The Passover Story: A Historical Overview & TraditionsPublished on April 3rd, 2015 | by Brandon Ramsey in Holidays
The sacred beliefs of cultures, religions, and societies are something to be respected and revered. While everyone may not believe in the same things, these stories are a shining example of the rich history and culture that humanity has achieved over thousands of years until the modern day.
Knowing and cherishing these celebrations and stories is what it means to be human, and we celebrate any and all beliefs here at The Time Now. Today we’re here to talk about the Jewish celebration of Passover. We’ll explore an overview of the holiday, then delve into the history and meaning behind it. Finally, we’ll delve into the observances for this day.
A Brief Overview of the Celebration
This holiday is known as Pesach as it is known in Hebrew, is a holiday celebration derived from the Old Testament of the Bible, or the Torah as is used in Jewish tradition. This holiday celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people by God from their enslavement in ancient Egypt by the Pharaoh.
As part of the celebration, they also recognize the figure Moses who was the instrument used by God to facilitate the freedom of the Hebrew people from slavery. The focal point of the holiday is the story from the Book of Exodus which describes the Israelites being freed from enslavement in Egypt.
The holiday occurs each year on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan and it lasts for seven days in Israel or eight days in the diaspora, which is in reference to the Jews who were exiled from the Kingdom of Israel when the 12 tribes of Israel were separated after the death of King Solomon in ancient times.
In the Judaism belief, a typical day begins at dusk and lasts until dusk the following day. Therefore, the first day of the holiday begins on the 14th of Nisan and ends on dusk of the 15th day. We will go into more detail about the story and celebrations momentarily but suffice to say, the celebrations for this holiday begin with something called the Seder on the beginning of the 15th (the 14th at dusk).
This is by far one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays and remains an important commemoration of the Jewish people’s history and the triumph they experienced over enslavement according to the Book of Exodus.
The Story Behind the Holiday
In the Book of Exodus, the Torah tells that Jewish people were enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaoh and that Moses was chosen by Yahweh (God) to free his people. To do this, Moses inflicts ten plagues upon the people of Egypt when the Pharaoh refuses to set the Hebrew people free.
These plagues were meant to showcase Yahweh’s power over the Gods of Egypt and to persuade the Pharaoh to let the slaves go. The reason for the plagues go beyond this however, and extends into two different reasons:
- The Pharaoh taunt Yahweh in Exodus 5:2 when he says: “Who is Yahweh, that should obey his voice to let Israel go?”
- To showcase the power of Yahweh and forever crush any doubts that He is the Lord of all.
The reasoning here is based on the fact that Yahweh intended to remove any and all doubts of His power, and end the ongoing abuse of the Israelites. The display of the ten plagues was meant as a means of strengthening the resolve of the Hebrew people. This is all explained in the books of Isaiah and Joshua.
The celebration at hand is in regards to the tenth plague. The full list of the plagues from the Book of Exodus is listed below:
- Water into Blood
Moses is commanded to dip his staff into the Nile river, at which point all of the water turns to blood. The blood killed the fish and poisoned the waters in all of Egypt. The sorcerers of the Pharaoh were able to do the same, and so the Pharaoh was not moved. Instead he doubled the work of the enslaved Hebrew people
The second plague had frogs overrun the nation of Egypt, but the sorcerers were once again able to replicate the process through their magic. The Pharaoh promised to let the Israelis go if Moses stopped the plague so he let the Pharaoh choose when it would end to prove its divine origins. When it did end, the Pharaoh went back on his word.
This plague sent fleas, gnats, or lice as the translation goes into Egypt. The sorcerers were unable to replicate the effects of this plague.
- Wild Animals
This plague sent animals that attacked people and livestock. The Land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived was not affected. Once more the Pharaoh promised to free them but refused after the plague ended.
- Diseased Livestock
This plague caused all of Egypt’s horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats to become sick and die. The Israelites cattle were unharmed however.
- Hail and Fire
The seventh plague was a storm of hail mixed with fire. It damaged the greater orchards and crops of Egypt and plenty of people as well. Only the Land of Goshen was spared. The Pharaoh allowed the people to worship in the desert but still did not free them after.
The eighth plague was a swarm of locusts that consumed all of Egypt’s crops. The Pharaoh was still hardened and unwilling to set them free, a purposeful plan on Yahweh’s part to allow the proper events to play out.
The ninth plague brought a darkness down on Egypt that could be physically felt. It stopped the people from working and disoriented them entirely. This plague was an attack at the Egyptian Sun God, Ra to showcase his lack of power.
- Death of Firstborn
This final plague is where the Jewish holiday originates. The Jewish people were told by Moses, prior to the plague, to mark their doors with lamb’s blood smeared above it. This sign would cause their first born children to be spared. The Torah explains that the Lord would pass over these houses and spare them.
This final plague was what caused the Pharaoh to give in and allowed Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, through the parted Red Sea, and to freedom.
Celebrations of the Holiday in Jewish Culture
- Korban Pesach
Historically, when the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, there was a major ceremony held each year known as the Korban Pesach which translates to “The Paschal Lamb.” During this ceremony, any family that had enough members to fully consume a young lamb or goat must sacrifice one at the temple on the 14th day of Nisan.
That night, they would eat the entirety of the meat from the animal in one sitting. If this wasn’t possible, the same sacrifice would be made for a number of families. The most important aspect was that the entire animal be consumed by the following morning.
According to instructions from the Book of Exodus, the lamb had to be roasted without any limbs or organs previously removed. It was to be eaten with unleavened bread, otherwise known as matzo. This offering was sacred, and therefore only those who were called to participate observed the tradition.
While the sacrifice had to be made in front of a quorum of 30, there were restrictions to those that could participate in the sacrifice and in the meal. Those who could not, according to the Book of Exodus were the following:
- An apostate
- A servant
- An uncircumcised man
- A person in a state of ritual impurity (unless a majority of Jews are in this state)
- Non-Jewish people
In today’s Jewish culture, the temple no longer stands. Therefore, the Korban Pesach is remembered during the Seder, a celebration we will discuss momentarily. During this celebration, a roasted shankbone and other symbolic foods are placed on the Seder plate. A desert known as afikoman is eaten in place of the sacrificial lamb at the end of the meal.
- The Removal of Chametz
The word chametz means “leavening” and it is anything made from one of five different types of grain that is combined with water and remains untouched for more than eighteen minutes. During the holiday, it is forbidden to possess or consume chametz. Wine however is allowed since it is part of the Seder ceremony.
The term does not include things like baking soda, baking powder or similar household products. These are technical leavening products, but they only work as part of a chemical reaction, and are not used as part of a fermentation process. Anything made with yeast like bagels, pancakes, or waffles are not allowed.
There are three main commandments surrounding chametz in the Book of Exodus and the Book of Deuteronomy:
- Families must remove all chametz from their homes, or anything made with it, before the first day of the holiday.
- During the holiday’s time, they must not eat chametz or anything mixed with it.
- They cannot possess chametz within their home, office, car, and so on.
Some Jewish families begin housecleaning well before the holiday begins, going so far as to burn the items. This involves disposing of all required items, or in some cases selling them if they are expensive. While the Jewish law only requires anything larger than an olive to be disposed of, many families will clean their houses from top to bottom to make them as clear of chametz as possible.
The reason for this sudden disposal of specific food and drink items is something that is interpreted by scholars as an offering to God that involves “objects in their least altered state.” This makes them more pure and how God intended them to be. In some cases, families will also withhold some of the more expensive items like liquor and place them into a cabinet sealed by adhesive tape.
On the fourteenth night of Nisan, just before the Seder dinner, there is a ceremony held in each house where the family must search once more for any chametz that could be hiding the nooks and crannies of the abode. This is called bedikat chametz.
Originally the ceremony was done using a candle, a feather, and a wooden spoon. Any leaven that is found is picked up with the wooden spoon and set aside to be burned the following morning. The modern version of this ritual is usually done with flashlights instead of candles to avoid possible harm.
A small prayer is said before and after the search is complete. In some cases small morsels of bread of cereal are purposefully placed within the house to ensure something will be found in cases where the house was cleaned prior to the search.
- Passover Seder
The importance of a flatbread known as matzo is important to understand as we move into the Seder ceremony’s description. Matzo itself is an unleavened flatbread that is made from flour and water. It is intensive to make because it cannot be allowed to rise, so it must be constantly kneaded and worked throughout the process.
This type of bread is usually eaten throughout the duration of the holiday and especially during the Seder celebration. The Torah explains that when the Jews fled from Egypt, they didn’t have time to wait for the bread to rise which is why flatbread was made in haste.
The word Seder is hebrew for “order” and it refers to the very specific steps that are performed during this dinner celebration. It all begins with an extravagant table set with the finest china and silverware the family owns. In some cases, families will own a separate set of dishes specifically for this holiday so they can ensure that none of it came into contact with chametz throughout the year.
Over the course of the dinner, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is recited from a text known as the Haggadah. Over the course of the fifteen steps in the ceremony, four cups of wine are also consumed. The steps are listed below:
- Kadeish – a Kiddush blessing is spoken and the first cup of wine is consumed.
- Urchatz – the washing of the hands.
- Karpas – everyone dips their karpas in salt water.
- Yachatz – the center matzo is broken in half, the larger piece becomes the afikoman which is eaten later in the ritual.
- Maggid – The story of the holiday’s name is told, children participate in a ritual called “the four questions” in which they ask questions to the adults about the meaning of the holiday, and the second cup of wine is consumed.
- Rachtzah – the second washing of the hands, a blessing is also said.
- Motzi – a blessing is said before eating any bread.
- Matzo – another blessing said before eating matzo.
- Maror – everyone participates in eating the maror (bitter herbs such as horseradish).
- Koreich – a sandwich composed of maror and matzo is eaten.
- Shulchan oreich – meaning “set table,” this is when the holiday meals is served.
- Tzafun – the afikoman is eaten.
- Bareich – a blessing after the meal, the third cup of wine is consumed.
- Hallel – a blessing recited on festivals. The fourth cup of wine is consumed.
- Nirtzah – the conclusion of the ritual.
- Other Celebrations During the Week of the Holiday
Since Passover is observed over the course of multiple days, there are various celebrations within the week. The first and last days are the major holidays, but other festive activities are performed throughout the week.
The last day of the holiday, known as Shvi’i Shel Pesach is celebrated on the seventh day in Israel and on both the seventh and eighth days outside of the country. This final celebration is meant to commemorate the day that the Jewish people fled Egypt and passed through the Red Sea after Moses parted it.
Some Final Thoughts
Every culture strives to celebrate, honor, and remember the most powerful elements of their people’s history. This holiday, and all of its rituals and celebrations are designed to do just that. It is a time of remembrance and a time of celebrations like many holidays are. Thanks as always for reading.