Bioethics and the Passover Lamb

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.

Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev P.O.B. 653, 84105 Beer-Sheva, Israel


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 5 (1995), 69.
The rush of preparing editorial commentaries for this issue fell together with hurried preparations for the Passover Holiday here in Israel. On the eve of the first full moon of Spring we eat the festive meal, the Passover Seder, with wine, unleavened "poor bread" and bitter herbs. But this seder is only in imitation and remembrance of the real thing. For it lacks the roasted meat of the sacrificial lamb, which we ate when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. Jews all over the world conclude the seder with the words: "Next year in Jerusalem". And if they understand the Hebrew words they are reciting then they are stating the clear intention to resume bringing the Passover Sacrifice on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem within the coming year.

The idea of animal sacrifices may sound primitive, barbaric and savage to the postmodern ear, especially in this day of movements for animal rights. But when one compares the Passover Sacrifice to the way so many postmoderns treat animals and meat, some interesting bioethical lessons can be learned.

1. The Passover Sacrifice like the vast majority of Scriptural sacrifices will be slaughtered to be eaten. But this will not be in a commercial slaughterhouse, where animals are killed unfeelingly and mechanically, to be packaged in plastic and eaten by people far away who fool themselves into forgetting they are eating what was a living, breathing, feeling creature. The Passover lambs will be slaughtered on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by those who will eat them, or in their presence. While some may choose never to eat meat, those who eat the Passover Lamb will be fully aware of the gravity of what they are doing.

2. People from all over Israel will bring their Passover Lambs to be slaughtered on the Temple Mount and then eaten in a great communal picnic in Jerusalem. In contrast to today's eating for selfish gourmet pleasure or gluttony, or unthinkingly in fast-food hamburger shops, the Passover Lamb will be eaten in prayer and with the unleavened "poor bread" and bitter herbs to remind us of our days of slavery in Egypt and to emphasize our obligation to try to help all suffering people.

3. Many people will buy their Passover Lambs in Jerusalem. But others will raise and know them personally. I have personally raised dairy goats and chickens, and I know many shepherds who love their animals, raise them gently, care for them through long nights at lambing time or in sickness, and then slaughter and eat them, saying a blessing with deep feeling that this process is an essential part of life, of bios on this planet. They also realize at first hand the importance of a balanced ecosystem, so essential to sustainable natural pasture. I sometimes think a pious shepherd may love animals and nature with more committed sincerity than many urban activists for animal rights.

Of course a shepherd's relationship to animals is a different world from laboratory animal experimentation which must be discussed separately.

My remarks about the Passover Lamb are partially based on Maimonides' Mishneh Tora, and on the "The Passover Haggadah - The Temple Haggadah" edited with historical commentary by Rabbi Israel Ariel, Jerusalem, 1995 (in Hebrew), who has an institute for the study of the conditions necessary for reviving sacrifices. The word "sacrifice", incidentally is perhaps a poor translation for the Hebrew korban, meaning to bring near to God. Perhaps the revival of this custom will help break the alienation from nature of postmodern humanity, and encourage an emotional awareness of our relationship to animals and nature which will be to the bioethical good of the entire planet.


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