Why Lamb Isn't on the Menu at Passover: The Origins Behind This Sacred Tradition by Dr. Terry Harman
Updated: Mar 24
Why do Jews not eat lamb at Passover?
I am asked this question regularly when teaching Christian audiences. This is my humble attempt to explain an age-old question. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments section.
The story of the Passover Seder dates back to over 3,000 years ago when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt. According to Jewish tradition, before leaving Egypt, God commanded Moses to sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on the doorposts of Jewish homes so that the Angel of Death would "pass over" them and spare their firstborn children. The lamb was then roasted and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This event is commemorated in the Passover Seder, which is held on the first two nights of the holiday.
In the first century, the Jewish people continued to fulfill the commandment to make three pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem each year. The feasts to commemorate in Jerusalem were Passover, Shavuot, and Tabernacles. Passover commemorates the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus. Until 70 of the Common Era (70 AD), the consumption of lamb at the Seder continued to be one of the elements of the Passover. However, in contemporary Jewish practice, it is rare to find lamb served during Passover. This essay explores why Jews no longer eat lamb at Pesach or Passover.
The Torah mandates the consumption of lamb during Passover in the Book of Exodus. In Exodus 12, God commands Moses and Aaron,
Several factors contributed to the discontinuation of lamb consumption during Passover. The following are the four most prominent reasons:
1.) The Destruction of the Second Temple
The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and since then, Jews have been unable to offer animal sacrifices in the Temple. Sacrifices are a central aspect of Jewish worship and were required during the time of the Temple. Therefore, the cessation of the Temple sacrifices led to changes in Jewish dietary practices, including the Passover lamb. With the destruction of the Temple, Jews could no longer offer sacrifices and thus could no longer consume Passover lamb.
2.) Rabbinic Interpretation of the Torah
The rabbis of the Talmudic era played a significant role in the development of Jewish law and customs. One of the most significant changes they instituted was the discontinuation of lamb consumption during Passover. This change was driven by the fact that the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE had made it impossible to offer animal sacrifices, including the Passover lamb.
The rabbis recognized the importance of the Passover lamb as a symbol of the Exodus and the Temple sacrifices. However, they also understood that without the Temple, the commandment to eat the Passover lamb was no longer applicable. To address this issue, the rabbis developed new rituals and practices to replace the Temple sacrifices, and the Passover Seder became the central ritual of Passover.
Furthermore, the rabbis interpreted the Torah to mean that the commandment to eat the Passover lamb was only temporary and was meant to commemorate the Exodus and the Temple sacrifices. After the destruction of the Temple, this commandment was no longer applicable. This interpretation is reflected in the Passover Haggadah, which states that "we eat no lamb, roasted or boiled, nor do we eat any meat except unleavened bread and bitter herbs" (Pesachim 7a).
Through their interpretation of the Torah and the development of new rituals and practices, the rabbis were able to adapt Jewish practice to the changing circumstances of their time.
3.) Practical Concerns
Practical concerns also contributed to the discontinuation of lamb consumption during Passover. In the Diaspora, it was difficult to obtain kosher lambs, and the expense of procuring them was often prohibitive. Additionally, many Jews lived in areas where the lamb was not a staple food, and it was therefore not a familiar or desirable meat. Over time, the expense and practicality of procuring kosher lambs, combined with changes in Jewish dietary practices and rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, led to the gradual disappearance of lamb from the Passover table.
4.) Animal Welfare Concerns in Recent Times
Another reason why lamb is no longer consumed during Passover is animal welfare concerns. The ritual slaughter of animals, or shechita, is an important part of Jewish dietary laws. According to Jewish law, animals must be slaughtered in a specific way to minimize their suffering. However, some animal welfare activists have criticized this method of slaughter as inhumane, and there have been calls to ban the practice. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, there have been attempts to ban the ritual slaughter of animals, which would make it difficult to procure kosher lamb for Passover.
In response to these concerns, some Jewish organizations have promoted alternative ways of celebrating Passover that do not involve consuming meat. For example, some Jews have started celebrating Passover with vegetarian or vegan meals, or by incorporating plant-based proteins into their Seder meals.
In conclusion, there are several reasons why Jews no longer eat lamb during Passover. The destruction of the Second Temple, rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, practical concerns, and animal welfare concerns have all contributed to the gradual disappearance of the lamb from the Passover table. While the consumption of lamb during Passover is still observed by some Jews, it is no longer a universal practice. Passover has evolved, and the Seder meal has become a way for Jews to commemorate their liberation from slavery, express gratitude, and connect with their heritage. The symbolism of the Passover Seder, and the traditions associated with it, continue to be a meaningful part of Jewish culture and identity.