears to be saying the same thing, except that his comparison is more limited. While the talmudic source says that any private table can have the status of an altar, Philo is specifying that it is only on seder night that the house has the status of the Temple. 

This source raises interesting questions in terms of time and place. In terms of time, Philo, unlike Menachot 97a, is pre-exilic source. When he was writing, the Jerusalem Temple was still standing and the proper Passover offering was brought every year. On that level, perhaps Philo is a stronger source than Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yochanan, who were writing in a post-exilic era. On the other hand, Philo lived in Egypt, and it is possible that his thinking–intentionally or organically–was aimed at justifying the possibility that Jews in Alexandria might not have made the pilgrimage all the way to Jerusalem. Either way, it is noteworthy that Philo only makes this claim about the Passover seder, but–to my knowledge–not about the other festival observances. 

Talmud (Pesachim 96a) and the Three Altars in Egypt 

The Talmud Bavli contains the following passage: “Rav Yosef taught there were three altars there [in Egypt]. [The blood was applied] on the lintel and upon the two doorposts” (Pesachim 96a). According to Rav Yosef, the three altars were exactly the three parts of the doorpost, which ineluctably represents the barrier to the home. The home is the altar. 

Rabbi Bezalel Naor points out that there is a debate on how literally to interpret this passage. Rabbi M.M. Kasher writes that this is figurative, which is how many of us would interpret the talmudic passage. However, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson interprets this literally. 

Rabbi Amnon Bazak also concludes, based on this an other passages, that the home is literally transformed into an altar: “transforming the house into an altar affords protection to Bnei Yisrael who, in essence, become like the kohanim as they partake of the meat of the pesach.  Thus, this ritual indeed constitutes a sacrifice, in the sense that it features the aspect of netina [application of blood], but this is a unique type of korban that transforms the home into an altar and the people partaking of the sacrifice into “a kingdom of priests and a sacred nation.”

I think we can go even further, namely that in both cases, the blood marks the limits and defines the boundaries of the altar. 

For the sake of accuracy we should say that Rav Yosef (Pesachim 96a) and Rav Bazak do not describe the home as a temple, but as an altar–one of the most central features of the temple.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and the Wings of Eagles

In describing the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah says, “‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me” (Ex. 19:6). What exactly does it mean That God “brought you to Me”? According to Targum-Pseudo Jonathan, it means that God brought them to the Temple. This source writes, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians; and how I bore you on the clouds as upon eagles’ wings from Pelusin, to take you to the sanctuary, there to observe the Passover; and the same I returned you back to Pelusin, and from there I brought you near to receive the Torah.” 

Like the passage in Pesachim 96a, we can ask if this source is supposed to be taken literally or not. And if it’s not supposed to be taken literally–and this is a question that we don’t always ask when encountering fanciful Midrashim–then how is it to be understood? I personally don’t see the need to interpret this passage literally. But this source might be capturing a mindset that the Jewish people had. Even though they were in their private homes on seder night, they might have experienced the sensation of observing Passover in the Jerusalem Temple. 

Rashi and the Use of the Word Avodah (“Service”)

The Torah refers to the Passover service as avodah several times. One verse is famous from how the Haggadah uses it, albeit in a different context: “And it will come to pass if your children say to you, What is this service to you? [mah ha-avodah ha-zot lachem]” (Ex. 12:26). And the same term is repeated in the verse: “And it will come to pass that the Lord will bring you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, which He swore to your forefathers to give you a land flowing with milk and honey and you shall perform this service [ve-avadta et ha-avodah ha-zot] in this month” (Ex. 13:5). In general, the word avodah can refer to any type of work, but it frequently refers to temple service. When Rashi comments that ha-avodah ha-zot refers to Passover, he may be signalling that the entire seder has the status of a temple ritual. And Rashi is merely drawing our attention to what the Torah itself says: ha-avodah ha-zot, “this service,” refers to the Passover offering.

Man’s Dual Nature

The home and the synagogue are representative of different facets of man’s existence. The synagogue obviously represents many different aspects of man’s life; it serves social, educational, and charitable roles, all of which are crucial. Yet above all these is the connection to God and the aspiration to connect to something greater than oneself. On a mystical level, Nachmanides explains that the Shechinah descends to earth through the tabernacle. The Midrash says even further: “out of Zion has all of the whole world been perfected” (Tanchuma, Kedoshim 10).

It is almost universal in world religions to establish a place outside of the private residence dedicated to the veneration of God. And this established place, beyond the confines of a personal residence, is perhaps the easiest place to find God. When a long-unaffiliated Jew needs a place to say Kaddish for the death of a parent, he doesn’t look for a Jew’s private residence; he looks for the nearest synagogue.

Yet man spends most of his time outside of the synagogue. Most of our choices, most of our moral quandaries and ethical dilemmas, our triumphs and failures, occur in the real world. In the synagogue, we feel more restrained–like God and the Jewish people are watching–and are more likely to be on our best behavior. Outside of the synagogue, we are less inhibited, and we have many more opportunities to sin at home, when we no longer feel the eyes of the world upon us. 

At the same time, the home affords us more opportunities to perform mitzvot and to find spiritual elevation. A kosher kitchen is furnished with two sets of dishes, and often two sinks and two dishwashers. The bedroom of a married couple has two mattresses. On the Sabbath and holidays, the Jewish home is at rest, attendants wear honorable clothing, fine food is served, and the day is sanctified with wine and bread. In Judaism, God is not just in the synagogue. He is in the kitchen, dining room, and even bedroom.

The Torah describes the very first moment that the first human being was created: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). Man was created from the “dust of the earth,” but where did that dust come from? The question might seem fatuous, but it is one that several Midrashim ask. Rashi, in his commentary on the verse, actually combines two different answers:

He [God] gathered his [Adam’s] dust from the entire earth—from its four corners—in order that wherever he might die, it should receive him for burial (Tanchuma, Pekudei 3). Another explanation: He took his dust from that spot on which the holy temple with the altar of atonement was in later times to be built of which it is said, “An altar of earth you shall make for Me” (Ex. 20:24), saying, “May this be an atonement for him so that he can survive!” (Genesis Rabbah 14:8).

Even the “earthiness” of mankind is endowed with a dual nature. Man is created from the admixture of dust from the four corners of earth, so that regardless of which plot of land we cultivate, where we settle into communities, and where we build our homes–those most private structures–we are never truly foreigners. There is always some part of us that belongs exactly where we are. On one level it’s not enough to say this land is my land; rather we should say this land is me.

Yet we cannot overlook man’s spiritual component. Rashi refers to this spiritual component as kapparah, which conjures up the idea of remorse and penitence. However, such an understanding is incomplete, and I believe the Jewish idea of kapparah is much broader, and has wider applicability, than mere penance. 

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch explains kapparah as follows: “The Jewish idea of kapparah comprises not only the spiritual and moral rebirth of our inner selves, but along with it a fresh arrangement of our external, our social and national conditions. The rebirth of our inner selves must come first, the other then results, both lie in one hand, the Hand of our God, and in our voluntary finding ourselves again with Him both are assured” (on Ex. 12:2). Kapparah is more than just hitting a reset button. Kapparah is, to paraphrase Rav Hirsch, about achieving a paradigm shift. And the solemnity of the sacrificial procedure can facilitate that change in world view.

This simple comment from Rashi elegantly captures man’s dual nature. Man is taken from the dust from the four corners of the earth, so that no matter where he builds his home, he is never truly in exile, and yet man is made from the dust beside altar, because he needs the temple in order to achieve salvation.

Conclusion

Passover was the first communal offering. The Mishnah presents the korban pesach as a type of kodshim kalim, a lower level offering (Zevachim 5:8). On a personal note, that’s how I regarded the korban pesach–within the halachic paradigm of kodshim kalim with a few technical procedural differences that had to be memorized. But this is not how we should view the korban pesach.

From the perspective of Jewish consciousness and the development of national identity, the Mishnah looks at things backwards. Historically, there were no other kodshim kalim yet. There was only the korban pesach, because that was the first national offering. To be even more dramatic, there was a certain time when the only national offering ever brought in the history of the Jewish people was that very first korban pesach. On some level, every national offering is an outgrowth of the Passover sacrifice.

The Passover offering also represents the beginning of a bifurcation and splitting between ordinary existence and sacred existence–at least in the context of immured space. The sacred consumption of the Passover entails many more rules, in terms of timing and method of preparation, which distinguishes it from ordinary modes of eating. Yet that very first the korban pesach had to be eaten in the home. And eating the korban pesach in the home is the first step from a menial existence to a sacred existence. 

If this analysis is correct, then we aren’t transforming a house into a temple–because there wasn’t a temple yet at all. And we cannot transform the house into something that had yet to come into existence. The generation that left Egypt would not have recognized their homes as a temple, because the instructions for the temple (tabernacle) hadn’t been given yet. 

Rather the rules of the Passover offering teach us that there can be such a thing called a temple. We can have holiness in the continuum of space. We can have religious acts that are purely God-oriented and increase our God consciousness. And at some point, the Torah will use the korban pesach as a baseline. The private home will become the starting point for the tabernacle to acquire–no pun intended–a “standalone” existence. 

We should not retroject from “temple” to “home” (as Philo did), because that’s not what happened at all. When we say the home became a temple, it means that the home became the model from which the concept of temple could emerge. Without the sanctity of the home, and without the Passover offering, there could be no temple as we know it. 

The home and synagogue are both places where God can be found. According to one Midrash, the Shechinah descends upon the tabernacle and is contracted to fit in the space of one square cubit (Shemot Rabbah 34:1). Similarly, according to Rabbi Akiva, if a husband and wife have a fulfilling and stable marriage then the Shechinah reposes among them as well (Sotah 17a). In both of these Midrashim, the Shechinah is said to exist in a space that is quite compact. In the tabernacle, the Shechinah is confined to a space of one square cubit,  and in a marriage, the Shechinah is between husband and wife, which in times of marital closeness is negligible, even infinitesimal. 

The Shechinah–the manifestation of Godliness in the world–is present in both the home and the synagogue, and God can bless both physical structures. Both venues–the home and the synagogue–can and must be repositories of Godliness. Yet home and synagogue are not identical (and maybe King David’s error was equating them a little too closely), and they serve different functions, both of which are necessary for man’s fulfillment. The temple represents communal unity, outwardness, God’s presence in the world, and national salvation. The home represents the private, inward life, private goals, individual achievements, marital concord, and family harmony.

Anthropologically, it’s no accident that many religions consistent construct external buildings in which to show their devotion. The purpose it serves is overwhelming whether we believe that the temple is there to inspire reverence of God (Maimonides) or is a conduit for God’s presence to descend to the world (Nachmanides) or some other reason entirely. The temple is a central feature of religious life. Nonetheless, the Passover seder teaches that the temple, in all is resplendent grandeur, originates in the home, and is an outgrowth of the personal residence. 

Rabbi Ari Kahn has quoted the following comment from Rashi concerning the death of Sarah and Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca:

… as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one Sabbath eve to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent. When she died, these things ceased, and when Rebecca arrived, they resumed (on Gen. 24:67).

The tent of the matriarchs was filled with these holy objects that would later become prominent in the Temple. Rabbi Kahn explains that the entire purpose of the Temple is to recapture the holiness that the matriarchs had in their homes. On seder night, the home is not transformed into a temple; rather the home once again becomes the the paradigm for the temple.

About the Author
Alec Goldstein received his rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and his B.A. in French Language and Literature from Yeshiva University. He is the founder of Kodesh Press (kodeshpress.com).
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