In 19th century Germany, Karl Graf and Julius Wellhausen argued that most of the book of Devarim was published in the era of King Yoshiyahu in the first Beit haMikdash, and that the “Priestly Code” (parts of the first four chumashim, the end of Devarim, and part of Yehoshua) was published centuries later. As the theory went, one of the central goals of this “Priestly Code” was to centralize service of G-d around the Beit haMikdash.
In 1903, Rabbi Dovid Zvi Hoffmann published a lengthy challenge, noting inconsistencies in the theory. His first note addressed the Korban Pesach.
In our parshah (Shemot 12), Moshe tells the Jews to sacrifice the Korban Pesach at home. On the other hand, Devarim 16:5 instructs, “You may not slaughter the Pesach at one of your gates,” but rather at the communal Sanctuary. If a goal of Shemot 12 and the “Priestly Code” was to centralize korbanot, why would the alleged editors of the Torah take our founding ritual, already decreed to be performed at the site of the Beit haMikdash (Devarim 16:5), and already performed there (Melachim II 23), and provide reason to celebrate it at home? (Carla Sulzbach, “David Zvi Hoffmann’s Die Wichtigsten Instanzen gegen die Graf-Wellhausensche Hypothese, 1903” (MA Thesis, McGill University, 1996))
Graf-Wellhausen aside, we need to consider a problem within our own, traditional read of the Torah’s text. Parshat Bo clearly places the Korban Pesach in the home. Why, then, did the Torah move the Korban Pesach to the Sanctuary?
Private or Public Korban?
Indeed, the Korban Pesach is ambiguous; Rambam described the Korban Pesach as “a private korban which is like a public korban”. (Introduction to Seder Zevachim) The Korban Pesach is brought by private groups. However, it overrides Shabbat and ritual impurity, like a communal korban! (Yoma 50a-51a) The transition of the Korban Pesach from the private home to the public Sanctuary seems to be part of a greater picture, in which the Korban Pesach, naturally private, displays elements of public ceremony. Understanding why the Korban moved from house to House may help us understand this mixed celebration.
Sefer haChinuch (#487) justifies use of a national site, stating, “The honour and publicity of the mitzvah is greater when it is performed in a designated location, with everyone together...” In other words, the Korban Pesach is fundamentally private, but adorned with the trappings of a communal korban in order to elevate its status.
2: National identity
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Commentary to Devarim 16:5) offers an opposite perspective. He writes, “Each person must include himself and his household in the communal structure of a national network… Only afterward can one joyfully recognize the value of his own home.” Per Rabbi Hirsch, the Korban Pesach is fundamentally communal. The home celebration in Egypt was an anomaly, in which “the doorposts and lintel filled the place of the [communal] altar.”
3: Private and Public
We might suggest a third possibility: the Korban Pesach of Egypt was private, but afterward it gained a dual identity.
The initial Korban Pesach inhabited a Jewish world which was not covenantal nation, but prolific clan. Therefore, each family celebrated at home. Soon after, though, our nation’s shared history began with the brit at Sinai. In the second year, as evidenced by Bamidbar 9:10’s concern for being too far from the Mishkan, the Korban Pesach could be celebrated only as part of our national community. The personal identity remained, as each group brought its own korban, but the national identity became dominant, overriding Shabbat and ritual impurity, and setting the Sanctuary as the site for this ritual.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein wrote that Jewish identity entails both a personal relationship with G-d and a national experience of “the vertical historical axis, bonding with the full range of Jewish existence, across the millenia, from our incipient national cradle to the epiphany of our metahistorical vision.” So it is that conversion to Judaism, for example, includes acceptance of both personal religious obligations and membership in the Jewish nation. (Brother Daniel and the Jewish Fraternity (1968); Diaspora Religious Zionism: Some Current Reflections (2007)) These two themes are present in the Korban Pesach.
When we bring the Korban Pesach – as we will in just a few months, G-d-willing – we will mark our personal relationship with G-d, as we did in that first year. However, we will also recognize “the full range of Jewish existence”, our national identity, and so we will leave our homes and bring our private korbanot to the site of the Beit haMikdash, in Jerusalem.