Why Jews Stopped Sacrificing Lambs and Baby Goats for Passover

And why some have started trying to perform it on the Temple Mount again.

"Agnus Dei," by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas.
Wikimedia Commons

The arrest of several Jewish activists for trying to smuggle in a kid and conduct a sacrifice on the Temple Mount last Friday is a timely reminder that before the Passover seder was invented, the festival was all about the killing and eating of baby goats and sheep.

The source of this ancient rite is the Book of Exodus, where God ostensibly gives Moses instructions on how Passover should be celebrated: “Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel,” God tells Moses. “In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.”

God explains that either a goat or sheep may be used, but either way it “shall be without blemish, a male of the first year.” On the eve of Passover, God tells Moses “the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at dusk. And they shall take of the blood, and put it on the two side-posts and on the lintel, upon the houses wherein they shall eat it” (Ex. 12:3-8). (There are also possible Pagan origins of the ritual.)

We don’t know exactly how this ritual was carried out during the First Temple period, but the Mishna (c. 200 C.E.) gives a detailed account of how it was practiced at the end of the Second Temple period.

Jewish families made their way to Jerusalem from throughout Judea and beyond. Once they arrived, they purchased their sacrifice from one of the city’s many baby goat/sheep vendors and waited for Passover. On Passover eve, a representative from each family took their purchase to the Temple. At the appointed time, the gates would open and the representatives – each with bleating sacrifice in hand – filed in and lined up in front of one of the many priests, who themselves were lined up in rows in the Temple courtyard. Once the courtyard was full, the gates were closed and the mass slaughter began.

Bowls of blood

Each representative handed his goat or sheep to a priest who killed the animal, carefully collecting its blood into a bowl. Once the bowl was full, it was transferred to the priest beside him. From him it went to the one beside him, until, like a conveyor belt, it reached another priest who doused the altar with its bloody contents. After the blood has been completely collected, the priest handed the now-dead animal to the representative, who took it and hung it on a hook. Levites came over and removed the skin and innards, which were taken to the altar and burned. Once this was done, the representatives each took their dead goat or sheep and left the Temple compound to find their families. Then each family roasted the meat on a pomegranate branch and ate it in a festive night barbecue.

AP

Since the Temple compound – about the size of 15 football fields – wasn’t large enough to fit all the pilgrims in at once, this process was repeated three times.

This ancient ritual abruptly came to an end in 70 C.E., when the Romans put down the Jews’ Great Revolt and destroyed the Temple. At this point, what remained of the Jewish population in Judea had to decide how Passover would be celebrated.

The task of adapting Judaism to its new Temple-less reality fell to Rabban Gamaliel II, head of the Jewish Assembly – the Sanhedrin. With regard to the Passover sacrifice, Gamaliel decreed that the sacrifice should continue in family homes, with each family sacrificing its own goat or sheep.

However, other rabbis believed that the Passover sacrifice, like all the other sacrifices, could only be conducted by the priests in the Temple and that, like the other sacrifices, should not be conducted until the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt.

Some Jews followed Gamaliel and continued to sacrifice goats and sheep in their homes on Passover; others didn’t and saw the practice as apostasy.

Within about two generations, the practice ceased when the anti-sacrifice camp assumed control and threatened to excommunicate those who practiced it. So, sometime in the second century C.E., Jews stopped the practice of sacrificing baby goats and sheep on Passover. Until recently, that is.

Sign of the Apocalypse

After the establishment of the State of Israel and conquest of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount site in the 1967 Six-Day War, a fringe group of religious Jews has taken these developments as a sign of the Apocalypse. In 1967, they established the Temple Mount and Eretz Yisrael Faithful Movement, which is dedicated to rebuilding the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount (a site now occupied by Islamic shrines, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock). To this end, they have been training personnel and preparing the objects that are required for the Temple operation to commence.

Since Passover 1968, Jewish groups – generously funded by Evangelical Christians in the United States who share their eagerness for the Apocalypse – have been trying to sacrifice goats and sheep on the Temple Mount. However, they have been repeatedly turned away by the Israeli government, which fears their actions could trigger a holy war. The Temple Mount Faithful are unperturbed, and in recent years have been holding practice Passover sacrifices elsewhere in Jerusalem, biding their time until they can successfully sacrifice goats and sheep on the Temple Mount itself.

Gil Cohen-Magen