Passover, Easter or Pesach (from Hebrew פֶּסַח Pesah), is an important, biblically derived holiday. The Jewish people celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation by GOD from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. It commemorates the “Passover” (“Passage”) from slavery to freedom as the Book of Exodus as described in the Bible, in which the “People of ADONAI” were freed out of Egypt. According to standard biblical chronology, this event would have taken place at about 1300 BCE (AM 2450).
Passover is a spring festival which during the existence of the Jerusalem Temple was connected to the offering (sacrificing something weighly to GOD) of the “first-fruits of the barley”, barley being the first grain to ripen and to be harvested in the Land of Israel.
Passover commences on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan and lasts for either seven days (in Israel and for Reform Jews and other progressive Jews around the world who adhere to the Biblical commandment) or eight days for Orthodox, Hasidic, and most Conservative Jews (in the diaspora). In Judaism, a day commences at dusk and lasts until the following dusk, thus the first day of Passover only begins after dusk of the 14th of Nisan and ends at dusk of the 15th day of the month of Nisan. The rituals unique to the Passover celebrations commence with the Passover Seder when the 15th of Nisan has begun.
In the narrative of the Exodus, the Bible tells that GOD helped the Children of Israel escape from their slavery in Egypt by inflicting ten plagues upon the ancient Egyptians before the Pharaoh would release his Israelite slaves; the tenth and worst of the plagues was the death of the Egyptian first-born.
The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the LORD knew to pass over the first-born in these homes, hence the English name of the holiday.
When the Pharaoh freed the Israelites, it is said that they left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread dough to rise (leaven). In commemoration, for the duration of Passover no leavened bread is eaten, for which reason Passover was called the feast of unleavened bread in the Torah or Old Testament. Thus matzo (flat unleavened bread) is eaten during Passover and it is a tradition of the holiday.
Historically, together with Shavuot (“Pentecost”) and Sukkot (“Tabernacles”), Passover is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Shalosh Regalim) during which the entire population of the kingdom of Judah made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans still make this pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim, but only men participate in public worship.
Table of Contents
Date and duration
The Passover begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, which typically falls in March or April of the Gregorian calendar. Passover is a spring festival, so the 15th day of Nisan typically begins on the night of a full moon after the northern vernal equinox. However, due to intercalary months or leap months falling after the vernal equinox, Passover sometimes starts on the second full moon after vernal equinox.
In Israel, Passover is the seven-day holiday of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, with the first and last days observed as legal holidays and as holy days involving holiday meals, special prayer services, and abstention from work; the intervening days are known as Chol HaMoed (“Weekdays [of] the Festival”). Diaspora Jews historically observed the festival for eight days. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews and Israeli Jews, wherever they are, usually observe the holiday over seven days. The reason for this extra day is due to enactment of the ancient Jewish sages. It is thought by many scholars that Jews outside of Israel could not be certain if their local calendars fully conformed to practice of the Temple at Jerusalem, so they added an extra day. But as this practice only attaches to certain (major) sacred days, others posit the extra day may have been added to accommodate people who had to travel long distances to participate in communal worship and ritual practices; or the practice may have evolved as a compromise between conflicting interpretations of Jewish Law regarding the calendar; or it may have evolved as a safety measure in areas where Jews were commonly in danger, so that their enemies would not be certain on which day to attack.
Origins and Biblical development
Scholarly consensus dates the origin of the festival to a period earlier than the Exodus. The Passover ritual, prior to Deuteronomy, is widely thought to have its origins in an apotropaic rite, unrelated to the Exodus, to ensure the protection of a family home, a rite conducted wholly within a clan. Hyssop was employed to daub the blood of a slaughtered sheep on the lintels and door posts to ensure that demonic forces could not enter the home.
Called the “festival [of] the matzot” (Hebrew: חג המצות hag hamatzot) in the Bible, the commandment to keep Passover is recorded in the Book of Leviticus:
In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at dusk is the LORD’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the LORD; seven days ye shall eat unleavened bread. In the first day ye shall have a holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of servile work. And ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD seven days; in the seventh day is a holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of servile work.
(Leviticus 23, 5–8)
The biblical regulations for the observance of the festival require that all leavening be disposed of before the beginning of the 15th of Nisan An unblemished lamb or goat, known as the Korban Pesach or “Paschal Lamb”, is to be set apart on Nisan 10, and slaughtered at dusk as Nisan 14 ends in preparation for the 15th of Nisan when it will be eaten after being roasted. The literal meaning of the Hebrew is “between the two evenings”. It is then to be eaten “that night”, Nisan 15, roasted, without the removal of its internal organs with unleavened bread, known as matzo, and bitter herbs known as maror. Nothing of the sacrifice on which the sun rises by the morning of the 15th of Nisan may be eaten, but must be burned. The sacrifices may only be performed in a specific place prescribed by GOD.
The biblical regulations pertaining to the original Passover, at the time of the Exodus only, also include how the meal was to be eaten: “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” Exodus 12, 11.
The biblical requirements of slaying the Paschal lamb in the individual homes of the Hebrews and smearing the blood of the lamb on their doorways were observed in Egypt. However, once Israel was in the wilderness and the tabernacle was in operation, a change was made in those two original requirements (Deuteronomy 16, 2–6). Passover lambs were to be sacrificed at the door of the tabernacle and no longer in the homes of the Jews. No longer, therefore, could blood be smeared on doorways.
The biblical commandments concerning the Passover (and the Feast of Unleavened Bread) stress the importance of remembering:
- Deuteronomy 16, 12 And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt; and thou shalt observe and do these statutes
- Exodus 12, 14 commands, in reference to GOD’s sparing of the firstborn from the Tenth Plague: “And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever.”
- Exodus 13, 3 repeats the command to remember: “Remember this day, in which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for by strength the hand of the LORD brought you out from this place.”
The English term “Passover” is first known to be recorded in the English language in William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible, later appearing in the King James Version as well. It is a literal translation of the Hebrew term “Pesach”.
The Hebrew פֶּסַח is rendered as Tiberian [pɛsaħ] and Modern Hebrew: Pesah, Pesakh; The Yiddish word is Latinized variously as Peysekh, Paysakh, Paysokh.
The verb “pasàch” (פָּסַח) is first mentioned in the Torah‘s account of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12, 23), and there is some debate about its exact meaning: the commonly held assumption that it means “He passed over” (פסח), in reference to GOD “passing over” (or “skipping”) the houses of the Hebrews during the final of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, stems from the translation provided in the Septuagint (παρελευσεται in Exodus 12, 23, and εσκεπασεν in Exodus 12, 27).
Korban Pesach: The lamb sacrifice
The lamb or goat which was designated as the Passover sacrifice is called in Hebrew the Korban Pesach. Four days before the Exodus, the Hebrews were commanded to set aside a lamb (Exodus 12, 3), and inspect it daily for blemishes. During the day on the 14th of Nisan, they were to slaughter the animal and use its blood to mark their lintels and door posts. Up until midnight on the 15th of Nisan, they were to consume the lamb. On the night of the first Passover at the start of the original Exodus, each family (or group of families/comunities) gathered together to eat a meal that included the meat of the Korban Pesach while the Tenth Plague ravaged Egypt.
Removing all chametz
Chametz (חמץ, “leavening”) is made from one of five types of grains combined with water and left to stand for more than eighteen minutes. The consumption, keeping, and owning of chametz is forbidden during Passover. Yeast and fermentation are not themselves forbidden as seen for example by wine, which is required, rather than merely permitted. According to Halakha, the ownership of such chametz is also proscribed.
The Torah commandments regarding chametz are:
- To remove all chametz from one’s home, including things made with chametz, before the first day of Passover (Exodus 12, 15). It may be simply used up, thrown out (historically, destroyed by burning), or given or sold to non-Jews.
- To refrain from eating chametz or mixtures containing chametz during Passover (Exodus 13, 3, Exodus 12, 20, Deuteronomy 16, 3).
- Not to possess chametz in one’s domain (i.e. home, office, car, etc.) during Passover (Exodus 12, 19 ; Deuteronomy 16, 4).
Observant Jews spend the weeks before Passover in a flurry of thorough housecleaning, to remove every morsel of chametz from every part of the home. Jewish law requires the elimination of olive-sized or larger quantities of leavening from one’s possession, but most housekeeping goes beyond this.
Interpretations for abstinence from leaven or yeast
Some scholars suggest that the command to abstain from leavened food or yeast suggests that sacrifices offered to GOD involve the offering of objects in “their least altered state”, that would be nearest to the way in which they were initially made by GOD. According to other scholars the absence of leaven or yeast means that leaven or yeast symbolizes corruption and spoiling.
Additionally, there is a tradition of not eating matzoh (flat unleavened bread) in the 30 days before Passover begins so that there will be an increased appetite for it during Passover itself (and this seems to be strictly connected to the Christian Lent).
It is traditional for Jewish families to gather on the first night of Passover (first two nights in Orthodox and Conservative communities outside Israel) for a special dinner called a seder (סדר derived from the Hebrew word for “order” or “arrangement”, referring to the very specific order of the ritual). The table is set with the finest china and silverware to reflect the importance of the meal. During this meal, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold using a special text called the Haggadah. Four cups of wine are consumed at various stages in the narrative.
The four questions and participation of children
Children have a very important role in the Passover seder. Traditionally the youngest child is prompted to ask questions about the Passover seder, beginning with the words, Mah Nishtana HaLeila HaZeh (Why is this night different from all other nights?). The questions encourage the gathering to discuss the significance of the symbols in the meal. The questions asked by the child are:
- Why is this night different from all other nights?
- On all other nights, we eat either unleavened or leavened bread, but tonight we eat only unleavened bread?
- On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but tonight, we eat only bitter herbs?
- On all other nights, we do not dip [our food] even once, but tonight we dip twice?
- On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, but tonight we only recline?
Often the leader of the seder and the other adults at the meal will use prompted responses from the Haggadah, which states, “The more one talks about the Exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy he is.” Many readings, prayers, and stories are used to recount the story of the Exodus. Many households add their own commentary and interpretation and often the story of the Jews is related to the theme of liberation and its implications worldwide.
Seventh day of Passover
Shvi’i shel Pesach (שביעי של פסח) (“seventh [day] of Passover”) is another full Jewish holiday, with special prayer services and festive meals. Outside the Land of Israel, in the Jewish diaspora, Shvi’i shel Pesach is celebrated on both the seventh and eighth days of Passover. This holiday commemorates the day the Children of Israel reached the Red Sea and witnessed both the miraculous “Splitting of the Sea”, the drowning of all the Egyptian chariots, horses and soldiers that pursued them, and the Passage of the Red Sea. According to the Midrash, only the Pharaoh was spared to give testimony to the miracle that occurred.
The “Second Passover” (Pesach Sheni) on the 14th of Iyar in the Hebrew Calendar is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Numbers 9, 6–13) as a make-up day for people who were unable to offer the pesach sacrifice at the appropriate time due to ritual impurity or distance from Jerusalem. Just as on the first Pesach night, breaking bones from the second Paschal offering (Numbers 9, 12) or leaving meat over until morning (Numbers 9, 12) is prohibited.
Today, Pesach Sheni on the 14th of Iyar has the status of a very minor holiday (so much so that many of the Jewish people have never even heard of it, and it essentially does not exist outside of Orthodox and traditional Conservative Judaism). There are not really any special prayers or observances that are considered Jewish law. The only change in the liturgy is that in some communities Tachanun, a penitential prayer omitted on holidays, is not said. There is a custom, though not Jewish law, to eat just one piece of matzo on that night.
Pesach: Passover for Christians
Easter, or Passover is also called Pascha (Greek, Latin) or Resurrection Sunday, is a festival and holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, described in the New Testament as having occurred on the third day of his burial after his crucifixion by the Romans at Calvary c. 30 AD. It is the culmination of the Passion of Jesus, preceded by Lent, a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and penance.
Most Christians refer to the week before Easter as “Holy Week”, and it contains the days of the Easter Triduum, including Maundy Thursday, commemorating the Maundy and Last Supper, as well as Good Friday, commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus. In Western Christianity, Eastertide, or the Easter Season, begins on Easter Sunday and lasts seven weeks, ending with the coming of the fiftieth day, Pentecost Sunday. In Eastern Christianity, the season of Pascha begins on Pascha and ends with the coming of the fortieth day, the Feast of the Ascension.
Easter and the holidays that are related to it are moveable feasts which do not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars which follow only the cycle of the sun; rather, its date is determined on a lunisolar calendar similar to the Hebrew calendar. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established two rules, independence of the Jewish calendar and worldwide uniformity, which were the only rules for Easter explicitly laid down by the council. No details for the computation were specified; these were worked out in practice, a process that took centuries and generated a number of controversies. It has come to be the first Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or soonest after 21 March, but calculations vary.
Easter is linked to the Jewish Passover by much of its symbolism, as well as by its position in the calendar. In many languages, the words for “Easter” and “Passover” are identical or very similar. Easter customs vary across the Christian world, and include sunrise services, exclaiming the Paschal greeting, clipping the church, and decorating Easter eggs (symbols of the empty tomb). The Easter lily, a symbol of the resurrection, traditionally decorates the chancel area of churches on this day and for the rest of Eastertide.
In Greek and Latin, the Christian celebration was, and still is, called Πάσχα, Pascha, a word derived from Aramaic פסחא, cognate to Hebrew פֶּסַח (Pesach). The word originally denoted the Jewish festival known in English as Passover, commemorating the Jewish Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Already in the 50s of the 1st century, Paul, writing from Ephesus to the Christians in Corinth, applied the term to Christ, and it is unlikely that the Ephesian and Corinthian Christians were the first to hear Exodus 12 interpreted as speaking about the death of Jesus, not just about the Jewish Passover ritual.
Some scholar believes that the modern English term Easter, cognate with modern Dutch ooster and German Ostern, developed from an Old English word that usually appears in the form Ēastrun, and it is derived from the name of an Old English goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede. But other opinions are that that name derived from the term “yeast” in order to remember that during this holydays, for the Biblical teachings was forbidden to eat yeast.
The New Testament states that the resurrection of Jesus, which Easter celebrates, is a foundation of the Christian faith. The resurrection established Jesus as the powerful Son of GOD and is cited as proof that GOD will judge the world in righteousness. For those who trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection, “death is swallowed up in victory.” Any person who chooses to follow Jesus receives “a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. Through faith in the working of GOD those who follow Jesus are spiritually resurrected with him so that they may walk in a new way of life and receive eternal salvation.
Easter is linked to the Passover and Exodus from Egypt recorded in the Old Testament through the Last Supper, sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus that preceded the resurrection. According to the New Testament, Jesus gave the Passover meal a new meaning, as in the upper room during the Last Supper he prepared himself and his disciples for his death. He identified the matzah and cup of wine as his body soon to be sacrificed and his blood soon to be shed. Paul states, “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast, as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed“; this refers to the Passover requirement to have no yeast in the house and to the allegory of Jesus as the Paschal lamb.
Interpretations of the Gospel of John is that Jesus, as the Passover lamb, was crucified at roughly the same time as the Passover lambs were being slain in the Temple, on the afternoon of Nisan 14. The scriptural instructions specify that the lamb is to be slain “between the two evenings”, that is, at twilight. By the Roman period, however, the sacrifices were performed in the mid-afternoon. Josephus, Jewish War 6.10.1/423 (“They sacrifice from the ninth to the eleventh hour”). Philo, Special Laws 2.27/145 (“Many myriads of victims from noon till eventide are offered by the whole people”).
In the early Church
The first Christians, Jewish and Gentile, were certainly aware of the Hebrew calendar. Jewish Christians (the Jews that recognise Jesus the Nazarene as the Messiah) were the first to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, timed the observance in relation to Passover.
Direct evidence for a more fully formed Christian festival of Pascha (Easter) begins to appear in the mid-2nd century. Perhaps the earliest extant primary source referring to Easter is a mid-2nd-century Paschal homily attributed to Melito of Sardis, which characterizes the celebration as a well-established one. Evidence for another kind of annual Christian festival, the commemoration of martyrs, begins to appear at about the same time as evidence for the celebration of Easter.
The ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the perpetuation of its custom, “just as many other customs have been established”, stating that neither Jesus nor his Apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. Although he describes the details of the Easter celebration as deriving from local custom, he insists the feast itself is universally observed.
Abrahamic Religion comparision
Eid al-Adha (Arabic: عيد الأضحى, translit. ʿīd al-aḍḥā, lit. “Festival of the Sacrifice'”), also called the “Sacrifice Feast”, is the second of two Muslim holidays celebrated worldwide each year, and considered the holier of the two. It honors the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son, as an act of submission to GODs Command. Before he sacrificed his son GOD intervened by sending his Angel Jibra’il (Gabriel), who then put a sheep in his son’s place. The meat from the sacrificed animal is divided into three parts: the family retains one third of the share; another third is given to relatives, friends and neighbors; and the remaining third is given to the poor and needy.
In the Islamic lunar calendar, Eid al-Adha falls on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah and lasts for four days until the 13th day. In the international (Gregorian) calendar, the dates vary from year to year drifting approximately 11 days earlier each year.
Eid al-Adha is the latter of the two Eid holidays, the former being Eid al-Fitr. The word “Eid” appears once in Al-Ma’ida, the fifth sura of the Quran, with the meaning “solemn festival”.
Like Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha begins with a prayer of two rakats followed by a sermon (khutbah). Eid al-Adha celebrations start after the descent of the Hujjaj, the pilgrims performing the Hajj, from Mount Arafat , a hill east of Mecca. Eid sacrifice may take place until sunset on the 13th day of Dhu al-Hijjah. The days of Eid have been singled out in the Hadith as “days of remembrance” and considered the holiest days in the Islamic Calendar. The takbir (days) of Tashriq are from the Maghrib prayer of the 29th of Dhul-Qadah up to the Maghrib prayer of the 13th of Dhu al-Hijjah (thirteen days and nights)
- A Passover Haggadah: As Commented Upon by Elie Wiesel and Illustrated by Mark Podwal (Simon & Schuster, 1993, ISBN 0671799967)
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- “Pesach”. Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.
- The Seder Olam Rabbah calculates the lifespan of Moses as 1391–1271 BCE, which would correspond to a date of the Exodus of 40 years before 1271, i.e. 1311 BCE.
- Josephus, Antiquities 3.250–251, in Josephus IV Jewish Antiquities Books I–IV, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1930, pp. 437–439.
- Shapiro, Mark Dov. “How Long is Passover?”. sinai-temple.org. Sinai Temple. Retrieved April 9, 2015.
- Dreyfus, Ben. “Is Passover 7 or 8 Days?”. ReformJudaism.org. Union for Reform Judaism. Retrieved April 9, 2015.