Jews will gather around tables all over the world this Friday evening for the Passover seder, a ritual and story about God liberating the Israelites from Egypt. One highlight is when we chant the names of the ten plagues God inflicted on Egypt. After the name of each plague, we use one finger to remove a drop from the second of our four ceremonial cups of wine.1
The tenth and final plague is makat bechorot, death of the firstborn; God takes the life of every firstborn in every family in Egypt—except for the Israelites who mark their doors so that God skips, or passes over, them.
Before the final plague, God tells Moses that each Israelite family must slaughter a lamb or goat kid on the fourteenth day of the month.
“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they will eat it. And they shall eat the meat that night, roasted in fire, and unleavened flatbread; on bitter herbs they shall eat it.” (Exodus/Shemot 12:7-8)
After describing how the Israelites should eat standing up with their loins girded, ready to leave, God says:“… It is a Pesach for God.” (Exodus 12:11)
Pesach (פֶּסַח) = the sacrifice mandated in Exodus 12; the annual spring pilgrimage festival in the Torah; the annual observance of Passover. (From the root verb pasach, פָּסַח = limp, skip.)
“And the blood will be a sign on the houses where you are, and I will see the blood ufasachti over you, and you will not be afflicted with destruction when I strike in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)
ufasachti (וּפָסַחְתִּי) = and I will skip over you. (A form of the verb pasach.)
The animal blood both signals an escape from death and brings the recipient close to God—in these instructions and in two other rituals in the Torah in which the blood of slaughtered animal is applied with branches of oregano.
1) Bo in Exodus (Pesach)
Moses adds oregano when he transmits God’s instructions to the Israelites.
“Then you shall take a bundle of eizov and you shall dip it into the blood that is in the basin, and touch some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. And you must not let anyone go out from the door of his house until morning. Upasach, God, to strike dead the Egyptians, and [God] will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, upasach, God, the door and not let the destruction enter your houses to strike dead [your firstborn]. (Exodus 12:21-23)
eizov (אֵזֺב) = Syrian oregano, an aromatic perennial herb. (Traditionally translated as “hyssop”, although true hyssop does not grow in the Middle East.) Eizov grows in stony ground to a height of 3-4 feet; its stems are the longest in the oregano branch of the mint family.
upasach (וּפָסַח) = and he will pass over, skip over. (Another form of the verb pasach.)
In the above passage, the first upasach means that God will pass over Egypt, and the second upasach means that God will skip over the houses whose doorframes are painted with blood.
An omniscient god would already know which houses to skip. Either the God-character in this story is not omniscient, or God includes the blood painting for its emotional impact.
Up to this point in the book of Exodus, the Israelite slaves find it hard to believe that God is on their side. But when they discover that God has killed every firstborn in every house except theirs, they are (temporarily) reassured that God is indeed rescuing them, and they march out of Egypt into freedom “with a high hand”.2
Why does Moses specify that the Israelites should use a bunch of eizov to paint the blood? The only herbs God mentioned to him were generic bitter herbs, to be eaten with the roast lamb or goat. Oregano is savory, but not bitter. Perhaps Moses is afraid that the Israelites will find it eerie to paint with blood, and he hopes to comfort them with the good smell of oregano.
2) Metzora in Leviticus
Last week’s Torah portion, Metzora, describes four steps of purification for someone who has recovered from the skin disease tzara-at. Although this disease does not seem to be contagious, the white and scaly patches of skin are a reminder of death. If the tzara-at clears up, ritual purification is necessary so that the healed person can return to the community and to God’s sanctuary. (See my post Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.)
The first step is a ritual requiring two wild birds.
And the priest shall slaughter one bird in an earthenware vessel [held] over living water. The live bird he shall take, along with the cedar wood and the crimson dye and the eizov, and he shall dip them and the live bird into the blood of the bird [that was] slaughtered over living water. Then he shall sprinkle it on the one being purified from tzara-at seven times and purify him. And he shall send the live bird out over the open field. (Leviticus 14:5-6)
The ancient Israelites identified blood with the life-force (nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ) in a person or animal.3 Here the priest kills one bird and catches its lifeblood in a bowl held over fresh water, which is called “living water” in the bible. The priest dips the other bird into the blood of life and sets it free. The healed person who is watching knows deep down that God has rescued them and given them new life.
The cedar and crimson dye (made from shield-louse eggs) have no apparent purpose except to emphasize the red color of the blood.
The eizov is used to sprinkle blood on the person being purified. A bunch of branches covered with soft leaves can be used to paint blood on something, and also be shaken to sprinkle blood on someone. And shaking a bunch of eizov branches would release the good smell of oregano, a reminder that life will be savory again.
3) Chukat in Numbers
A purification ritual in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar uses blood and eizov to make a transition for someone who has been exposed to a human death, so that the person can return to the right state for worshiping God with the community.
First a perfect, unblemished red cow that has never carried a yoke is slaughtered outside the camp as a chatat (חַטָּאת), an offering to compensate for an inadvertent sin or lapse. Usually someone offers a chatat after realizing they have made an error in observance that separates them from God. The chatat in this Torah portion is unique because the offering is slaughtered and burned ahead of time, so that future people who find they have become separated from the divine through exposure to human death can make a virtual chatat.
Then Elazar the high priest shall take some of her [the cow’s] blood with his finger, and he shall flick some of the blood seven times in the direction of the front of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:4)
This connects the cow’s life with God’s holy place. Next, Elazar watches while someone burns the entire cow, even its blood and dung.
And the priest shall take cedar wood and eizov and crimson dye, and throw them into the middle of the burning cow. (Numbers 19:6)
The ashes of the red cow in Chukat are gathered and stored in a ritually pure place, to be used to purify the following:
1) Anyone who is inside a tent where a human dies, and anyone who enters the tent for the next seven days (Numbers 19:14).
2) Anyone who touches a human corpse (even on a battlefield), or who touches a human bone, or who touches a grave (Numbers 19:16).
Then some of the ashes of the burning of the chatat will be taken and mixed with living water in a vessel. Then a ritually pure man shall take eizov and dip it in the water, and he shall sprinkle it over the tent and on all the vessels and on the souls who were there; or on the one who touched the bones, or the killed person, or the person who died [of natural causes], or the grave. And the ritually pure one shall sprinkle it on the third day and on the seventh day. Vechito on the seventh day. And he shall clean his clothes and he shall wash in water, and he will be ritually pure in the evening. (Numbers 19:17-19)
vechito (וְחִטּאוֹ) = and he will become free of his lapse. (From the same root as chatat.)
Anyone exposed to death who does not go through this process is excluded or “cut off” from the community. If they were not excluded, “the holy place of God would become impure”. (Numbers 19: 20)
Today we have no ritual to free us from the feeling of alienation that accompanies contact with death; there has been no ash from a pure red cow for two thousand years. Neither do we have a ritual to reintegrate with the community when we recover from a disfiguring condition that isolates us as tzara-at once did.
And today very few Jews in the world observe Passover by slaughtering a lamb and painting its blood on their doorframes with bunches of giant oregano—even during the current plague of Covid. The long ritual seder developed over the past millennium and a half focuses on freedom from slavery, not on fear that God will kill us.
Nevertheless, this Passover I am going to put a sprig of oregano on my seder plate, next to the bitter herbs. Even during times when we are crushed by the bitterness of physical or psychological slavery, life has savory moments.
- The custom of removing drops of wine is first mentioned in a Pesach sermon written by Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (1176–1238). The idea that we do it in sympathy for the Egyptians is based on Proverbs 24:17 and first appeared in commentary by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Löw (1812-1874).
- Numbers 33:3.
- Leviticus 17:14, Deuteronomy 12:23.