Reflections of redemption in Nisan, Part 5


The Second-Chance Passover (Iyar 14)

The first time Israel celebrated Passover in the wilderness, some unnamed people were barred from offering Pesach sacrifices because of ceremonial uncleanness (contact with a human corpse). Moses consulted with God and received instructions for them to observe a substitute Passover on the 14th of the second month, with its duration shortened from seven days to one evening meal (Num.9:6-12). It is marked on the Jewish calendar as Pesach Sheni (“second Passover”). However, God makes it clear (v.13) that this provision is not an optional replacement for the original Passover; anyone who can keep the latter but doesn’t “will be cut off from his people [and] will bear his sin.”

The Torah passage is interesting for several reasons. In God’s response, He adds two categories that were irrelevant to the petitioners (v.10): “If any one of you or of your generations becomes unclean because of a dead person, or is on a distant journey….” Moreover, the original word order (changed by translators) reads like a single addition, and one that seems to address a spiritual distance like estrangement: “Each man who will be unclean for a dead person, or on a far road to you or to your generations…” (literal Hebrew).

From this, the sages derived a teaching that Pesach Sheni symbolizes God calling for the wayward Jew to repent/return to Him, even if it seems too late. But Torah records that these people had to protest being excluded before God provided the alternative; so it also symbolizes God waiting for His chosen people to cry out for the Redemption they are missing.

And what made those first Israelites cry out (v.7)? The sight of others feasting and rejoicing before God, while they could not participate because of uncleanness. In a word, jealousy. Paul writes (Rom.11:11-14) that those redeemed by Messiah from all the nations will provoke Israel to jealousy. This situation is in turn a fulfillment of Torah (Deut.32:21, quoted in Rom.10:19).

As the “second-chance” Passover approaches, we examine an ancient Passover tradition that was dismantled some 18 centuries ago, for no other reason than its unmistakable resemblance to Yeshua. Perhaps our people will become jealous enough over this lost heritage to belatedly reclaim it.

The severed link: Passover and Isaac

It’s universally accepted that Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac (Gen.22), is associated with Tishrei 2. The idea appeared in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) and today it’s firmly embedded in the shofar blowing and Torah reading for the second day of the rabbinically mandated New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

Few know that this tradition was invented by post-Temple rabbis in order to destroy an earlier one. The original place of the Akedah in the Jewish calendar was Nisan 14, Passover Eve. Historical evidence for the switch was documented years ago by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer (“Torah Reading as a Weapon: Rosh Hashanah and the Akedah”).

During the time Talmudic teaching was developing (40-500 AD), the entire life of Abraham’s son of promise was intertwined with the Passover story. Rabbis Eliezer and Yehoshua, two leading Talmudic sages, agreed that Isaac was born on Passover (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a). The near-sacrifice of Isaac was elsewhere compared with the sparing of the Israelite firstborn sons in the tenth plague – both occurring on Nisan 14. The only connection to Tishrei at that time was one Midrashic tradition that Isaac’s birth was foretold on Tishrei 1.

Kaunfer noted that in the Mishnah (Megillah 3:5), the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah (Tishrei 1, no second day) was not Genesis 22, the Akedah story; or Genesis 21, the birth of Isaac; but Leviticus 23, the command to blow the shofar as a memorial on Yom ha-Truah. The Mishnah’s discussion of this holiday never mentioned the Akedah.

In contrast, the Jewish book Jubilees (dated around 150 BC, considered Scripture by Ethiopian Jews) tells of the Akedah taking place in Nisan (Jub.17:15–18:19). Prince Mastema, a fallen angel, challenges God to test Abraham, which He does on “the 12th day of the first month.” On the third day after that (Nisan 14 or 15, depending on how one counts the days), Abraham and Isaac reach the mountain, where Isaac is bound and nearly sacrificed.

Kaunfer: “Following that ordeal, Abraham institutes a 7-day festival called ‘the feast of the Lord.’ The account in Jubilees ends with: ‘And thus it is ordained and written in the heavenly tablets concerning Israel and his seed to observe this festival seven days with festal joy.’ This holiday is likely Passover.”

Kaunfer cited scholars who suggested that the Nisan Akedah tradition dates back even before Jubilees. Several agreed that “the Akedah narrative was assigned to the holiday [of Tishrei 2] relatively late,” and that attempts to present this as a first-century custom were probably later insertions. That (sort of) answers the question of when the Akedah was uprooted from Nisan – but not why.

Why the Akedah was relocated

According to Rabbi Kaunfer, the connection of the Akedah and Pesach was deliberately broken after the destruction of the Temple, in an effort to erase its powerful association with Yeshua’s sacrifice:

The selection of Genesis 22 as the reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah reflected a conscious decision by certain of the Rabbis to move the Akedah away from its original calendrical home: Passover.
This transfer was completed in order to distance the story of the Akedah with [sic, from] a time of the year that was increasingly associated with another martyr/sacrifice narrative, that of Jesus.
The transfer of the Torah reading to Tishrei represented but one strategy on the part of the Rabbis to combat the Christological associations with the Akedah….

This liturgical development, which may have occurred as early as Tannaitic times [70-200 AD], gave the Rabbis a ‘weapon’ used to eject early Christians from the synagogue.

Regarding that last statement, another well-known rabbinic “weapon” designed to drive Jewish followers of Yeshua from the synagogue was the curse against “Nazarenes and heretics embedded in Birkat Ha-Minim. It was composed 90–100 AD by order of Rabbi Gamliel II, who apparently realized that the Nazarenes were not “heretics” (hence, two separate targets for cursing). These measures show how far post-Temple rabbinic leaders were willing to go in defacing Torah Judaism to fight a perceived threat to their authority. The author’s implicit admiration for their “effective set of tools” shows that for some rabbis, these priorities remain justified to this day.

Nevertheless, the strategy was only partly successful, as Kaunfer admits: “The association between Passover and the Akedah, while absent liturgically, remained in certain midrashic formulations.” Indeed, passages like the following (dated 900-1000 AD) preserved the original Nisan teaching (emphasis added):

After the Holy One (blessed be He) had chosen His world, He established the order of the new moons and the new years. And when He chose Jacob and his sons, He established the new moon of redemption, in which Israel was redeemed from Egypt, and in which they will in the future be redeemed…. This [Nisan] is the month in which Isaac was born, and in which he was bound. (Exodus Rabbah 15:11)

The atoning Passover son – who came first?

Logic would expect rabbinic scholars to claim that Isaac as an atoning sacrifice was a rabbinic teaching copied by the Nazarenes. Oddly, Rabbi Kaunfer insisted the opposite:

The other, equally daring move [besides transferring the Akedah from Nisan 14 to Tishrei 2] was to reappropriate the martyrology imagery of the Jesus narrative and read it back into the Isaac story. Taken together, these two moves offered the Rabbis an effective set of tools in battling to distinguish Judaism from Early Christianity.

Rabbinic adoption of Yeshua’s message would certainly be “daring” – and self-defeating! An atoning sacrifice by the son of Abraham not only fails “to distinguish Judaism from Early Christianity,” it cements the similarity between them. And regardless of rabbinic intentions, the similarity grew over time.

For example, the 4th-century Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael reinforced the association between Yeshua and the Akedah by describing a blood atonement. Commenting on God’s promise in Exodus 12:13, “When I see the blood [of the Pesach lamb] I will pass over you…” the Mekhilta stated: “I see the blood of the binding of Isaac.” This was apparently drawing on another tradition handed down in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, which said that although not actually sacrificed, Isaac gave a quarter of his blood as an atonement for Israel. (“Vayera: What Happened to Isaac?” Israel National News, 21/oct/10)

And that’s not all.

The atoning Passover son, resurrected

More astonishing are the Jewish sources that spoke of Isaac as having been really sacrificed, and then raised from the dead. The Shibbolei HaLeket (Avraham Harofeh, 1230-1300) recorded this resurrection tradition: “When Isaac was bound on the altar and reduced to ashes, and his sacrificial dust was cast onto Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed be He, immediately brought upon him dew and revived him.”

Two centuries earlier, Rashi argued that God had only asked Abraham to “offer” his son, not to sacrifice him – thus, He never would have allowed Abraham to act on that misunderstanding. Yet when commenting on Gen.22:14 (“….as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it will be seen”), Rashi interpreted this verse to mean: “On the mountain God will look upon Isaac’s ashes heaped up and standing for atonement.” He was relying on still earlier sources, like Pesikta Rabbati (850 AD) and Midrash Tanhuma (600 AD).

The contradiction here is every bit as troublesome as the claim of a crucified Messiah who lives forever. The author of the above-mentioned INN article (Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple) quoted these sages but felt compelled to criticize them for diverging from the written Torah… a glaringly anti-rabbinic position.

The Isaac paradox may well date back to second-Temple times, since the book of Hebrews also refers to it (11:17-19): “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac…. He considered that God is able to raise even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type [lit: in a parable].”  In fact, Rabbi Kaunfer made a scholarly case that Isaac’s death and resurrection “was a concept existing pre-Christianity.”

But Kaunfer himself was unable to digest that reality. “Even if it did” predate Yeshua, he credited the post-Temple rabbis with wisdom for using it as “direct competition to the figure of Jesus.” In other words, this striking oral tradition about Isaac circulated for centuries without any relevance for the Jewish people… until it became useful to shield them a real-life illustration of itself.

Equally revealing was Kaunfer’s other rationalization: “The death and ashes of Isaac and his subsequent resurrection can be reasonably understood as an attempt to enrich Judaism with a figure that was as colorful as the one known to Christian exegesis.” This “one” must be fearful competition indeed. Observe that after 2000 years, rabbis still cannot risk naming Him and “resurrection” in the same sentence!

“On a far road”

The Akedah may be exiled six months away from Nisan, but it still carries its original Nisan message. The Amidah prayer for Rosh Hashana refers to Isaac being bound “for his seed,” while the Musaf service begs God to grant us justification by remembering “the son who was bound” and “the merit of the innocent one” – without naming Isaac.

Instead, another name is spoken.

The name that generations of Hebrew-speaking rabbis have avoided with the euphemism, “ha-ish ha-hu.” “That man.”

The name is invoked only once, in a silent whisper, during the first shofar blowing on the second day. It’s printed in the tiniest type size possible for Hebrew prayer books. But it bypasses all of church history by honoring Him with an elegant Midrashic title unknown to Christians: “Yeshua, Sar Ha-Panim.”

No one knows how this micro-pointer to the Nazarene got into the synagogue. But there are others. They are proof that for those who missed Him during Israel’s appointed Day of Salvation, God has ordained a Pesach Sheni.

(to be concluded)