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Focus On Passover


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The Feast of Passover


Marc Brettler


Passover, as it is now celebrated, is a creation of the rabbis, and many of its rituals are a reaction to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It has a long and complex history, and even in the biblical period, was celebrated in a variety of ways.


Modern biblical scholarship has reopened the question of the date, relative priority, and relation between many biblical sources. What follows is how I see the material; others would view the development of the festival differently, but would still acknowledge that the different sources reflect divergent understandings of the festival and how it should be celebrated. Scholars and translators also disagree on how some basic words used in the texts describing the festival should be translated—all translations from the Hebrew Bible are my own.


The earliest biblical legal text is in the Covenant Collection, in Exodus 20:22–23:33, from the monarchic period. 23:14–19 contain a collection of festival laws, which is introduced by: "You shall celebrate three pilgrimage festivals for me during the year." This collection does not assume centralization of worship in Jerusalem, so the festivals are likely meant to be commemorated at a local shrine. The first festival noted is ḥag hammaṣṣot—the festival of unleavened bread. Its initial placement suggests that it was at one point a new year festival. (Rosh Hashanah, which is absent in this festival calendar, is a post-biblical festival. According to Leviticus 23:24, where that name is not used, it is celebrated in the seventh month, so surely it was not a new year festival when Leviticus was written.) Exodus 23:15 reads: "You shall observe the pilgrimage festival of unleavened bread as I commanded you; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread at the appointed time at the new moon (Hebrew: ḥodesh) of budding (or spring), and do not appear before me (literally: you shall not be seen by my face) empty-handed."


This verse suggests that the name of the festival was "the pilgrimage festival of unleavened bread," and not Passover, and that it was commemorated at the beginning of the month, not in its middle, as was later, and is now, the case. This short law says nothing about cleaning the house of yeast or leavening. It does note, however, that a gift must be brought to God (a sacrifice of undetermined type). When visiting ancient Near Eastern temples, worshippers typically brought gifts; this point needs to be emphasized here, since at the beginning of the agricultural season, where there was little extra food on hand, a gift still had to be brought to God.


Several verses later, Exodus 23:18 reads: "Do not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavening, and do not allow the fat of my festal offering to remain until the morning." Many scholars see this as connected to the law in verse 15, and suggest that the paschal offering is meant. (See also the later reworking of this text in Exodus 34:25, which explicitly mentions the paschal offering.) If this is so, the prohibition concerning leavening is relevant only to the offering. And here, as elsewhere, Passover and the maṣṣot festival are separate, likely contiguous festivals, with Passover celebrated immediately before the maṣṣot festival.


Several early narrative texts have a slightly different view of these festivals. Exodus 12:21–27 concerns the Passover sacrifice, and notes that it is to be commemorated "forever" (v. 24), seemingly including the practice of using a hyssop "paint brush" to dab blood on the lintel and doorposts of the house (v. 22). Exodus 12:23b offers an early etymology for Pesach: "and the LORD will protect (pasach) the entrance, and will not allow the Destroyer to come and destroy within your house." In this version of the story, a Destroyer, a demon of sorts, kills the Egyptian first-born, while God acts as a barrier against the houses painted properly with blood. The root p-s-ḥ elsewhere in the Bible can mean "protect" (see esp. Isa 31:5), and this is a much more likely meaning for its use than to "skip" in Exodus 12. Thus, Passover really has nothing to do with passing over, but with divine protection.


The narrative in Exodus 13 is also likely an early Passover narrative, containing several laws. These are more expansive than those found in Exodus 23. Verse 13:7 notes: "Unleavened bread shall be eaten for the seven days, and no leavening or yeast shall be seen in your boundaries." It notes that first-born animals and people belong to God, though humans should be redeemed (vv. 12–13; see also Exod 34:18–20, which was likely influenced by this passage). The middle of this section reads (v. 8): "you shall tell your son on that day, '[I am performing these rituals] Because of what the LORD did for me when I left Egypt.'" The word for telling is wehiggadta, from the root n-g-d, which would eventually form the noun haggadah, "telling," the text describing the ritual of the Passover seder. There is no set haggadah in the biblical period; this text and others envision a child curiously asking about the odd rituals being performed, and the parent answering in any appropriate fashion. The classical rabbis and later sages offered the specific fashion in which the parent must answer, and even the questions that the child should ask—this eventually crystallized somewhat into the haggadah that is now used.


Deuteronomy's festival calendar is in chapter 16, and like its predecessor in Exodus, upon which it is based, it opens with the Festival of Unleavened Bread, which commemorates the Exodus, and is celebrated on the "new moon (ḥodesh) of the budding (spring)" (v. 1). It likely combines various sources that we have seen above, mixing together the paschal lamb offering of Passover and the seven-day festival of unleavened bread. The paschal lamb may be "from the flock or the herd" (v. 2), namely small animals, such as goats, and large ones, such as cows. The offering, however, must be brought (v. 2) "to the place that the LORD will choose to have his name dwell," a frequent locution in Deuteronomy, which stresses the centralization of worship in Jerusalem. Leavening agents are prohibited for the entire seven-day festival, and the matzah is called (v. 3) "bread of affliction," namely poor person's bread, and commemorates the inferior food that the Israelites had while enslaved. This differs from the reason offered in Exodus 23:14 and other places, which suggests that the matzah recalls what the Israelites ate when they left Egypt—they were in such a hurry, their dough did not have time to rise.


Animals were cooked in various ways in ancient Israel—they could be roasted whole, or cut up and roasted or boiled. Deuteronomy 16:7, which uses the word b-sh-l for its offering, legislates boiling the paschal lamb.


Passover, or more specifically the Exodus from Egypt that Passover commemorates, plays an especially important role in Deuteronomy. The motive clause "you shall remember that you were a slave in (the land of) Egypt" appears five times in the book, as a reason to observe the Sabbath (5:15), to treat slaves generously (15:15), to include the underclass in Passover celebration (16:12), to treat the orphan, widow and foreigner fairly in judicial cases (24:18), and to leave remnants in the field for these three groups (24:22). Similar ideas are found in other earlier (Exodus 22:20; 23:9) and later (Lev 19:34; 25:42) Torah texts as well. Thus, by virtue of its inclusion in everyday laws and Sabbath laws, the Exodus is not only commemorated once a year, but is recalled weekly and daily, and becomes an ethical center for the biblical legislators.


Priestly literature discusses the festival in both legal and narrative texts. Leviticus 23:5–8 also places the festival at the beginning of its calendar. Of all the biblical texts, it most clearly differentiates between Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Verse 5 reads: "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight is Passover to the LORD." Verse 6a continues: "On the fifteenth day of that month is the Unleavened Bread pilgrimage festival to the LORD." This makes clear what is implicit in some of the earlier texts: Passover is an evening festival only, followed by a seven-day Festival of Unleavened Bread. In all Priestly literature, the festival is celebrated in the middle of the month rather than its beginning—this is the practice which is now followed. (The rabbis resolve this calendrical problem by assuming that ḥodesh, which I translated as "new moon" in Exodus and Deuteronomy, means "month." Although this is possible, the contexts make that rendition there very unlikely.)


The beginning of Exodus 12 also contains legislation about Passover, which is dated to the fourteenth of the month (v. 6), and notes the blood around the door ritual (v. 7), which is imagined as continuing in future generations (v. 14). The passage several times emphasizes eating unleavened bread for seven days, and removal of leavening from the house. Its description of the paschal offering, however, differs in two aspects from Deuteronomy: only young goats or sheep (and not large animals) may be used (v. 5), and the offering must be roasted (vv. 8–9). These verses read: "They must eat the meat on this night roasted over a fire ('esh); they must eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat it raw or boiled in any way with water. Rather, you must eat it roasted over a fire ('esh): its head, legs, entrails." The repetition that the sacrifice must be roasted, and may not be boiled, suggests that its author knew of the practice of boiling the paschal offering found in Deuteronomy 16:7, and is polemicizing against it.


Exodus 12:11 also suggests how the lamb must be eaten: "your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; you must eat it hurriedly—it is a Passover offering to the LORD." This custom is no longer practiced by most Jews, although the Yemenite and some Jewish groups do dress up in this way, and begin the Passover Seder by saying: "Our ancestors left Egypt hurriedly."


By now it should be clear that the Torah contains two festivals that have, at least in later times, been joined—an evening Passover, characterized by an animal sacrifice, followed by a seven day Festival of Unleavened Bread, eventually characterized by what types of breads may or may not be eaten (unleavened versus leavened). Although there is no direct evidence, many hypothesize that Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were originally two distinct festivals, the first related to animal husbandry, the second to grain. Different groups in ancient Israel originally celebrated one or the other, and since they transpired at similar times, they were eventually joined together, and were eventually recognized as a single festival.


Modern Jews, indeed even the classical rabbis, were not the first to try to create a unity out of these diverse laws. As soon as the Torah was canonized, for example, Jews who wanted to follow its rules had to decide which options to follow. For example: Should the offering be roasted, a la Exodus, or boiled, a la Deuteronomy? The late biblical book Chronicles, for whom the Torah as we more or less have it now was a canonical and authoritative text, already had this problem in 2 Chronicles 35, when it described the Passover that the late seventh-century Judean king Josiah organized. Verse 13a of that chapter, states quite remarkably: "They boiled (b-sh-l) the paschal lamb in the fire ('esh) as prescribed." This verse combines the fire of Exodus and the boiling of Deuteronomy, in a sense reconciling these two traditions, perhaps even suggesting that the offering is to be both boiled and broiled, namely braised. This type of reconciliation of different texts typifies rabbinic literature, but as this example shows, is already found in late biblical literature.


Passover also plays a significant role in the Synoptic Gospels, as the time of the Last Supper of Jesus. As I will explain below, this should not be understood as the seder that later rabbinic tradition developed. In using the descriptions in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 26:17–29; Mk 14:12–25; Lk 22:7–20), it is important to remember that these are not eye-witness accounts. All three gospels reflect the idea that had developed by that time of identifying Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread; this is most clear in Luke 22:1, which reads "Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called Passover, was near" (NRSV). In addition, the Gospels note the singing of a hymn (Matt 26:30; Mk 14:26). Most commentators assume that this was what Jews later called the Hallel (literally "praise"; Psalms 113–118, or some part of these), which was sung according to rabbinic tradition during the seder and at other festivals. However, rabbinic texts are later than the writing of the Gospels, and evidence from rabbinic texts should not be retrojected to Second Temple practices in a simplistic fashion.


According to the law of Deuteronomy 12 and other passages, sacrifices could only be offered in the chosen place, namely Jerusalem. For this reason, the destruction of that Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. forced many fundamental changes in Jewish practice—as did the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians. It is in this early post-destruction period that much of the Haggadah developed, where surrogates were suggested for the paschal sacrifice, which could no longer be offered. Various arrangements for a seder plate were suggested, incorporating an animal shank bone to commemorate the destroyed Temple. Instead of bringing gifts to God at the Temple, gifts are offered to the poor. Matzah and bitter herbs continue to be eaten, though they are no longer accompanied by the sacrificial meat. And Jews recite the words "paschal offering, matzah, and bitter herbs," fulfilling their paschal obligation by recitation, rather than ingestion.




The Samaritans, however, an early offshoot of Judaism, continue to offer this sacrifice. The only canonical book of the Samaritans is the Torah (not the complete Bible), and their text differs from the mainstream text in a variety of ways, including saying the Temple of God is on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem, or Nablus. Their calendar is slightly different from the current Jewish calendar, so the Jewish and Samaritan Passovers do not overlap. They continue to offer an animal sacrifice, and I attended one such ceremony in spring of 1980. There I saw the sheep slaughtered, one per large family unit. Earlier in the day, they had lined large pits with boulders, and had started fires in them, so by nightfall, the rocks were white hot, ready to cook the whole lambs on giant skewers. I tasted their matzah, which was much more like pita then the hard flatbread Jews now eat, and their bitter herbs were much less pungent than the horseradish frequently used today. Thus, anyone who wants to get a sense of what the biblical Passover-Matzot festival was like should visit the Samaritan community.


Related Content


Biblical Passages and Apocrypha

   Exodus 12  
   Exodus 23  
   Deuteronomy 16  
   Leviticus 23  
   Matt 26  
   Mk 14  
   Lk 22  

Subject Entries and Commentary

   Feasts and Festivals  
   Passover Haggadah  
   P (Priestly source)  
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