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History of the Passover


AS THE rocks of granite yield to the trained eye of the scientist the secret of their formation, so human institutions, properly examined, present records of growth. Such a story of development, in response to changing social conditions, is displayed by the feast of the Passover.


Its name ḤAG HAPPESAḤ harks back to the misty dawn of history. Long before the Exodus, the pastoral tribes of Israel celebrated this festival of the shepherds. As among other pastoral tribes, so among our forefathers, the joyous springtime, with its rich manifestation of fertility through the offspring of the flocks and herds, called forth special festivities. Moses pleaded with Pharaoh in behalf of the Israelites: "Let us go, we pray thee, three days journey in the wilderness, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest He fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword". * When they were refused, the Israelite families offered the Pesaḥ sacrifices in their homes in Egypt.

The exact meaning of the name given to this festival and the nature of its ceremonies are matters of conjecture. Its celebration in the early spring, was associated

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with the sacrifice of the firstlings of the flocks and herds. The modified ordinance regarding its observance in Egypt, as given in Exodus XII, reads: "In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; and if the household be too little for a lamb, then shall he and his neighbor next unto his house take one according to the number of the souls; according to every man's eating ye shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year; ye shall take it from the sheep, or from the goats; and ye shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at dusk. And they shall take of the blood, and put it on the two side-posts and on the lintel, upon the house wherein they shall eat it. And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; its head with its legs and with the inwards thereof. And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; but that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire. And thus shall ye eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste—it is the Lord's passover." *

Only Israelites and initiated strangers could participate in the Passover. Through the partaking of the sacrificial meat, they sought to strengthen their union with one another and with God, and by means of consecrating their dwellings with the blood of the sacrifice, they hoped to ward off every harm and danger.

The departure of the Israelites from Egypt during

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the spring festival vested the ancient rite with new historical significance. The name Pesaḥ assumed the meaning of "passing over," of sparing and delivering, and its observance came to be interpreted as a memorial of God's appearance as the avenger of Israel's wrongs: The blood upon the doorposts and lintels was construed to have been a sign upon the homes of the Israelites to distinguish them from those of the Egyptians. Tradition described it as "the sacrifice of the Lord's passover, for that He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses". *


With their entrance into Canaan, the shepherd tribes of Israel began to follow agricultural pursuits. Among the older settlers of the land they found the custom of offering to the deity, at the spring of the year, the first fruit of their early harvest. They not only adopted this idea that an offering of their first grain was due to God, but extended it also to the firstlings of their flocks and herds. Thus the Passover sacrifice, while retaining its ancient ceremonials, received the new meaning of being a tribute due to God from the fold. It was also combined with the feast of Matzos or Unleavened Bread, the spring festival of the agricultural Canaanite community, observed in the month of Abib, before the beginning of the harvest season. The important feature of this celebration was the eating of matzos or cakes prepared of unleavened dough. As sacrificial food, it was to be free from leaven. ** "It is very probable", writes Dr. Julian Morgenstern, "that among the ancient Canaanites and the early

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agricultural Israelites, the custom existed of destroying the usually meager remains of the old crop before the new crop could be used or even harvested. And if this hypothesis be correct, we must see in the ceremonies of the destruction of all leaven, of the fasting before the Matzos-festival and of the eating of the matzos themselves, the religious, sacramental rites by which the last remains of the old crop were destroyed as the necessary preparation for the cutting and eating of the new crop. All of the old crop was thus burned except just enough to prepare the matzos for the festival." *

The later law, as given in Leviticus XXIII:5ff, combines the pastoral and agricultural elements of the feast. It reads: "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at dusk, is the Lord's pass-over. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the Lord; seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread". On the second day of the feast, the barley harvest was ushered in by bringing a sheaf of the new crop unto the priest. "And he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted for you. . .And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor fresh ears, until this selfsame day, until ye have brought the offering of your God." From that day forty-nine days were counted, and the fiftieth was observed as Shabuoth (Feast of Weeks) or as Ḥag Habikkurim, the "feast of the first fruits". (In the orthodox synagogues the seven weeks between the first day of Pesaḥ and Shabuoth are still known as the season of S’firath Ho‘omer, of "counting the sheaf".)

In the light of the association of the feast of Matzos with that of Pesaḥ, the eating of the matzos was re-interpreted as a reminder of the hurried flight of the

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[paragraph continues] Israelites from Egypt. Exodus XII: 39 states: "And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual".


It was the tradition of the Exodus that vitalized the old Pesaḥ and Matzos festivals, and welded them into a distinctly Jewish institution, rich in ethical and religious possibilities. The national consciousness lovingly dwelt upon the fact that:

"When Israel came forth out of Egypt,
The house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
Judah became His sanctuary,
Israel His dominion." *

The hour which marked the birth of Israel as a holy nation, eloquently demonstrated to the religious mind the love of God for Israel. Prophetic idealism transformed this belief into a powerful lever of spiritual progress. "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians", resounded the voice of God, "and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto Myself. Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." ** The belief in God's choice of Israel, determined Israel's mission in the world. The high privilege imposed great responsibility.

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[paragraph continues] As the people chosen by God, in accordance with His plan of the universal salvation of mankind, Israel must keep faith with God and be "a covenant of the people" and "a light of the nations:

To open the blind eyes,
To bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
And them that sit in darkness out of the prison-house". *

The conviction that Israel was delivered from its low estate to become the deliverer of the nations from moral and spiritual slavery, led to the comforting Divine assurance:

"When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee,
 And through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee;
 When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned,
 Neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.
 For I am the Lord thy God,
 The Holy One of Israel, thy Savior;
 I have given Egypt as thy ransom,
 Ethiopia and Seba for thee.
 Since thou art precious in My sight, and honorable,
 And I have loved thee;
 Therefore will I give men for thee,
 And peoples for thy life.
 Fear not, for I am with thee." **


(1) The Passover During the Second Temple.

As the feast of Israel's independence, the Passover

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steadily grew in the hearts of the people. It gained new power, when subsequent to the Deuteronomic reformation, under King Josiah (621 B.C.E.), the Passover sacrifices, like all other offerings, had to be brought to the national sanctuary at Jerusalem. During the entire period of the Second Temple the Passover celebration served as a strong influence in the unification of Israel. Josephus refers to the great alacrity with which the Jewish people celebrated the Passover, and states that on it "they are required to slay more sacrifices in number that at any other festival". He also points out that "an innumerable multitude came thither out of the country, nay, from beyond its limits also, in order to worship God". He estimates that one year, shortly before the fall of the Temple, the number of sacrifices reached 256,500, which, upon the allowance of ten to each sacrifice, together with the considerable number of foreigners and of Jews who were prevented from partaking of the Passover on account of bodily uncleanliness, * made the vast crowd that thronged the holy city upward of 2,700,200.

(2) The Passover Sacrifice**

For many days before the Passover, the people would come from every village and hamlet to celebrate the feast of unleavened bread in Jerusalem. By the fourteenth of Nisan the houses were crowded with guests, the open spaces were dotted with tents and the streets filled with the joyous pilgrims. Beneath the merrymaking, ran an undercurrent of earnest haste, for the great feast was close at hand. The houses were being

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cleaned of leaven, and special ovens were being prepared for the roasting of the paschal lambs.

Frequently in the midst of their labors, the people would look up to the Temple mount, where on one of the Temple galleries lay two sacrificial loaves, which served as a signal to them. As long as the priests allowed these loaves to remain, leavened bread could still be kept in the houses. But soon one loaf was removed, and then immediately afterwards the second loaf was taken away. At that signal fires leaped up all over the city. The last leaven was being burnt. For seven days thereafter only unleavened bread would be found in all the habitations of Israel.

Now the seventh hour of the day had passed and the regular daily offering had already been brought up. The time for the sacrifice of the paschal offering itself had come. Great throngs of people pressed against the gates of the Temple, each man leading his sacrificial lamb. Soon the gates were opened but only one-third of the throng was admitted. As they poured into the Temple courts, they beheld three rows of priests extending across the sacred precinct. The first and last rows carried silver basins, the intervening carried basins of gold. The first man carried his lamb to the altar where it was sacrificed. The blood was caught in one of the basins and handed from priest to priest, each one receiving the empty basin in return for the filled one. Thus with very little delay, all the sacrifices were completed. While these sacrifices were being performed, the Levites chanted aloud the Hallel Psalms, the people responding in unison. After the first group of pilgrims completed its sacrifices, the second group was admitted, and then the third. When all the sacrifices were over, the people went to their houses and proceeded to roast the paschal lamb and make all preparations

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for the great Seder service, which was to take place in every home that evening.


During the centuries of Roman oppression, when the Jewish people groaned under the crushing burden of the Caesars, even as did their forefathers in Egypt, the ancient Feast of Freedom was charged with new vitality. Its annual recurrence came like a summons to new life and to liberty, making each Israelite feel as if he personally had shared in the Exodus. This sentiment was fostered by the new ritual for the home which replaced the Passover sacrifice after the Temple and the altar had been destroyed. While the Seder service was commemorative of the sacrificial rites at the Temple (the roast bone representing the paschal lamb, and the egg the additional festive offerings, the Ḥagigah), it was essentially propagandist in nature. The recital of the story of the Exodus was calculated to awaken the national consciousness. It became a duty to tell the young and to rehearse to one another the tale of the deliverance from Egyptian bondage. To dwell at length on it was considered praiseworthy. During the Hadrianic persecution, we find Rabbi Akiba, the moving spirit in Bar Cochba's heroic struggle to regain the independence of the Jewish people, together with other leaders in Israel, at B’nai B’rak, absorbed in the story of the Exodus all night, looking to the fulfillment of the prophetic promise to Israel:

As in the days of thy coming forth out of the land of Egypt
Will I show unto him marvelous things. *

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Commemorating the deliverance from Egyptian bondage ("Pesaḥ Mitzrayim"), the Passover held out the promise of the future redemption from Roman bondage ("Pesaḥ L’osid"). Another belief, too, became current that God's anointed (the Messiah) would appear on the anniversary of Israel's liberation, to reestablish the fallen tabernacle of David. Several self-deluded men, under the spell of this belief, proclaimed themselves as the long expected Messiahs. Thus in all ages, the Passover proved to be a perennial source of hope. Celebrating it, the Jewish people defied their ever new Pharaohs and Caesars, declaring prayerfully: "This year we are slaves; next year may we be free men". To souls crushed with anguish the "Z’man Ḥerusenu—the season of our liberation" held out the promise of the coming day when all fetters of oppression would be broken, when the clouds of religious bigotry and racial prejudice and hatred would be dispelled by the dawning light of God's truth, and when Israel's dormant powers would awaken to new life and blossom forth in renewed glory.


Israel's experience was unique from the first when it departed from Egypt. Again and again races have been subjugated, reduced to slavery or villenage; but does history know of another horde of slaves that recovered itself, regained freedom, reestablished its own civilization, its own government? It is eminently proper, therefore, that in the prophetic as well as the Rabbinic cycle of ideas the Exodus from Egypt should occupy a prominent place. Its importance had been recognized still earlier, in the code, the Torah. The most exalted moral statutes concerning the treatment of strangers are connected with the Exodus, and

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are, from a psychologic point of view, impressively inculcated by means of the reminder: "Ye know the heart of the stranger!" * It is remarkable how even the law of the Sabbath rest, at first sight unconnected with the story of Israel's slavery and redemption, is brought into relation with and illuminated by it. The fourth commandment in the second version of the Ten Commandments, in Deuteronomy, disregards the dogmatic reason attached to the first ("for in six days the Lord made" etc). ** It emphasizes the ethical motive, that the manservant and the maid-servant should be granted a day of rest, and employs the memory of the Egyptian experience to urge consideration for subordinates. This method, characteristic of the Bible and still more of the Rabbis, of establishing a connection between the most important moral laws and the history of Israel in Egypt, at the same time illustrates how nations should draw instruction from their fortunes.

The Prophets and Psalmists employ the great historical event to give reality chiefly to the religious idea of God's providence and grace. The Rabbis, finally, deduce from it the two fundamental elements of man's ethical education: the notion of liberty and the notion of man's ethical task.

Political and even civil freedom was lost. The Roman Pharaohs, if they did not exact labor, the more despotically exacted property and blood, and aimed at the annihilation of ideal possessions—the Law, its study, and its execution. Yet the notion of liberty, inner moral and spiritual liberty, cherished as a pure, exalted ideal, possible only under and through the Law, was associated with the memory of the redemption

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from Egyptian slavery, and this memory in turn was connected with symbolic practices accompanying every act, pleasure, and celebration.

Moritz Lazarus,
The Ethics of Judaism, Part 1, p. 231-2 and 29.

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"How small Sinai appears when Moses stands upon it! This mountain is only the pedestal for the feet of the man whose head reaches up to the heavens, where he speaks with God."

The artistic spirit was directed by Moses, "as by his Egyptian compatriots, to colossal and indestructible undertakings. He built human pyramids, carved human obelisks; he took a poor shepherd family and created a nation from it --a great eternal, holy people; a people of God, destined to outlive the centuries, and to serve as pattern to all other nations, even as a prototype to the whole of mankind. He created Israel," . . . a people that has "fought and suffered on every battlefield of human thought."

Heinrich Heine


To lead into freedom a people long crushed by tyranny; to discipline and order such a mighty host; to harden them into fighting men, before whom warlike tribes quailed and walled cities went down; to repress discontent and jealousy and mutiny; to combat reactions and reversions; to turn the quick, fierce flame of enthusiasm to the service of a steady purpose, require some towering character—a character blending in highest expression the qualities of politician, patriot, philosopher, and statesman—the anion of the wisdom of the Egyptians with the unselfish devotion of the meekest of men.

The striking differences between Egyptian and Hebrew polity are not of form but of essence. The tendency of the one is to subordination and oppression; of the other, to individual freedom. Strangest of recorded birth! From

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the strongest and most splendid despotism of antiquity comes the freest republic. From between the paws of the rock-hewn Sphinx rises the genius of human liberty, and the trumpets of the Exodus throb with the defiant proclamation of the rights of man. . . In the characteristics of the Mosaic institutions, as in the fragments of a Colossus, we may read the greatness of the mind whose impress they bear—of a mind in advance of its surroundings, in advance of its age; of one of those star souls that dwindle not with distance, but, glowing with the radiance of essential truth, hold their light while institutions and languages and creeds change and pass.

Leader and servant of men! Law-giver and benefactor! Toiler towards the Promised Land seen only by the eye of faith! Type of the high souls who in every age have given to earth its heroes and its martyrs, whose deeds are the precious possession of the race, whose memories are its sacred heritage! With whom among the founders of Empire shall we compare him?

To dispute about the inspiration of such a man were to dispute about words. From the depths of the Unseen such characters must draw their strength; from fountains that flow only for the pure in heart must come their wisdom. Of something more real than matter, of something higher than the stars, of a light that will endure when suns are dead and dark, of a purpose of which the physical universe is but a passing phase, such lives tell.

Henry George, Lecture on Moses, 1884


125:* Exodus V: 3.

126:* Exodus XII: 3-11

127:* Exodus XII: 27.

127:** Leviticus II: 11; VI: 10. 127

128:* The American Journal of Theology, vol. XXI, p. 288.

129:* Psalm CXIV: 1-2.

129:** Exodus XIX: 4-5.

130:* Isaiah XLII: 6-7.

130:** Isaiah XLIII: 2-5.

131:* Those that were prevented from performing their duty on the 14th of Nisan were allowed to offer the Passover sacrifice on the 14th of Iyar. See Numbers IX: 9-14.

131:** According to the Mishnah Pesaḥim.

133:* Micah VII, 15.

135:* Exodus XXIII: 9.

135:** Exodus XX: 11.

Next: Preparations for Passover