Passover, Feast of
PASSOVER, FEAST OF
From later Biblical times the Passover, formerly sometimes called the Pasch (Heb. happesah, Gr. τὸπάσχα), celebrated on the night of the 14th to the 15th of Nisan (March or April), has been the principal feast of the Jewish calendar. In the Bible it is combined with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is kept from the 15th to the 21st of Nisan. Passover commemorates the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and is observed with great solemnity as well as rejoicing. From the many Biblical references to it, both legislative and historical, no completely clear picture of its origin and evolution is apparent, but there is a widespread consensus of scholarly opinion.
The Sources. The Old Testament texts that contain laws for the observance of the Passover are the passages in the ancient festival calendars of Ex 23.15; 34.18 (see also 34.25); Dt 16.1–8; Lv 23.5–8; Nm 28.16–25 (see also 9.9–14), besides Ex ch. 12, which gives the feast a historical setting. Celebrations of the Passover are described or referred to in Nm 9.1–14; Jos 5.10–12; 4 Kgs 23.21–23 (see also 2 Chr 35.1–19); 2 Chr 30.127; Ezr6.19–22. In addition to the principal Old Testament texts, important witnesses to the antiquity of the feast are found in a papyrus and two ostraca of the 5th century b.c. from the Jewish settlement at Elephantine in Egypt. In the New Testament, the Passion narratives of all four Gospels mention details of the Passover. Moreover, the intertestamental Book of Jubilees, the writings of Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus, and other ancient works describe the feast. The Mishnah tractate Pesahim contains details of the later mode of observance.
Name. The Old Testament derives the name pesah from a Hebrew verb meaning to limp or to jump and hence to jump over or to pass over (e.g., Ex 12.27), referring to Yahweh's "passing over" the houses of the Israelites during the 10th plague of egypt. But this historical explanation is secondary, and it is not clear that the etymology in it is the original one. Attempts to derive the word from Akkadian or Egyptian roots have not won general acceptance.
In this article the name Passover will be understood to refer to the combined Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread except where otherwise indicated.
Origin. The oldest Biblical allusions to the festival (Ex 23.15; 34.18) do not mention the name Passover but enjoin the keeping of the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days in the spring month of Abib (the old name for Nisan). Since in the later texts this observance forms part of the Passover festival, it is generally held that two originally distinct feasts were combined into one. Probable origins of both can be reconstructed.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread or Feast of Azymes (Heb. ḥag hammaṣ ṣôt, Gr. ἡ ἑορτὴ τ[symbol omitted]ν άζύμων) was one of the three great agricultural pilgrimage feasts, along with the Hebrew Feasts of pentecost and booths (Tabernacles), that the Israelites, after their entry into the Promised Land, adopted from the Canaanites. It was celebrated at the beginning of the barley harvest but at no fixed date; the fact that it extended from Sabbath to Sabbath may have been an Israelite innovation. The avoidance of leaven was probably a symbol of the new beginning being made with the new harvest; nothing from the old year was to be retained when the new season began. Though the calendars give as the reason for the feast, "For in the month of Abib you came out of Egypt," this theme was not original; the Feast of Unleavened Bread, like the other ḥaggîm, or pilgrimage feasts, was originally a harvest festival. (see unleavened bread (in the bible).
Passover in the restricted sense appears in the oldest allusions as a sacrifice and sacrificial meal of quite different significance and background. A lamb was sacrificed on the evening of the full moon in the month later called Nisan, and its blood was spread around the doorframes of homes. The meat was roasted and consumed that night with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Apparently the rite was conducted privately by families or small groups at home, although one cannot exclude the possibility that at some early epoch whole tribes gathered for it at local sanctuaries. In any event, it appears to be very ancient in the history of Israel, even though the oldest festival calendars do not mention it, perhaps because it was not at the time a public celebration.
Passover seems to be the spring festival of nomadic peoples when they sacrificed one of the firstlings of the flock in petition for an ensuing year of prosperity. Analogies for it have been pointed out among ancient and modern Arab tribes, and all of its details can be accounted for among the customs of a shepherd people. For example, the bitter herbs were a natural seasoning, the unleavened bread the normal fare of nomads, and the blood upon the doorframes an apotropaic rite, i.e., one performed to ward off evil spirits. The "destroyer" mentioned in Ex 12.23 is regarded as a trace of this last element. The Israelites had been seminomads prior to their settlement in Canaan, and they may have celebrated this feast even in Egypt before the Exodus. But sometime after that event they altered its meaning radically.
Evolution. The description of the "first Passover" in Ex ch. 12 (a late text embodying several traditions) relates the familiar story of the slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt and the destroying angel's "passing over" of the Israelites as they feasted within their homes. Moses enjoins observing the feast and explains all its rites as growing out of and commemorating the events of that historic night. In this passage, the seven days of Unleavened Bread are said to commemorate the going out of Egypt, and all references to either feast in the festival calendars make the same association. It is not a natural association, however, and the very probable origin of the feasts lies elsewhere. What is found in these texts is evidence of the process of historicizing by which the three great pilgrimage festivals of the Israelite year were invested with a role in reliving the drama of salvation history. In the case of Unleavened Bread this process took place earlier than for Pentecost and Booths, since it is only for Unleavened Bread that the earliest calendars (i.e., those of the yahwist and the elohist) mention the historical connotation. How early the nomadic Passover was cast in the historical mold of Ex ch. 12 it is impossible to say, but it is not unlikely that it happened in the time of Moses himself. The intervention in Israel's history portrayed as the Exodus may in fact have occurred at the spring sacrificial celebration.
One can be somewhat more precise in estimating the time when the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread were combined into one festival. This event is connected with the centralization of the Israelite cult under Josiah, King of Judah (c. 640–609 b.c.), that is reflected in the Deuteronomic tradition of the Pentateuch. Josiah's Passover (2 Kgs 23.21–23; 2 Chr 35.1–19) is described as unique since the most ancient times, and the Deuteronomic ordinances (Dt 16.1–8) insist that the feast must be celebrated at the Jerusalem Temple. Josiah had made the shepherd Passover a pilgrimage festival as well, and since it nearly coincided in time with the Feast of Unleavened Bread—and also in its connotations, the latter recalling the hardships of the Israelites' flight—the two were eventually held to be parts of one festival. Unleavened Bread thus received a specific date (Nisan 15–21), and although it could no longer be observed from Sabbath to Sabbath, the first and last days were still kept as days of rest from work.
That this combining of the feasts was preexilic is confirmed by the fact that they are joined in Ezekiel's ideal festival calendar (Ez 45.21). Several texts seem to suggest that the combining took place even earlier, but the evidence of the calendars must be preferred. The Passover of Joshua (Jos 5.10–11) does not clearly mention the eating of unleavened bread as a festival rite; the account of King Hezekiah's Passover (2 Chronicles ch.30), purportedly celebrated at the Temple in the 2d month because it had not been done properly in Nisan, is probably not historical, at least in its details. The "Passover Papyrus" from Elephantine, which may be dated 419 b.c., confirms the union of the two feasts.
Ancient Rites. It is the passages of the Priestly tradition (see priestly writers, pentateuchal), especially Ex 12.1–20, 43–49; Nm 28.16–25, that provide the most detailed picture of the Passover celebration. The rites began on the 10th day of the 1st month (with the year reckoned as beginning in spring) when the sacrificial victim was chosen, a spotless male lamb, one-year old, for each family or group of families. In the early evening of the 14th day of the month the people assembled at the Temple, and the lambs were slaughtered; previously this had taken place privately at home or at local shrines. Immediately afterward, the blood of the passover lamb was daubed upon the doorposts and lintel of the house where the meal was to be consumed, in memory of the sign used to protect the Israelites in Egypt. The lamb was then roasted and had to be consumed that night, along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread, which recalled the haste and the rigors of the flight from Egypt. No bone of the sacrificial victim could be broken and no leftovers kept; all remains had to be burned by the next morning.
The participants were to eat the Passover meal "in haste," with loins girded, sandals on, and staff in hand, i.e., dressed for traveling in remembrance of the suddenness of Israel's departure from Egypt. All the members of the household participated in the meal, even slaves and strangers, provided they were circumcised. The observance was of obligation for all, and ritual uncleanness in certain circumstances or the fact of being on a journey did not excuse from it (Nm 9.9–13), although in general, later texts imply the need for ritual purity (e.g., Ezr 6.20–21).
For the following seven days all were required to eat only unleavened bread and to be certain that no leaven was found in the home under penalty of being "cut off from Israel." The strictness of this obligation seems more a consequence of the agricultural origin of the custom than of the symbolic meaning attached to it. On the 1st and 7th days (i.e., the 15th and the 21st of Nisan) there was to be rest from work, an assembly at the Temple, and special sacrifices. In Lv 23.9–14 it was prescribed that "on the day after the sabbath" (an ambiguous dating that was to be the subject of controversy in later Judaism) a sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest should be waved before Yahweh (i.e., offered as a quasi sacrifice of the new harvest). Special sacrifices accompanied this ceremony, and from this day were calculated the seven weeks to Pentecost.
At the time of the New Testament, Passover was observed according to the general lines of the Priestly tradition, with strict adherence to the Deuteronomic insistence that the sacrifice itself take place at the Temple; people brought their lambs to be killed and then returned home or to some nearby house to eat the ritual meal. The atmosphere of familial joy surrounding the feast had by that time been considerably heightened. In the Gospels themselves the Passover plays an important role, historically and symbolically, but the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel disagree about whether or not the Last Supper was a paschal meal. There is some evidence that the qumran community observed the feast, perhaps even quite independently of the Temple ritual and following their own calendar, which assigned the Passover annually to the same day of the week. Tuesday. After the destruction of the Temple at the fall of Jerusalem (a.d. 70), the sacrifice of the paschal lamb disappeared, along with all Temple rites, from the festival observance, and the rite for the Passover meal was embellished to preserve the symbolism of the feast. It is disputed whether this rite, to be described below, may not have come into existence even before the destruction of the Temple.
The slaughter of the Passover lamb survives even today in the practice of the Samaritan community centered about Nablus. It is sometimes argued that, since the destruction of their temple on Mt. Gerizim (129 b.c.) did not destroy this ritual, the ritual must have been performed privately in a family festival and not merely as a temple sacrifice. Indeed, many aspects of the Samaritan Passover celebration recall what it must have been like in the time of the Israelite kingdom. In Samaritan usage, for example, the feasts of Passover and of Unleavened Bread are still regarded as separate.
Modern Passover Meal. The ritual paschal meal, held privately in the home and sometimes conducted for groups, especially of travelers away from home, is commonly called the Seder (Heb. sēder, order, arrangement). The present-day Seder is substantially the same as the ceremony outlined in the Mishnah (Pes. 10). The narrative text followed during the meal is called the Passover haggadah (story), and both terms Seder and Haggadah are used to designate the booklet containing text and ceremonies.
Two preliminary rites are closely linked with the Seder. One is the formal searching of the home on the night before Passover for any form of leaven or leavened food, which is set aside and later destroyed or given away. No leaven may remain in the home during the festival, and utensils used for leavened foods must be replaced or purified. The other preliminary ceremony is the so-called Fast of the Firstborn observed prior to the Passover meal.
A table set for the Seder contains the following special items: three cakes of unleavened bread (maṣs : ôt, matzos) placed on a Seder dish and covered, a roasted shank bone symbolizing the paschal lamb, a roasted egg as an offering for the feast, bitter herbs (mārôr, usually horseradish), some parsley and salted water, a mixture of nuts and fruit (ḥa'rōset ) used to sweeten the bitter herbs, enough wine for four cups each, and a cup at each place with an extra one for Elijah, who is expected to announce the redemption on Passover night.
The ceremony begins with the blessing (qiddûš ) over the first cup of wine. Parsley dipped in water is eaten in memory of the hardships of the Israelites' life in Egypt. The master of the house breaks the middle cake of maṣs : â and conceals half of it to be eaten at the end of the meal (the 'a'pîqômān ). Then the youngest one present asks the dramatic question, "Why is this night different from other nights?" There follow four specific questions regarding the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs, reclining on cushions, and eating parsley. In answer, the master of the house reads the main narrative of the Haggadah, recounting the events of the Exodus (fulfilling the command of Ex 13.8 to teach the children on Passover night). There are also several rabbinic explanations, including a commentary on Dt 26.5–8, "A wandering Aramean was my father… ." The Hallel is then begun [Ps 112 (113)–113A (114)], the second cup is drunk with a blessing, and all wash their hands in preparation for the meal. This begins with handing around and eating first masṣôt, then bitter herbs dipped in ḥa'rōset, and these again served on pieces of unleavened bread. Then the main body of the meal is taken, and the 'a'pîqômān is eaten last to retain the taste of maṣs :â. Grace is said, and the third cup is drunk. Finally the Hallel is completed [Ps 113B (115)–117 (118)], the Greal Hallel [Ps 135 (136)] sung, and the last cup taken with a blessing.
At various times and in various regions additions have been made to this basic structure. The most familiar of these is the addition in the Ashkenazic (German-Jewish rite) Seder of five medieval folk songs or poems at the end of the meal, including the "Ehād mî yôdēa" (Who knows one?) and the Had gadyā ' (An only kid).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 1746–51. h. haag, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 8:133–37; Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928–) 6:1120–49. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 484–93. e. g. hirsch, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer, 13 v. (New York 1901–06) 9:548–56. t. h. gaster, Passover, Its History and Traditions (New York 1949). j. b. segal, The Hebrew Passover from the Earliest Times to A.D 70 (London Oriental Series 12; London 1963), review in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 26 (1964) 123–26. p. grelot, "Études sur le 'Papyrus Pascal' d'Éléphantine," Vetus Testamentum 4 (1954) 349–84. c. w. atkinson, "The Ordinances of Passover-Unleavened Bread," Anglican Theological Review 44 (1962) 70–85. n. fÜglister, Die Heilsbedeutung des Pascha (Studien zum Alten und Neuen Testament 8; Munich 1963). j. jeremias, Die Passahfeier der Samaritaner, Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft Beiheft 59 (Giessen 1932). "Pesahim," The Mishnah, tr. h. danby (Oxford 1933) 136–51. The Haggadah, tr. c. roth (London 1934). l. n. dembitz, The Jewish Encyclopedia 11:142–47. a. z. idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and Its Development (New York 1932) 173–87.
[g. w. macrae]
"Passover, Feast of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/passover-feast
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