December 9, 2021 |

Blood on the Doorposts

In 1940, Winston Churchill, upon his first entrance to the House of Commons as Prime Minister, made one of the most stirring calls-to-arms in history. In an attempt to rally Britain against the threat of Nazi Germany, he said:

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - Victory in spite of all terrors - Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival...I take up my task in buoyancy and say, "Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength."

For some reason, Churchill's formulation is less famous than that of the great 60's rock band "Blood, Sweat and Tears" (I hear they still play bar-mitzvahs). When their lead guitarist cut his hand one night, he still played the whole concert through the pain, covering his guitar with blood. That's how they got their name. For the sake of the show, or the nation, one can fight through adversity and prevail.

Thus, of the many things blood might represent - the essence of something, birth, death, passion, generosity et. al. - perhaps the most common image associated with the giving of one's blood is that of mesirat nefesh, sacrifice or, literally, the expense of one's soul. A person who has worked for a company for thirty years might say "I have given my blood, sweat and tears to this company." A soldier might say the same about his country. Our great prophet Yechezkel said: "I say to you: by your blood shall you live, I say to you: by your blood shall you live."

Additionally, the idea of spilling one's blood is not usually personal or selfish, but for the greater good of a group. Blood is what binds us together, so that we, like blood brothers, are willing to shed blood - our own or even others -- on each other's behalf. My grandmother always used to say "Blood is thicker than water", which means you put family first (blood), over friends and colleagues, even over your own comfort and preferences.

We can interpret the blood that was put on the Jewish doorposts the night of the Exodus in the same way. It was both a sign of dedication and a sign of commitment to the Jewish people and to their God. Putting the blood on their doorposts signified that they would do whatever it took to get out of Egypt and become the Jewish people. And it signified that they would do it together.

The ritual painting of the doorposts was a one-time commandment, for the night of the Exodus only. (Friends of ours in Florida used to put red streamers on their doorposts, but I don't think that will become the chumra (stringent practice) of the month.) However, it is mentioned twice in the Torah, both times in Sh'mot chapter 12.

Notice the striking difference between the two references[1]:

"and they shall take from the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel..."(Exodus 12:7)

"and you shall take a bundle of hyssop and you shall dip it in the blood that is in the pail and you shall touch it to the lintel and to the two doorposts, from the blood that is in the pail..." (Exodus 12:22)

Why does the Torah switch the order? The first time the Torah suggests that the doorposts be painted first and the second time the lintel is meant to be painted first. It is not a mere accident or coincidence that the two were reverse. There is certainly a message there. The rabbis, of course, noticed the inversion and adduced a Halachic (and literary) solution. Certainly, the doorposts should be painted first and then the lintel (as per the first reference), but if you accidentally painted the lintel first, there is no need to redo it and there's no harm no foul. The altered repetition teaches us that either order suffices.

However, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv), suggests a deeper explanation. The doorposts and lintel are not just objects in reality, but also symbols. In this case, they symbolize the three things on which the world stands (according to Ethics of Our Fathers 1:2): Torah, Divine Service and Acts of Loving Kindness. Since the Torah is our central mission statement, it is the lintel, the pinnacle of our endeavor. Divine service (to God) and acts of kindness (to people), are the posts that support it. The doorposts should be painted first, because it is only through the exercise and application of those concepts that Torah can ever be achieved and upheld. However, without the Torah, the service and kindness will just be random posts, not creating a doorway that enters into a home in which God's presence can dwell. Thus, if you paint the lintel first, it is still ok.

The Netziv notes that every community is made up of different pillars. The Rabbis and educators represent the lintel of Torah. The professionals and lay people who participate in the activities of the synagogues and Jewish institutions (and their financial upkeep) are one doorpost. Those who contribute to the needy and make sure that no one is left behind in the community are the second doorpost. Without the Torah, the institutions and the charity lack a reason to exist; they perpetuate only themselves. But without them, the Torah cannot stand; it is a concept only, not a religion. There is a partnership between study and action, concept and creation, devotion to the spiritual and fealty to the physical.

The reason that we have to put blood on these doorposts is because we need to know that taking care of the Torah, the synagogue and all the Jewish people is very hard work, indeed. We will all have to give of our blood to accomplish it. And we will all have to do it together or they will be no doorway and no Jewish community into which that doorway leads. Chag sameach!

[1] There are other differences (such as the hyssop and the pail being mentioned only once) for another time.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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Reb Eliahu is a fulltime Jewish Chaplain for the State of California reaching out to Jewish patients and inmates in State Hospitals and correctional institutions. He is the founder of the Berkeley Jewish Writers Group and Rabbi Nachman's Study Circle. He is the author of A Mystical Haggadah:...

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