Abba, What's a Bedpost Anyway?
It's just one of those things that you learn in pre-school. The words are prepackaged, repeated from one generation to the next:
“Why is this Shabbos called Shabbos HaGadol? Because of the great miracle. When the Jews in Egypt took a sheep, which was the Egyptian god, they tied it to their bedposts and the Egyptians didn't kill them.”
That was the story that Temima told me, pretty much verbatim. Sounds good. Until I asked her “Temima, what's a bedpost?” “I don't know Abba. What's a bedpost?”
It seems like a silly detail to harp on, but everyone says it. So I got curious. Where does this whole bedpost story come from? Does it have a source? Why does every kid know that sheep were tied to bedposts, when none of have used the word before or even seen a bedpost?
It turns out that we don't need to dig too far. The source is a a Medrash (מכילתא דרשב״י יב):
ר' יוסי הגלילי אומר שיהיו קשורין בכרעי המטה Rabbi Yossi HaGalili says: They tied the Korban Pesach to their bedposts.
Ok. That solves the origin story, but it opens up another world of questions. When telling us about Korban Pesach, the pesukim in the Torah do not mention any bedposts. Neverthelss, Rabbi Yossi HaGalili is telling us that's this is what happened. Did they have to do it? Could they tie it up outside? Was this simply pragmatic or was there some deeper meaning?
Moreover, this seemingly innocuous detail makes it into the Tur (או״ח ס׳ תל), in his introduction to Shabbos Hagadol!
שבת שלפני הפסח קורין אותו שבת הגדול והטעם לפי שנעשה בו נס גדול שפסח מצרים מקחו בעשור כדכתיב בעשור לחודש הזה ויקחו להם שה לבית אבות שה לבית ופסח שיצאו ישראל ממצרים היה ביום ה' כדאיתא בסדר עולם ונמצא שי' בחדש היה שבת ולקחו להם כל אחד שה לפסחו וקשר אותו בכרעי מטתו ושאלום המצריים למה זה לכם והשיבו לשחטו לשם פסח במצות השם עלינו והיו שיניהם קהות על ששוחטין את אלהיהן ולא היו רשאין לומר להם דבר ועל שם אותו הנס קורין אותו שבת הגדול:
The Shabbos before Pesach is called “Shabbat HaGadol” (The Great Shabbos). And the reason is because a miracle occurred during the Exodus from Egypt. On the 10th [they took a sheep] as it says: “On the tenth of this month you shall take for yourselves a sheep into your homes.” And the year that the Exodus took place was on a Thursday as we see in Seder Olam, and therefore the “10th of the month” was Shabbos, and [on that Shabbos] every Jew took a sheep as a Paschal offering and tied it to their bedposts. And the Egyptians asked them “Why is this so [why do you have a sheep (the Egyptian god) tied to your bed]?” And they responded: “To slaughter for a Pesach offering for HaShem.” And they got upset that they were going to slaughter their gods, but they could not say anything due to the miracle. And thus it is called Shabbat HaGadol.
To further complicate matters, it doesn't stop at Yetzias Mitzraim. The Bartenura, in his commentary to the Mishna (כלים י״ט ב) explains that when Jews came to Yerushalayim for Pesach, they would tie their Korban Pesach to their bedposts! Seemingly, as a commemoration of the custom of our ancestors in Egypt.
Clearly, it seems, this bedpost business is not just a trivial detail.
To understand this, we need to consider that our ancestors in Egypt also worshipped sheep. They didn't tie up and slaughter the Egyptian gods. They did this to the deities which they had been worshipping as well.
The Shlah HaKadosh (מסכת פסחים, מצה עשירה ב׳) questions: How could the Jews in Mitzraim offer these sheep as a Korban? The Halacha in Korbanos is that an animal which was worshipped as Avoda Zara cannot be used as a Korban? To this, he answers:
אלא הענין הוא דאסור נעבד היינו לקרבן אחר, אבל להקריבו על ענין זה בעצמו, דהיינו להראות שעבודה זרה זו היא בטילה ואין בה ממש שרי... על כן פסח מצרים מקחו היה בו ולקשור בכרעי המטה, כדי לבזות אלהיהן...
An animal which was used as Avoda Zara cannot be offered as a Korban, but to offer in order to demonstrate that it is now worthless in our eyes, is certainly permissible... For this reason, they tied it to their beds, in order to denigrate their gods.
The purpose of Korban Pesach wasn't simply a rebellion against the Egyptian overlords. It was designed to help us reject Egyptian philosophy.
But why the bedpost specifically? The Shlah HaKadosh (מסכת פסחים, תורה אור טו) explains:
The word “bed” in Hebrew is מטה, which is also the word for “below”. There is a world of things that are למעלה – above us, and a world a things that are למטה – below us. For the duration of our slavery, the gods, priorities and ideals of Egypt were “above.” In order to escape Egypt, we needed to recognize that these things were beneath us. On Shabbos, we recognize that Hashem created the world, and thus, it was through our appreciation for Shabbos, that we were finally able to relegate our idol worship to the place it belongs, and declare: This is beneath me.
The way in which Klal Yisrael weaned themselves off of this Avoda Zara was both brilliant and frightening. In my minds eye, I can see tens of thousands of Jews shlepping sheep into their homes. Sheep which were previously untouched, venerated and worshipped.
Imagine the scene; four days living with a sheep in your bedroom. Eating with it, cleaning its mess, trying to sleep with its four legs traipsing all over you. That's all it'll take to stop thinking that a sheep is holy. It didn't take long to see that a beheima is simply a beheima.
It's easy to revere something from afar, but the moment we live with it, the truth comes our pretty quickly.
This experience was not a one time affair. Every year, on Shabbos Hagaol we have the obligation and opportunity to challenge the idols and ideologies we have adopted. The Torah invites us, once again, to examining them close up. To ask ourselves: these politicians and celebrities which we so revere, would we really want to live with them? How long would it take to stop holding them in such esteem. Perhaps it's time we leave them למטה – below, and raise ourselves above them. Perhaps the spaces that we make in our homes and in our minds could be reserved for family, friends and Hashem.
May Hashem help us this Shabbos HaGadol to realize and recognize what is truly Gadol, to live lives of purpose and meaning anticipating the Geulah that Pesach brings.