Passover sacrifice reenacted by Jewish priests-in-training

After 2,000 years, a group that wants to build the Third Temple stages what it says is a historically accurate practice run

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Garbed in white and sounding silver trumpets, priests-in-training prepare for a practice Passover sacrifice. (Courtesy of The Temple Institute)
Garbed in white and sounding silver trumpets, priests-in-training prepare for a practice Passover sacrifice. (Courtesy of The Temple Institute)

The fall of the Second Temple 2,000-odd years ago may have seen the end of sacrificial offerings in Judaism. But ahead of Friday’s festival of Passover, the Jerusalem-based Temple Institute has released a video offering an “authentic reenactment” of the ancient biblical practice.

The sacrificial lamb marks the miraculous exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. The ceremony was formally suspended for Jews with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and is now only performed by the Samaritan community, which will hold its annual event on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank on May 2, 2015.

The roots of the sacrifice are found in the Book of Exodus. Ahead of the last of the 10 plagues on Egypt, the death of the firstborns, God tells Moses to speak to the people of Israel and instruct each household to obtain a lamb on the 10th of Nisan. The lambs should be kept until the 14th, when the people of Israel should slaughter them at dusk. Later, they should take its blood and put it on their doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they are eating. The fire-roasted lamb’s flesh should then all be consumed that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

In the biblical Kingdom of Israel, the annual sacrifice was conducted by the Kohanim, or priestly class, on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Interestingly, although Jesus is often referred to as the “Paschal lamb,” historians say an actual Paschal lamb was likely the main course at the historical Last Supper. Based on the Christian scriptures, many scholars claim the famous meal was indeed a Passover Seder. (This week, millions of Christians will commemorate it on “Maundy Thursday.”)

Located in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Temple Institute is a non-profit government- and privately funded center of “research and preparation for the Holy Temple.” It recently established a bi-weekly “Cohanim Training Academy,” in which students considered members of the priestly caste (through patriarchal lineage) are taught and practically prepared for future “Holy Temple service.”

The international director of the Temple Institute, Rabbi Chaim Richman, claims that the video, which was uploaded Monday and is somewhat graphic, portrays the “most accurate and authentic reenactment of this service to have taken place in nearly 2,000 years.”

The slick English-language clip, narrated by Richman, shows the fledgling priests putting their knowledge into practice.

It opens at a sheep pen in the picturesque Samarian hills near Shiloh. Orthodox Jewish children and men mill about, and a lamb is inspected and chosen. The clip shows the priests-in-training donning their white garb, blowing long silver trumpets, and examining tools against a painted backdrop of the Second Temple. The priests slaughter the unblemished animal, pass its blood from one to another in silver vessels, and place it in a clay oven.

The video ends with an image of a sandwich made from two matza bread slices, lamb meat and lettuce, the meal described by Exodus. (All meat was donated to needy families.)

The vessels in the video can be found at the Temple Institute, which receives some funding from the ministries of education and tourism and gives onsite tours in its Jerusalem Old City headquarters. There, it houses over 60 recreated vessels, formed after decades of research, “for use in the Third Holy Temple.”

A Jewish visitor to the Temple Mount looks at the Dome of the Rock, 2013. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90, File)
A Jewish visitor to the Temple Mount looks at the Dome of the Rock, 2013. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90, File)

Because a “real” Passover sacrifice must be conducted on the Temple Mount, the video depicts a practice offering.

That is not for lack of trying, however. In 2007, the Supreme Court heard a petition brought by Rabbi Adin Steinsalz and other rabbis and organizations, including the Temple Institute, to perform a sacrifice on the Temple Mount.

The Israeli government, fearing such a sacrificial ceremony would inflame already-sensitive inter-religious relations, had denied the request, a decision the Supreme Court upheld. A year later, in 2008, the Temple Institute was sued by animal rights organization Let the Animals Live. The case, also heard by the Supreme Court, was rejected.

For almost a decade, the Temple Institute and other organizations have continued to petition the police, or directly to the Supreme Court, to conduct a Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount.

Rabbi Chaim Richman, international director of the Temple Institute (courtesy)
Rabbi Chaim Richman, international director of the Temple Institute (courtesy)

This is no whimsical notion. In a conversation with The Times of Israel Monday, Richman said the Passover sacrifice’s importance to the Jewish people is comparable to circumcision, in terms of its standing in Jewish law.

Forbidding the sacrifice, he said, is “equal to saying you can’t circumcise your sons.” The Passover sacrifice is “like the national circumcision of the Jewish people.”

He bases this opinion on a variety of Jewish texts, including Ezekial 16:6, which mentions “two bloods” and is interpreted by rabbinic scholars to represent circumcision and the Passover sacrifice. The verse is read in the Passover Haggadah, and, separately, repeated by the congregation at a circumcision ceremony.

Both commandments, said Richman, are “considered to be totally imperative for the spiritual stature of the Jewish people.”

While Richman couldn’t be called optimistic regarding this year’s petition, he said the institute has lately seen “a tremendous amount of identification from all across the board, with Jews from all different streams, identitying and expressing solidarity with renewing the Passover offering.”

But, until its petition is granted, at least you can watch it on YouTube.

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