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Parashat Bo, Exodus 10:1 - 13:16


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Doorposts and their Symbolism
By : Yair Barkai*
The commandment to spread the blood (of the Pascal lamb) on the doorposts and lintel has raised various questions and been extensively discussed.[1] Therefore here I shall focus on the symbolic significance of the place the Israelites were commanded to apply the blood of the sacrifice. It is written, “They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it” (Ex. 12:7). Examining various sources, we see that there is significance to the place the blood is put, beyond it being prominently visible.
A. The doorposts and lintel as a place of expiation
Putting blood on the doorposts and lintel gave these places the status of an altar, because of the great risk the Israelites took in sacrificing the Pascal lamb. Recall that the Egyptians worshipped the lamb as a deity, and in displaying the lamb’s blood for all to see, the Israelites were attesting that they had abandoned their former beliefs, practiced in Egypt, and were prepared to risk their lives to do so. In doing this, the blood on the doorposts and lintel became like the blood that is sprinkled on the altar, because the altar is for expiation, and the blood on the doorposts and lintel served as expiation for the Israelites’ sin of following Egyptian ways.[2]
Thus it is said in Pesikta Zutreta (Lekah Tov, Exodus, Parashat Bo, ch. 12.7) : “Thus we learn that our ancestors in Egypt had four altars, the lintel, the two doorposts, and the doorstep, as said by Rabbi Ishmael.” Even Ibn Ezra followed this approach in his Short Commentary on the verse at hand : “This is what it is about : that the edict of the System will not lay off unless ransom is given, and this is a great mystery.”
The process of freeing themselves from the unacceptable faith of the Egyptians was complex, and putting blood on the doorposts was an important stage in this process. This act served as a means of atonement, to understand which we must avail ourselves of mystical theories that Ibn Ezra does not specify.
B. The place where the blood was put as a sign and omen
“And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you : when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12:13). One of the challenging difficulties raised by this commandment is the question of to whom it was directed : was it for those dwelling in the house, eating the lamb whose blood was on the doorposts and lintel, as follows from the words “the blood…shall be a sign for you,” or was the blood perhaps intended as a sign for the Destroying Angel that came to smite the firstborn in Egypt, indicating the he should pass over the inhabitants of that house ?
Indeed, commentators are not of one opinion. The interpretation that views the blood as a sign to the inhabitants of the house is indeed more convenient, because it can be perceived as part of the process of freeing oneself from the idolatry of Egypt ; whereas the interpretation that the sign was meant to enable recognition [of Israelite homes] is more difficult to comprehend—for does the Holy One, blessed be He, need an outward sign in order to pass over the houses of the Israelites ?
Either way, no one challenges the fact that the blood on the doorposts and lintel served as a sign, as explicitly stated in the biblical verse. Ibn Ezra, who is among those holding that it was also on outward sign, writes (in his Long Commentary) : “The reason the blood is on the lintel is to serve as ransom for all who are eating in that home, and is a sign to the Destroyer, for him to see, as in put a mark.”[3] That is, putting blood on the foreheads of the righteous was similar to putting blood on the doorposts and lintels in this week’s reading, since in both instances the sign served to deliver people from the Destroyer. Thus, in this week’s reading, the place for putting the blood was chosen because it was a prominent location that would serve as a clear sign to the Destroying Angel.
The sign, according to the commentary of Hizkuni (Rabbi Hezekia ben Manoah, c. 1250-1310, France) on verse 7, was intended to save those dwelling in the house :
And on the lintel [Heb. mashkof]—from va-yashkef [as in Gen. 26:8], or looking out ; he passed over the opening looking upwards. This was done in case not all [the Egyptians] could come at the hour of slaughtering, so now they would all see the blood of the [deity] they feared exposed there to ignominy. Another interpretation : so that the blood would form the letter het to protect the entrance and not let the Destroyer enter, and it is sign of life [hayyim].
Hizkuni remarks attribute to the sign of blood characteristics that protect the house and those living in it. The blood is not only an outward sign, and therefore he chose to call it a “sign of life.”
Maimonides holds that the place the blood was put was chosen in order to give prominent publicity to the people’s compliance with the Lord’s command :[4]
We were commanded to kill a lamb on Passover and to sprinkle the blood thereof in Egypt, outside on the gates, to cleanse ourselves of those doctrines and to publicly proclaim the opposite, to bring to the belief that the very act which was then considered as being the cause of death would bring deliverance from death. And the Lord will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smith your home—this was the reward for publicly performing a service every part of which was objected to by the idolaters.
Abarbanel explains the placement of the blood differently :
He commanded that they take some of the lamb’s blood and put it on the lintel and the two doorposts, since those places behind the door and the doorpost are where they used to put the reminder of the pagan worship in which they used to partake ; therefore, now they were to put the blood they had spilled in order to show their contempt and make him angry…And the blood shall be for you—for the sign was for them, as testimony to themselves that they would no longer worship sheep-gods as they had of yore, and that they were leaving Egypt because the goodly hand of the Lord backed them, doing away with the power of the sheep-god.
The archaeologist Shmuel Yeivin,[5] like Abarbanel, is of the opinion that the place for putting the blood was chosen because in the ancient world it was customary to mark various signs and omens there. Mesopotamian seals from earlier periods display symbols of deities next to the doorposts of cultic structures (p. 780). He writes (p. 782) :
Thus, the biblical tradition recounting how the Israelites marked their houses in the land of Egypt by putting the blood of the lamb on the two doorposts and the lintel (Ex. 12:7), describes the action done according to the accepted practice for marking who resides in those houses, and from such inscriptions and markings comes the custom of drawing cultic signs in order to protect the inhabitants of the house against any evil that might befall them.
Making such apotropaic[6] markings or hanging apotropaic charms from the lintel or the doorpost is common throughout almost the entire world. Also the commandment, “inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:9), was intended from the outset for none other than to serve as a constant reminder to the children of Israel to obey and perform the Lord’s commandments. The Sages extended the concept of the mezuzah, using this word to refer not only to the doorpost but also to the passages written on parchment and affixed to the doorpost of the house.
C. Allegorical interpretations
An allegorical approach was chosen by some for explaining the placement of the blood. We shall cite two such approaches. First, Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, 17th century Poland), on verse 7 :
And put it on the two doorposts and the lintel. Moses inverted the order and said (Ex. 12:22) : “apply some…to the lintel and to the two doorposts.” Following the midrash (Lamentations Rabbati 5.21), we note that it is said that the Holy One, blessed be He, first said to Israel, “Turn back to me” (Malachi 3:7), and afterwards, “and I will turn back to you.” Then the community of Israel responded, ‘I have not the strength to turn back first ; rather You be the one to go first,’ as it is written, “Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself” (Lament. 5:21), and afterwards, “and let us come back.”
In this way we can interpret the lintel (mashkof) as turning towards the Lord, Blessed be He who is Supreme over all, as it is said, “For He looks down (Heb. hishkif) from His holy height” (Ps. 102:20). The two doorposts that support the lintel are the merits of the patriarchs and matriarchs, as it is written, “A refuge is the ancient G‑d, and beneath—arms supporting the world” (Deut. 33:27), for the patriarchs are beneath the Divine Chariot and they are the arms supporting the world.
Hence, as if honoring those who fear Him, the Holy One, blessed be He, began with “and put it on the two doorposts,” and then afterwards He said, “on the lintel,” to indicate that the righteous descendants of the patriarchs and matriarchs would be the ones to take the first step. And Moses said “apply some to the lintel” first, because we had not the strength to be the ones to begin.
Here we see a sort of dialogue between the Holy One, blessed be He, and the people, with the lintel symbolizing the Lord and the doorposts, the people. In line with this, further on the doorposts stand for the virtues of the patriarchs, as detailed in the interpretation.
Second, we present the remarks of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch[7] on verse 7 :
The mezuzot [doorposts] and mashkof [lintel] represent the house, the home. The idea of a house is a double one, firstly to shut the inhabitants in, against the human elements, i.e., privacy, to protect them against intrusion ; and secondly, shutting the inhabitants in against physical elements…the one represented by the walls, the other by the roof. The two doorposts, the mezuzot, represent shutting out the social element, the lintel, mashkof (from shakaf—to look down from above), represents the protection against the physical elements.
In his opinion, the place the blood was put was designed to distinguish between the Egyptians and the Jews socially, by establishing clearly marked, prominent boundaries.
In addition to the commandment of the mezuzah (Deut. 6:9), mention should be made of the commandment to pierce the ear of a Hebrew slave who does not wish to be emancipated at the end of his period of enslavement, by the doorpost of the court (Ex. 21:5-6). On this commandment, the gemara says :
Rabbi Simeon b. Rabbi expounded this verse : Why were the door and doorpost singled out from all other parts of the House ? The Holy One, blessed be He, said : The door and the doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the doorposts and proclaimed, For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants, and not the servants of servants ; and so I brought them forth from bondage to freedom, yet this man went and acquired a master for himself—let him be bored in their presence ! (Kiddushin 22b)
Thus the place the blood was put serves as everlasting testimony to the exodus of the Israelites from bondage to freedom.


 


Translated by Rachel Rowen
* Dr. Yair Barkai is head of the Lifshitz College of Education, Jerusalem. Originally published in Hebrew in 2016. The translation has not been reviewed by the author.
[1] See Daniel Statman, “U-fasah H’ `al ha-petah”—Kivyakhol `amad ve-dahah ha-Mashhit, Daf Shavui no. 167, 1998. Shaul Regev, “Mashma`ut netinat ha-dam,” ibid., no. 378, 2001.
[2] A similar point is made by Amos Hakham, Da`at Mikra on Exodus, summary of Parashat Bo, p. 231.
[3] At the end of his remarks, Ibn Ezra relates to the text of Ezekiel 9:4-6. Also see Radak’s commentary on this week’s reading, loc. cit. [4] Guide for the Perplexed, J. Even-Shmuel ed., Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, Jerusalem, 1987, p. 541, Part III, ch. 46. [5] Shmuel Yeivin, “Mezuzah,” Encylopedia Mikrait, Vol. 4, Jerusalem 1970, pp. 780-782. [6] Using magic or cultic rites to keep away evil and danger. [7] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was one of the founders of modern Orthodoxy in 19th-century Germany. The Pentateuch : Translation and Commentary, trans. Dr. Isaac Levy, Vol. 2, p. 135.

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