Jewish Holiday: Passover

By: Amy J. Kramer

What is the first thought that enters a child’s mind when you bring up the subject of Passover? “The Ten Plagues”.

So, we begin our review Passover with this recreation of the third plague: Lice. Following the plagues of blood and frogs, the lice were everywhere, relentless, unforgiving and never ending.

Passover, Feast of Freedom

Passover, which celebrates Y’tziat Mitzraim, the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt, is the pivotal event in Jewish history. It freed our ancestors from more than 200 years of slavery and defined us as a nation.

Our sages place the Exodus from Egypt on the fifteenth of Nisan in the year 2448. Since Jewish holidays begin the night before, Passover begins at sundown on the fourteenth of Nisan and continues for seven days, except in the Diaspora, where it is observed for eight.

Passover (Pesach) is also called Hag Ha Aviv, the holiday of Spring, since it takes place between late March and mid-April. It is also called Hag Ha’Matzot, the holiday of unleavened bread, since we are forbidden to eat leavened food. Another name for Passover is Z’man Heiruteinu, the season of our liberation, since the story revolves around our Exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery.

The story of Passover is found in the Torah, in Sefer Shemot, the book of Exodus. It begins with the death of Joseph and the rise of a new Egyptian Pharaoh. Bible scholars believe this new Pharaoh was Ramses II.

First, some background. How did we wind-up slaves in Egypt?

Joseph’s Story: Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham.

Joseph and his younger brother, Benjamin, were the only children of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. The Torah says she died on the road while giving birth to Benjamin.

Jacob’s other 10 sons, were the children of his first wife, Leah, Rachel’s older sister, and Bilha and Zilpa, their maidservants. The brothers were all jealous of Jacob’s attention to Joseph.

Joseph, as a teenager, unwisely aggravated his brothers, telling them about dreams he had in which he was the sun and the moon, and they were stars, bowing to him. The final straw was the day Joseph appeared in a coat of many colors that Jacob made especially for him. It was then that his brothers decided that Joseph and his ideas threatened the convenient between G-d and Abraham, Isaac and their father, Jacob. So, after much debate, they unwisely decided to get rid of him.

After agreeing not to kill him, they decided to throw him in a pit. When his brother, Judah, came back that night to rescue him, it was too late. The other brothers had already sold Joseph to a caravan of Midianite traders.

Realizing they had to tell their father something, the brothers dipped Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood and told their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.

Now a slave, Joseph was sold to a wealthy Egyptian household where he soon became a favored and trusted servant. After some time, the beautiful wife of his new master, Potifar, attempted to seduce him. Joseph, could have easily succumbed to Potifar’s wife and live in comfort, instead he resisted her advances, explaining that he could not commit adultery.

Potifar’s wife was so incensed, she accused Joseph of attacking her. Potifar had Joseph thrown into jail, where he spent the next seven years. While in jail, Joseph gained a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. The Torah describes how Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants, the royal butler and the royal baker. Joseph asked them to remember him if they were released.

As Joseph predicted, the baker was eventually killed and the butler was eventually restored to his former position. However, as punishment for not relying on G-d to save him, Joseph spent another several years in prison until it happened that Pharaoh began experiencing disturbing dreams.

When no one could explain Pharaoh’s dreams, the butler told Pharaoh about Joseph’s remarkable ability. Joseph was taken before the Pharaoh who described his now famous dream about seven lean cows consumed by seven fat cows, and seven lean stalks of corn consumed by seven fat stalks of corn.

Joseph explained how Egypt would experience seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He advised Pharaoh to store houses of grain during the years of plenty so Egypt would have enough food when the famine came. Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph’s interpretation that he put him in charge of preparing Egypt for the coming famine.

Joseph’s prediction came true, and soon Joseph became the second most powerful man in Egypt. Word of Egypt’s abundant food supply reached Canaan, where Jacob and his growing family were quickly running out of food. Jacob sent the brothers to go to Egypt to buy supplies. Only Benjamin, Jacob youngest child, and Joseph’s brother, stayed behind.

Joseph, who was now married with two sons of his own, was in charge of all grain distribution in Egypt. When his brothers arrived, Joseph recognized them immediately but decided to keep quiet. Instead, he singled them out, asked them who they were and why they came to Egypt. He made sure they got the best of everything. But Joseph was curious. Did they regret what they did to him, and if given the chance, would they do it again?

To test them, Joseph accused his brothers of being spies. He insisted that they choose one brother to be held in Egypt as hostage until the rest return with the brother they left behind in Canaan.

The brothers had no choice but to do as Joseph said. It was determined that Shimon stay behind in Egypt as the remaining brothers returned to their father Jacob in Canaan.

When Jacob heard all that had occurred in Egypt he was very distraught at the prospect of parting with Benjamin. However, he had no choice. Benjamin returned to Egypt with his brothers.

Once back in Egypt, Joseph had Shimon released and ordered all his brothers brought to his private household. Once there, Joseph had a feast prepared. At the end of the feasting, Joseph ordered their sacks be filled with as much food as they could carry and also instructed that money be placed in every brother’s sack. As part of the test, Joseph had his servants place a silver goblet inside Benjamin’s sack.

By morning, the brothers, along with Shimon and Benjamin, were on their way back to their father Jacob. When they reached the outskirts of the city, they were stopped and arrested by Egyptian soldiers and brought back before Joseph.

Joseph accused one of the brothers of stealing a silver goblet. Every sack was searched until the goblet was found in Benjamin’s sack. As punishment, Joseph decided that the boy should remain in Egypt as his servant.

When the brothers heard this, they ripped their clothing and pleaded with Joseph to spare the boy. Judah offered himself instead of Benjamin, for losing Benjamin would surely kill their father.

Joseph could no longer restrain himself. Overcome with great emotion, he was now convinced that his brothers were sorry for what they had done to him. Weeping, Joseph announced, “I am Joseph: Does my father yet live?”

The brothers could hardly believe it. They were too afraid to speak, too afraid to breathe. Joseph said he had completely forgiven them and told them everything he had suffered was part of a divine plan.

“And now be not grieved, nor be angry with yourselves that you sold me here. Because to preserve life did G-d send me before you.” (Genesis 45:3-5)

Joseph asked only that his father Jacob be brought before him. When he concluded his tale of all that had happened to him, he fell upon the neck of his brother Benjamin and wept. And Benjamin wept upon his brother Joseph’s neck.

Joseph gave them wagons and provisions for their trip home. But to Benjamin, Joseph gave 300 shekels of silver and five changes of clothing. As they left Egypt, Joseph said to them: “Do not quarrel on the way.”

When Jacob heard that Joseph was alive he fainted. When he came to he was overjoyed. He and his family gathered everything they had and proceeded to make the long journey back to Egypt, where they settled in Goshen.

Although Joseph achieved great stature in Egyptian society he never forgot he was a Jew or where he came from. In fact, even though he was married to an Egyptian priestess, he gave his two sons the Hebrew names Ephraim and Menashe.

Joseph and all his family prospered in Goshen, an area rich in graze land on the edge of Egypt. Life was good until the power structure changed and there rose a new Pharaoh, the one the Torah says, “did not know Joseph.” Could it be that this new Pharaoh did not know who Joseph was and all he did to save Egypt? Or, was it that the new Pharaoh did not want to remember? Throughout the centuries, these questions have been a source of great debate among our Jewish sages.

A Slave’s Story: After the death of Joseph, things took a turn for the worse. The Torah says that the new Pharaoh feared the Israelite’s prolific ability to reproduce. The Midrash, a collection of Jewish legends, says that Jewish women in Egypt gave birth to six children at a time. Pharaoh’s advisers warned they would soon take over Egypt.

To slow them down, the new Pharaoh oppressed the Hebrews, using them as slaves to build the great Egyptian cities, Pittom and Ramses. When this did not work, the new Pharaoh ordered Egyptian midwives to kill the first born males of Jewish slaves. When this too had little effect, the Pharaoh decreed that every Jewish male infant be drowned in the Nile River.

To save his life, one Jewish baby boy was placed in a basket to float down the Nile river. The baby was the son of Amram and Yochebed. His sister Miriam followed close by. The basket with the baby inside was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, Batsheva. She called him Moses, an Egyptian name, for she drew him from the Nile.

When Miriam saw who found him, she quickly offered Pharaoh’s daughter the services of a nursemaid. The nursemaid she offered, was of course, the baby’s own mother, Yocheved.

After Moses was weaned, he grew up as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace. The misery of the Hebrew slaves continued. For the most part, Moses remained untouched by their suffering. One day, however, something happened that changed his life forever.

Moses was walking among the slaves and saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew. When the Egyptian would not stop, Moses struck him and the Egyptian died.

Two Hebrew informants witnessed the attack and threatened to report Moses. Afraid for his life, Moses ran away. He ran until he came to Mideon, where he found refuge in the house of Jethro, a Midian priest.

Jethro had seven daughters who tended the family flock. Moses fell in love with the eldest, Tziporah. One day, while in the desert herding sheep, Moses saw something burning in the distance. As he drew closer, he saw it was a bush, but to his surprise, it was not consumed. Then Moses heard a voice. The voice said it was the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d of Jacob. Moses was told to take his shoes off for he was on holy ground. G-d then told Moses to go back to Egypt and free his people from bondage.

Moses was reluctant. He said he was a simple shepherd unworthy of such a task. He said his speech was slow and that he would be killed if he went back to Egypt. G-d told him to take his brother, Aaron, and go before Pharaoh. G-d gave Moses two signs of His power to show Pharaoh. The first involved turning his staff into a snake. The second sign involved turning his arm into leprosy.

Moses left his family in Midian to join Aaron in Egypt. The two made their way to Pharaoh’s palace. Their first request to free their people was denied. As instructed, they performed G-d’s signs for Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s magicians tried to mimic the snake trick, but were dumbfounded when Moshe’s snake ate their sticks.

This angered Pharaoh, and as punishment, he took away the straw the Hebrews used to make bricks while at the same time increasing their brick making quota.

When Moses and Aaron returned to the palace with their now familiar refrain, “Let my people go,” they were again denied. To show G-d’s power, Moses stretched his staff across the River Nile and the water slowly turned to blood. In fact, every bit of water, no matter if it was in the river or in a vessel, turned to blood. Only in Goshen, where the Jews lived, was the water clear.

This was the first of 10 plagues G-d brought on Egypt. After each plague, Pharaoh’s advisors begged him to send the Hebrews away, but each time the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he refused.

After blood came frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts,
darkness, and ended with the slaying of the firstborn.

Before this final plague was unleashed on Egypt, G-d told Moses to instruct the Jews to choose an unblemished lamb, sheep or goat on the tenth of the month, (which was Nisan) keep it until the 14th, and then slaughter it at sundown.

They were then to smear its blood on their doorposts and thresholds, and roast the entire animal. They were to eat the meal in a hurry, with staff in hand and sandals on their feet. The bread they ate was unleavened because they had no time to allow the dough to rise.

While the Jews were eating their last meal in Egypt, G-d passed through the land and killed every first born male – human and animal. Only the Jewish homes, with the blood of the paschal sacrifice on their doors, were passed over – hence, the name Passover.

The last plague finally broke Pharaoh’s will. In the middle of the night, with his own son lying dead before him, he called for Moses and Aaron. He told them to pack up their families, their belongings, their cattle and their sheep, and get out of Egypt.

In the middle of the night, after 210 years of slavery, 600,000 men between the ages of 18 and 60, left Egypt. In all, almost three million people marched for three days. However, by the time Hebrews reached the Red Sea, Pharaoh’s heart had hardened and the entire Egyptian army was in full pursuit.

There was nowhere for the Hebrew slaves to go. They could either surrender and go back to Egypt, or forge ahead into the sea. The former slaves were frightened and screamed to turn back, not wanting to die in the wilderness.

But Moses and Aaron stood strong. Using a strong east wind against the sea, G-d caused the waters to part so the Jews could march through. The Egyptians with their heavy metal armor and heavy chariots and horses pursued. When the last Jew had crossed the sea, G-d caused the waters to fall back, drowning the Egyptian army. Only Pharaoh was spared. He stood transfixed on the shore. He had no choice but to watch in horror as his entire army vanished beneath the waves.

There was great rejoicing from the other side. Miriam, Moshe’s older sister, gathered the women and began singing and dancing in praise of G-d. Their song, Az Yashir Moshe u’b’nei Yisroel, So sang Moses and the children of Israel, is now a part of our daily morning prayers, including Shabbat. This song is one of ten songs that appear in the Torah. Our sages teach us that these songs reveal the hidden mysteries of how our universe works and G-d’s define plan for our existence.

Historical Proof: To date, there are no official Egyptian archeological findings that specifically corroborate the Torah narrative of the Exodus. There are minor hints to major upheavals which could refer to the Plagues. However, ancient Egypt had a history of erasing major defeats and devastation from their records which makes a significant find unlikely.

The Ipuwer Papyrus is another matter. It was discovered in Egypt in the 1800's and recounts in stunning detail a series of catastrophes which struck Egypt. Named for its author, an Egyptian named Ipuwer, the Papyrus was translated at the Leiden Museum in Holland by A.H. Gardiner.

The following is a side by side comparison of just a few of the events as depicted by Ipuwer and as they are related in the Book of Exodus:

The river is blood. (Papyrus 2:10) ...all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. (Exodus 7:20)
Help us; gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire. (Papyrus 2:10) ... the fire ran upon the ground.
...there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous. (Exodus 9:23-24
He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere. (Papyrus 2:13) ...there was not a house where there was not one dead. (Exodus 12:30)
Behold, the fire has mounted up on high. Its burning goes before the enemies of the land. (Papyrus 7:1) ...By day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night. (Exodus 13:31)
Gold and lapis lazuli, silver and malachite, carnelian and bronze... are fastened on the neck of female slaves. (Papyrus 3:2) ...and they requested from the Egyptians, silver and gold articles and clothing. And God made the Egyptians favour them and they granted their request. [The Israelites] thus drained Egypt of its wealth. (Exodus 12:35-36)
The land is without light. (Papyrus 9:11) And there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt. (Exodus 10:22)

The complete papyrus can be found in the book Admonitions of an Egyptian from a heiratic papyrus in Leiden.

In his book Ages in Chaos, (Abacus Publishing, 1978, pages 57-62), Professor Immanuel Velikovsy discusses the Ipuwer Papyrus and another finding at el-Arish:

"Ipuwer is a record of some natural catastrophe followed by a social upheaval; in the description of the catastrophe we recognized many details of the disturbances that accompanied the Exodus as narrated in the Scriptures. The inscription (of yet another archeological find) the shrine from el-Arish contains another version of the cataclysm accompanied by a hurricane and nine days' darkness; and there we found also a description of the march of the pharaoh and his army toward the eastern frontier of his kingdom, where he was engulfed in a whirlpool... The inscription on the shrine at el-Arish says that the name of the pharaoh who perished in the whirlpool was Thom. It is of interest the Pi-Thom means "the abode of Thom.' Pithom was one of the two cities built by the Israelite slaves for the Pharaoh of Oppression."

Other Historians look back to the Pharaoh, Amenophis IV, also knows as Iknaton (1383-1365 B.C.E.) for a starting point.

Prior to the Hebrew’s enslavement, Amenophis IV abolished multiple idol worship in favor of worshipping only the sun. Some scholars theorize that this abandonment of polytheism may have been influenced by the presence of the Israelites who worshipped one G-d. When his religious revolution was overturned and Egyptians returned to polytheism, the Israelites, who worshipped the G-d of Abraham, became persecuted.

Many bible scholars accept Ramses II (1300-1234 or 1347-1280 B.C.E.) as the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites. He was known for his massive ego and building programs. He was also known for his use of slave labor. However, scholars believe it was his son, Menerptah, who ruled the declining Egypt at the end of the thirteenth century B.C.E., the one most likely to have seen the plagues and witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea.

The search for artifacts and documents still continues and there are still archeologists and historians who debate its accuracy. As Jews, we believe the entire Torah version. If it’s wrong, it would be the first time in history that an entire people conceived this kind of national myth.

Passover throughout the Ages

The Israelites celebrated the first anniversary of their exodus from Egypt and slavery while still wandering in the Sinai Desert. For generations to come the miraculous events our ancestors witnessed during the Exodus were still fresh in our national psyche.

Over time, however, Jews pursued an on again, off again, relationship with G-d. As long as our leaders guided our people in the ways of Torah, the Jews remained true to their heritage. But ignorance, lack of true leadership and pagan influences took their toll.

Torah observance flourished under Samuel, the eleventh century B.C.E. prophet, and was again embraced during the reigns of King David and King Solomon. But the Jews soon forgot the Torah when King Solomon’s kingdom split (932 B.C.E.) in two. They approached Torah observance again during the reign of Judean King Hezekiah (726 B.C.E.) and then again, in time, forgot.

Then in 619 B.C.E. King Josiah found old Torah scrolls and realized how much of their tradition had been lost. Immediately he decreed that all pagan altars be removed and commanded a public reading of the book of Deuteronomy. This led to an unprecedented public repentance and a public celebration of Passover attended by three thousand people. “Since the time of the Prophet Samuel, no Passover like that one had ever been kept in Israel…” (II Chronicles 35:18)

First Babylonian Exile: Following the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E., the Jews were forced to leave Israel. Even in exile the Jews kept the Passover celebration alive minus the paschal offering, which they could no longer make. Without the temple, they developed new rituals in prayer service.

In 516 B.C.E. Jewish leaders named Ezra and Nechemiah led our people back to Israel and rebuilt the Temple. Religious observance again flourished. However, there were again periods of neglect such as the one leading to the Maccabean revolt (See Hanukah) which occurred in second century B.C.E. All the while, rituals continued to evolve.

Passover In Israel: During the era of the second Temple, Jews made tremendous efforts to come to Jerusalem for Passover.

The Talmud describes Passover as a happy time for the Jews of Jerusalem. They welcomed travelers from near and far with free room and board. Overflow crowds stayed in surrounding villages or camped in fields.

The days were filled with festive meals, music, and Torah study. Through a series of signals from the Temple, the people were informed when to stop eating leavened foods and when it was time to destroy leavened foods in their possession.

Beginning at noon on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nisan, the Jews would bring their paschal offerings, slaughtering it themselves to the accompaniment of the Levite orchestra. Each family roasted its own lamb in a portable clay stove set up in their courtyards.

Surrounded by family, each head of a household would begin the story of the Exodus, as the Torah commands, V’higadeta L’bincha u’vanecha,” and you shall tell the story of the Exodus to your children and to your children’s children (Exodus 12:26-27; 13:14; Deuteronomy 6:20).

In the centuries following Ezra’s religious revival, controversy over Torah observance split Jewish leadership. A splinter group called the Sadducees believed in the literal translation of the Torah. They did not accept the oral Torah, without which one cannot fully understand the meaning of the written Torah.

The Pharisees, disciples of Ezra, believed in the Oral Torah, which is called the Torah She Ba’al Peh. Jews believe the Oral Torah was handed down along with the written Torah, the Torah She B’chtav, at Mt. Sinai, and passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.

The oral tradition was later written down and codified by Rabbi Judah HaNasi so it would not be forgotten. This work, known as the Mishna Tora, allowed the rabbis to interpret the Torah according to the changing world. Over the years, additional commentaries were developed and the entire text evolved into what is known as the Talmud.

It was the Pharisees, who prior to the destruction of the second temple, expanded the religious service for Passover. They established the first seder, which is Hebrew for order of service. They were the ones who instituted wine drinking throughout the seder, reclining on sofas, eating leisurely, and discussing the story of Egypt at length.

These customs were adopted from Greek and Roman culture as symbols of wealth and freedom, two important statements the rabbis wanted to make during the holiday of Passover, which celebrated freedom from slavery.

Outside Jerusalem, where the sacrifice could not be made, Passover was observed in the home and in local synagogues. It consisted of kiddush, and eating herbs or a green vegetable dipped in vinegar or red wine and matzoh. Three questions were recited by the youngest child at home and a meal consisting of a roast and a new mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine called charoset, was served. A final cup of wine was poured before Grace, and Hallel (Psalms of Praise) was recited.

Second Babylonian Exile: When the second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., all that remained possible of the biblical commandments regarding Passover was the prohibition against leavening.

During this time, the contents of the Haggadah continued to grow. As a way to inspire the Jews in exile, the rabbis extolled the number of miracles G-d performed for the Israelites in Egypt. Formalized responses to the seder’s questions began to written down, along with the proclamation that every Jew in every generation was to feel as if he/she personally experienced the Exodus.

Rabbi Gamliel, the first century sage issued the now famous statement that “He who does not stress these three rituals on Passover does not fulfill his obligations: Pesach, matzoth and marror.”

Talmudic Era: During the early Talmudic period, (second century) the fast of the first born was added. This fast, which only applies to males, is attributed to Rabbi Judah Hanasi, the codifier of the Mishnah, himself a first born.

Later, as commentary, legend and analysis were collected, an entire tractate devoted to the laws and stories of Passover evolved. This tractate is called Pesakhim.

Middle Ages to Today: Discussions among the sages continued for centuries until gradually the seder’s format became more and more established. By the eleventh century, what we call the Hagaddah, which is really a compilation of biblical passages, material from the midrash, and liturgical poems, was published.

The Jews of the medieval ghettos relied on Passover and its message of hope and freedom. They gained special strength from the passage Next year in Jerusalem, L’shana haba B’Yerushalayim, one of the last prayers of the Hagaddah.

Blood Libels: It was during the Middle Ages that the infamous blood libels were invented. The first, which occurred in 1144 in Norwich, England, accused the Jews of murdering a Christian child to re-enact the crucifixtion of Jesus. The libels later accused Jews of needing blood to make matzos. It spread all across Europe, inciting countless pogroms against the Jews.

Christians in Arab lands in the nineteenth century and Nazis in the twentieth century, kept the ancient blood libels alive. They even spread as far as America in the 1920s and even more recently today in post-Soviet Russia.

The falseness of the blood libels inspired the creation of the legendary sixteenth century Golem of Prague, created by Rabbi Judah HaLevi, also called the Maharal of Prague. He was said to have brought the Golem, a man-made giant, to life through Kabalistic incantations to defend the Jewish community in a pogrom. You can read more about the Golem in a book by Elie Weisel titled, “The Golem: The Story Of A Legend,” Trans. by Anne Borchardt. New York: Summit Books, 1983. The fame of the Golem of Prague was widespread and is believed to be the inpiration for Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

The message of Passover has inspired oppressed Jews since the 1400s, when during the Spanish Inquisition, secret Jews called Maranos, held seders in hiding. Even the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto horded scraps of food for weeks in order to have some semblance of a seder.

Passover had endured and grown throughout our oppressed history. Its message of freedom from persecution and the promise of protection in the land of Israel makes it the most celebrated holiday among Diaspora Jews.