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Parshah Vayikra; Mishna Commentary

Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
Ilana is back with some insight into Israeli Jewish life.

Parshat Vayikra

March 25, 2023 | 3 Nissan 5783

Torah: Leviticus 1:1-5:26 Triennial: Leviticus 1:1-2:16

Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-44:23

From Purim to Pesach
Ilana Kurshan
Adventures in the Mishnah with My Kids
Pesachim 5:5-9

Two weeks ago, on the Friday before Purim, I went out with my twins to buy accessories for their costumes. I hadn’t planned to save it for the last minute. I’d told the twins that I refused to buy them pre-made, pre-packaged costumes that they would never wear again; I didn’t believe in disposable clothing, and I wanted them to be more creative. Instead, I told them, they had to design their own costumes using materials we had at home, and then I would take them to the store for anything they were still missing. Only now, a few days before the holiday, were they ready to go shopping – Tagel needed yellow pipecleaners, and Liav needed a hula skirt.

When we arrived at Max Stock—a cross between Target and the dollar store—I realized my mistake. The lines outside the store snaked back and forth through the parking lot, as if everyone in the city had the same idea. I ought to have realized my mistake. Purim is a big deal in Israel, especially for children. Schools in Jerusalem are off for three and a half days; the half day is costume day, when all the kids come to school dressed up and parade in the streets. Every kid needed a costume, and Max Stock was the place to buy it. But how long would we have to wait?

I asked the woman in front of us in line, who was standing with more children than I could count. She told me that they were only allowed to have fifty people in the store at once, so they were letting people in as groups and locking the door behind each group; as soon as one group left, the doors would be unlocked and the next fifty people in line would be ushered in. I nodded. It made sense, especially given the Covid restrictions on too many people congregating indoors at once. But when I heard her explanation, I did think about Purim or the pandemic. I immediately thought about Pesach, still more than a month away.

The fifth chapter of the Mishnah in Pesachim, which Matan and I were learning, teaches about the offering of the pesach sacrifice on the day before the holiday. As the Torah teaches (Exodus 12), every Jew had to join a small group of people—known as a chavurah—who would bring a pesach sacrifice and then eat it together that evening. On the day before Pesach, the Temple courtyard was mobbed, with everyone standing in line with their nervous, bleating lambs, waiting their turn to slaughter. How could the Temple possibly accommodate them all?

The Mishnah (5:5) explains that all the people who came to offer their Pesach sacrifices were divided into three groups, based on their place in line. The first group—those who had arrived earliest—were ushered in first, while everyone else waited outside. Then the doors were locked and the shofar was sounded inside the Temple to mark the occasion ceremoniously. The members of the first group would slaughter their lambs and the priests would stand in rows holding gold and silver basins with which to receive the blood. The Mishnah explains that these basins did not have flat bottoms so that the priests would not set the bowls down at any point, which might lead the blood to congeal. To expedite the process, the priests would stand in place and pass the bowls down the rows, until the last priest would sprinkle the blood over the base of the altar and pass the empty basins back. If a priest was being handed a full basin from the priest on one side of him and an empty basin from the priest on the other side, he had to take the full basin first, because “one does not pass over mitzvot.” It’s a mitzvah to perform all aspects of the pesach sacrifice, which includes throwing the blood on the altar. The more mundane job of passing the basin back could wait.

I am thinking about this mishnah when suddenly the doors of Max Stock open and the next group of people is let in. We are not among them; we’re too far back in line. The Mishnah in Pesachim teaches that as soon as the first group of Israelites has finished offering their sacrifices, the doors of the Temple were unlocked and the second group was allowed to enter. Once that group finished, the third group—known in the Talmud as the “lazy group,” because they showed up last, we were allowed to enter. It seems we are part of the lazy group, but thankfully the twins were waiting patiently.

When we finally entered the store, there were costumes strewn everywhere. There weren’t nearly enough hangers for all the costumes on sale, so customers had tried them on and then left them draped on shelves or discarded on the floor. The Mishnah in Pesachim (5:9) teaches that after the blood was thrown on the altar, the animal was hung by its hind legs on hooks affixed to the Temple courtyard so that its entrails could be flayed and offered on the altar. Since there were so many people offering sacrifices on this particular day, there weren’t enough hooks. And so sometimes two people would hold up poles on their shoulders and suspend the animal from them. It seems the Temple, too, needed more hangers.

While the sacrifices were being offered, the Levites would chant the Hallel – which explains why we recite Hallel as part of the Pesach Seder, a ritual that substitutes for the Pesach offering in post-Temple times. If the Levites finished the Hallel but the group had not finished offering their sacrifices, they would repeat the Hallel as many times as necessary, so that each sacrifice had musical accompaniment. However, explains the Mishnah (5:7), they never got through the first recitation of Hallel when it came to the third group. Presumably the third group was smaller, since it was composed only of those who did not make it into the Temple with the first two groups. Or perhaps the third group was so impatient after hours of waiting that they went about their business more quickly.

I can relate. I hurry the girls through the store, eager to get out of there as soon as possible. Our costume shopping took much longer than I’d planned, and I needed to pick up the little kids from preschool. One twin—who will dress up as the sun—finds the pipe cleaners she needs to attach to her headband as rays. The other twin—who refused to be the moon because “matching costumes for twins is so dumb, Ima”—picks out a hula skirt to wear with the lei she received at a bat mitzvah party. I am full of gratitude for this other Purim miracle – that the costume shopping is finally behind us.

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