Roger D. Isaacs
New Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible

Why You Shouldn’t Break Lamb Bones During Passover

RCB **, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
RCB **, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

On Passover eve, there is a plate displayed (called a Seder plate) containing several symbolic ingredients, each having a special meaning relating to the laws set down for the holiday in the Hebrew Bible. They include an egg (beitzah), bitter herbs (maror and chazeret – usually horseradish and romaine lettuce), a mixture of apples, nuts, and cinnamon mixed with wine (charoset), a vegetable (karpas – usually parsley), and a lamb shank bone (zeroah). The use of all these can be explained as symbolic nods that remind us of specific instances in the Passover story. The lamb shank bone is a visual memento of the Passover sacrifice itself. Several commandments are related to us about the treatment of the Passover sacrifice, both during the first Passover and later occasions. Exodus 12:46 commands that the meat of the sacrifice must be eaten within the home and warns not to carry any of it outside, nor to break the bones of the lamb. There are many metaphysical explanations for not breaking the lamb’s bones, but few that make much logical or rational sense when related to the Passover sacrifice and later service. So, what can this mean?

One possible explanation is that at the time these laws were promulgated food safety was not well understood by most individuals. Ancient peoples would have had little to no knowledge of the reasoning around food becoming contaminated by environmental factors or pathogens, even if it was clear that after a certain amount of time perishable products would become foul to consume. Let us take Exodus 12:46 and analyse it from a rational perspective. First, there is the command to eat the sacrifice within one’s house; second, not to take the meat outside the house; and finally not to break any of the lambs bones (later, Numbers 9:12 reiterates that the bones should not be broken, as well as stating that none of the sacrifice should be left over until morning). By eating the sacrifice within a house, a more controlled and hygienic environment, the risk of contamination or disease becomes lessened. Taking the meat outside the home might bring it into contact with contaminants from the settlement or camp, which would not have been clean places in ancient times. The admonition not to break the bones of the sacrifice is also based on safety: breaking the bones of an animal during cooking (which causes the bones to become more brittle) can release bone fragments and marrow that may pose a choking hazard or cause injury to the digestive tract.

Other clues in both Exodus and Numbers make a rationalistic argument from a safety perspective more compelling. Both Exodus 12:10 and Numbers 9:12 prohibit leaving any of the sacrifice over until the morning, with spoilage being the probable concern. Additionally, Exodus 12:9 commands the meat not be eaten raw or boiled in water. Quite obviously, eating raw meat would carry significant safety concerns, whereas boiling the meat in water might be impractical for cooking the lamb evenly, as maintaining the constant boiling temperature of 145°F (63°C) for safe cooking would be more challenging than simply roasting the meat.

Taken together, these prohibitions seem motivated by a concern for health and wellbeing, not the supernatural. They reflect the deep logic of much of the Hebrew Bible when analysed from a modern and rationalistic perspective and provide fascinating insight into the ancient Israelite mind.

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The above was coauthored with Adam R. Hemmings, a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and graduate of the University of Chicago and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he specialized in Egyptian and Near Eastern studies, as well as archaeological and heritage law. He is currently engaged in research for his PhD regarding the repatriation of Egyptian antiquities removed during the colonial period.
About the Author
Roger D. Isaacs is an independent researcher specializing in Hebrew Bible studies and the author of two books, "Talking With God" and "The Golden Ark". Isaacs' primary research site was the archives of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where he is a member of the Advisory Council. He also conducted research at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, as well as digs, museums, and libraries in many countries, including Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and England.
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