Dialogika Resources

Introduction to Passover

The following is excerpted, with the author's permission, from Marianne Dacy, Let Us Rejoice: The Jewish Roots of the Christian Liturgy (Hamilton, Australia: Lumino Press, 2008).

Origins of Passover

The feast of Passover which, in the historical plan commemorates the Exodus, inaugurates the saving action of God in history.

Let My people go so that they may serve Me (Ex. 7:16).

The purpose of the Exodus is “that they may serve Me.” The service of God par excellence is life lived according to the covenant. Three months after the Passover, God gave the Torah to His people (Ex 19-20). Instead of being Pharoah’s slaves, Israel became the servants of God. Israel received the liberating yoke of the Torah in place of the oppressive yoke of Pharoah.

The Bible has two names for the feast, Pesach (Passover), the historical name commemorating the saving acts of God in the Exodus and the other agriculturally based name, Chag ha Matzot (Feast of Unleavened Bread).

In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a Passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread (Lev. 23:5-7).

Passover, the first of the three Pilgrimage festivals begins on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan, and occurs at the full moon at a date that falls either in March or April. The date is movable, as the calendar is mainly lunar/solar and an extra month is added every four years to bring it into consonance with the solar year. The Christian feast of Easter is dependent on the date of Passover, in following a lunar/solar calendar for the fixing of the date, and is also a moveable feast. However, it does not usually coincide with the date of Passover.

The traditional Passover originally commemorated the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and later combined with another feast, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The feast lasts eight days, during which no leavened bread or yeast products are eaten.

Unleavened bread known as matzah is eaten throughout the Passover festival. In the days when the Temple stood, the Passover lamb was eaten on the first day, and unleavened bread for the following seven days, a pattern that reflects the early origins of the feast. After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, a home ritual has replaced the Passover sacrifice and the Passover is celebrated at a family festive meal, the Seder meal. Seder means "order," referring to the order of events in the meal.

Unleavened bread is eaten to commemorate the Exodus experience, when the Israelites had no time to leaven the bread before fleeing across the Red Sea to escape Pharoah. The ideal is to be able to eat bread that is leavened and has had time to rise properly and then be baked golden brown in the oven. Making bread in ancient Israel was an arduous task. Farmers had to plough the ground with sturdy beasts such as oxen, to reap the crop when it had matured and had not been destroyed by pests such as locusts, and bring their grain to the threshing floor. Next, the grain was crushed with a threshing sled, winnowed and the wheat was lifted high in the wind, sifted and separated from the chaff.

The grain would be weighed, and presumably the farmer was paid by weight. When the separated grain was transported to granaries, it was stored until used for baking or for sowing the next crop. After being ground into a coarse flour, it was kneaded and baked in an oven.

According to the Biblical scholar Hanan Eshel, the grain was taken daily (not on the Sabbath) from the granary and ground on a millstone. Today you will find millstones in the archeological sites in modern Israel such as Capharnaum. All these operations took a good deal of time. Little wonder that the Israelites fleeing from Pharoah were instructed to take only unleavened bread. The time to prepare it was shorter than for regular bread with leaven, as the bread was not left to rise.

Biblical background

The First Passover

The book of Exodus relates how the first Passover was to be celebrated.

Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight (Ex 12: 3-5).

The name “Passover” is a reminder of the special Divine protection of the Children of Israel in Egypt, during the tenth plague, the killing of the first born, when God “passed over” the houses of the children of Israel (Ex 12:27). This was commemorated by the offering of the Paschal Lamb. In order for the Israelites to avoid being afflicted by the tenth plague, the slaughtering of the first born son, each household was instructed to daub the doorposts of the house with the blood of the slain Passover lamb. The avenging angel would pass over their houses and all would be safe.

Time of Temple

During the time of the Temple a lamb was sacrificed at Passover and shared among groups of not less than ten. The slaughtering of the Pesach offering took place in three groups in accordance with the verse, “All the assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter it.” The lamb was slaughtered on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nisan, prior to the commencement of the festival (Lev 23:5) and was eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex 2:8). To this day the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim re enact the slaughtering of the Paschal lambs. At the Samaritan Passover, men in white robes chant and dance joyfully, and as the sun sets, they slaughter the twelve lambs. The animals are flayed and prepared and roasted in pits, with members of several households sharing one lamb each. The lambs must be male and without blemish according to the Biblical injunctions.

Until the first century, the Passover was centred around the rite of eating the Paschal lamb. When the Temple was destroyed, there was an enormous disruption in Jewish life. At the end of the first century, the sages of Yavneh introduced new way of celebrating the feast. The Passover meal in the home, now incorporating a strong didactic element on the Exodus replaced the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. Some of its elements resemble an ancient Roman meal, where one reclines at table, for now the Israelites are no longer slaves, but free.

Search for Chametz

On the day before Passover, preparations are made to thoroughly clean the house of leaven (chametz), which includes anything made from the five major grains, wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt, that has not been completely cooked after coming into contact with water. Among the prohibited foods are those pickled in leaven and starch, legumes, dried fruits in general, clover, saffron and rice, though some Jewish groups, for example the Sephardim allow rice and legumes. The search for leaven takes place immediately after dark. Every corner of the house is examined with a candle after praying a special blessing. The whole rite is a symbol of the haste with which Israel left Egypt (Dt 16:3-4).

The Seder Night

The Bible commands Israelites to relate and explain to their children the history of the Exodus from Egypt. This duty is called in Hebrew “Haggadah,” “Narration”. This is also the name of the book which outlines the Seder. The word “Seder” means “order” and refers to the Seder meal, which is one of the most meaningful celebrations of the Jewish home. It is described in the last chapter of Mishnah Pesachim, the oral law on Passover, redacted at the end of the second century CE. The Haggadah and its festive meal emphases the importance of the Exodus experience of redemption. Passover lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel).

The Haggadah is composed of hymns, Biblical passages, traditional stories from Midrash, with prayers and anecdotes and songs which illuminate the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah is divided into two parts, separated by the festive meal. It is also arranged to capture the attention of the younger children whose active participation is provided for by the four Mah nishtana questions “Why is this night different from any other night?”

The Seder Dish

A Seder dish arranged with symbolic foods takes pride of place on the festive table. On it are arranged three matzot (unleavened bread), a shank bone as a reminder of the Passover offering, a roasted egg, a symbol of grief for the destruction of the temple, bitter herbs (maror) such as horse radish, symbolizing the bitterness of the Egyptian bondage, haroseth, a mixture of apples, almonds, cinnamon and ginger representing the mortar to make bricks used by the Israelites under Egyptian bondage, karpas (vegetable), parsley or some similar herb eaten early in the Seder service as a preliminary to the meal, symbolising the bitterness of slavery in Egypt and salt water, which symbolizes the slaves’ tears.

The core of the Haggadah is a retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt as a response to the injunction: “You shall tell your child on that day ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’.” Each Jew feels that he/she has personally been delivered from Egypt. The recital is built around a Midrash (from darash “to explain”) on Deuteronomy 26:5-8 and begins with the youngest asking four questions, which begin with the words “Mah Nishtanana” (Why is it different?). The story-telling is designed for four different types of people: the wise one, the wicked one who excludes himself, the simple one and the one who is unable to ask.

The meal begins with a benediction in honour of the feast over the first of four cups of wine that are drunk at the Seder. The benedictions over the four cups (Kiddush) occur at important moments in the Seder which also could be the most ancient. The first is at the beginning of the Seder; the second occurs at the end of the first part of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118), just before the meal. After the meal comes the third blessing over wine, before the second part of the Hallel (Psalm 136). A fourth blessing is after the blessing of the song (the Nishmat prayer). These elements seem to have existed at the time of the Second Temple.

Before eating the meal the hands are washed; a vegetable, usually parsley, is dipped in salt water and eaten, and the elements on the Seder plate are consumed: the matzah, the bitter herbs and the haroseth.

Mini Passover Haggadah

The Passover Haggadah is traditionally divided into fifteen steps. Step 5, the relating of the story of Passover is central.

  1. Sanctification (“Kaddesh”): The first benediction in honour of the feast over the first of four cups of wine that are drunk at the Seder.

  2. Washing. (“Ur‘chatz”): The hands are washed without a blessing, before eating the Karpas (vegetable)

  3. Vegetable (“Karpas”): A vegetable, usually parsley is dipped in salt water and eaten.

  4. Breaking (“Yachatz”): One of the three pieces of matzah is broken and set aside for the afikomen (see below).

  5. The Story. (“Maggid”): The recital of the story of Passover. At the end of the recital a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine which is then drunk.

  6. Washing (“Roch’tah”): The hands are washed a second time, but with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.

  7. Blessing ( “Motzi ”) :over bread-in this case matzah.

  8. “Matzah”: A specific blessing for matzah is pronounced and a piece of matzah is eaten.

  9. Bitter Herbs (“Maror”) A blessing is recited over the bitter herbs (usually raw horseradish) which is dipped in the sweet-tasting charoseth, symbolising the sweetening of the bitterness of slavery.

  10. The Sandwich (“Korech): A sandwich is made with matzah and charoseth and eaten in honour of Hillel, a famous rabbi from the first century.

  11. Dinner (“Shulchan Orech”) The festive meal is eaten.

  12. The Afikoman (“Tzafun”) The piece of matzah set aside (the afikoman) is eaten as “dessert”. Different families have differing traditions about the afikoman. In some families the children hide it, while the parents have to ransom it back, or a parent hides it, and the children find it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive.

  13. Grace (“Barech”) after meals. The third cup of wine is poured and the Grace after Meals is recited. At the end a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk; a further cup is poured and set aside for the prophet Elijah, and the door is opened for a short time.

  14. Hallel: Psalms 113-118 and Psalm 136 are recited to conclude the meal. The Gospels of Matthew (26:30) and Mark (14:26) both mention that at the end of the Lord’s Supper they sang a hymn and went to the Mount of Olives. This could have been the Hallel at the end of the Passover meal, which existed in the time of Jesus but had fewer elements than the Passover meal which was developed after the destruction of the Temple.

  15. Closing (“Nirtzah”). A simple statement that the Seder has been completed, and the wish that next year we will celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. This is followed by a number of hymns and stories.