a historical account of Passover

WHAT IS PASSOVER?

Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. 

The name “Passover” comes from the story that G-d “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the 10th plague, sparing their eldest male children from death. 

Passover takes place during the spring and is celebrated between the 15th-21st/22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. 

 

BIBLICAL ACCOUNT (PART ONE)

Just as many tribes worldwide have their origin stories, the Torah (or Hebrew Bible) tells the origin story of the Jewish People. The story of Passover is told in the Book of Exodus. 

When the Pharoah of Egypt starts to worry that the Israelites will outnumber his people, he enslaves them, and decrees that all of their newborn sons must be tossed into the Nile River. After Yocheved gives birth to a son, Moses, she puts him in a basket and releases him into the flow of the Nile. He is found by the Pharoah’s daughter, who adopts him. 

 

BIBLICAL ACCOUNT (PART 2)

Moses grows up believing that he is Egyptian. When he is older, G-d appears to him behind a burning bush and commands that Moses tell the Pharoah to let the Israelites go. 

When the Pharoah says no, G-d unleashes ten plagues. During the tenth plague, G-d strikes down on every Egyptian firstborn, but because the Israelites have been instructed to mark their doors with the blood of a sacrificial lamb, the Angel of Death knows to bypass (or “pass over”) their houses. After the Pharoah’s oldest son is killed, he agrees to let the Israelites go. 

The Pharoah changes his mind and his army chases after the Israelites, who are trapped by the Red Sea. Moses, through the power of G-d, parts the Red Sea. After 40 years wandering the desert, the Israelites finally return to the Land of Israel. 

 

HISTORICITY OF PASSOVER (PART 1)

Historians have hotly debated the veracity of the story of Passover for centuries. While there is no archeological evidence to corroborate the story — and while the Egyptians kept no record of any Israelite tribe living among them (enslaved or not) — scholars have pointed out several interesting things.

(1) the names of the cities where the Israelites encamped on their way to Canaan are corroborated by Egyptian sources 

(2) the tomb of a possible Hebrew advisor to the Pharoah was found in the 1880s 

(3) there are similarities between the (Semitic) name of a slave in an Egyptian papyrus to the name of a Hebrew slave in the Torah (Hebrew is a Semitic language, while Coptic/Ancient Egyptian is not)

 

HISTORICITY OF PASSOVER (PART 2)

An alternate historical perspective is that a small group of Semitic peoples was traveling to and from Egypt in ancient times. One of these groups were the Levites (Moses was a Levite). Many of the names in Exodus — including Moses — are Egyptian names. 

It is possible that the Levites departed Egypt and later joined the other Israelite tribes. The Levites, for example, emphasized that the Israelites must not mistreat foreigners. They were also the only tribe that spoke of male circumcision, which was an Egyptian practice. 

 

ANCIENT CELEBRATIONS 

In olden times, the main event during the Passover festival was the sacrificial lamb. Every family had to offer a lamb or goat to be sacrificed at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The lamb was to be roasted, with its head, feet, and inner organs intact, and had to be eaten on the 15th of Nissan. 

It was to be eaten with matzah, or unleavened bread (which commemorates the story that the Israelites fled Egypt so quickly that they didn’t have time for the bread to rise) and bitter herbs (or “maror”). 

Because the Temple was destroyed, there is no longer a sacrificial Passover lamb. However, the other traditions remain. It’s also customary for Sephardic Jews to eat lamb or goat during the Passover Seder. 

 

THE SEDER & TRADITIONS 

The main event during Passover today is the Passover Seder, or Passover dinner, which takes place during the first or first two nights of Passover. “Seder” means order, because there is an order of rituals that Jews must follow. 

Some of the traditions include: drinking 4 cups of wine, the afikoman (a piece of matzah that is broken off and hidden for the children to find), retelling the Passover story, and more. The traditional Passover plate contains the following symbolic foods: bitter herbs symbolizing the bitterness of slavery, a sweet mixture that represents the mortar and brick used by the slaves, a vegetable representing hope and renewal, meat to symbolize the sacrificial lamb, an egg which also symbolizes the sacrifices of the Temple (and its subsequent destruction), and matzah. 

During Passover, observant Jews do not eat “chametz,” or grains that leaven. Traditions vary between Jewish sub-ethnic groups. 

 

APPROPRIATION 

In recent years, Evangelical Christian groups have started hosting “Christian Seders.” They believe that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, and, as such, the Seder is a Christian tradition. The problem is that, during the time of Jesus, Seders were not really a thing.

“Christian Seders” started popping up after World War II and are in no way traditional to Christianity. 

While a Christian can certainly participate in a Jewish Seder IF THEY ARE INVITED TO IT, anything else is blatant appropriation and an erasure of the persecution of Jews at the hands of Christians for two millennia, particularly during Easter, when Jews were massacred. Seders are a closed Jewish practice. Period.