WHAT IS PASSOVER? | The Pesach Jewish Holiday
What is Passover?
What is Passover? Find the details for the Pesach Jewish holiday, including the Passover meal, matzah, unleavened bread, and learn about the Exodus and Moses.
What Is Passover? The week-long celebration of Passover (Pesach) begins as the sun sets on the evening of Friday, April 3, 2015.
Passover is a tradition which stretches back in time more than 3,2001 years and, second only to the seventh-day Sabbath, it is the oldest, continuously celebrated religious festival known to man.
It is a holiday of a memory and of a promise.
If you want the short explanation of Passover, it can be summed up in three sentences:
They tried to kill us.
For the details of this ancient holiday, read on.
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The Children of Israel
Passover is the single-most important event in the history of the Jewish people and it is central to the religion of Judaism. The events commemorated in the Passover holiday are mentioned in every Jewish daily prayer, on every Sabbath day and in prayers after every daily meal in observant Jewish households.
To understand what Passover is, you must travel back in time to the days of a man named Jacob, for the holiday began as a required observance for his descendants.
Jacob was the grandson of the patriarch Abraham. According to the family's genealogy as recorded in the Bible, Jacob fathered 12 sons and a daughter named Dinah.
Jacob's name was changed to Israel by a messenger of God who said:
"Your name shall no longer be Jacob,
but Israel, for you have striven with gods (elohim) and people
and have prevailed."
– Genesis (Bereshit) 32:29 (It might be verse 28 in your English translation from the Hebrew.)
Thus, the descendants of Jacob became known as 'the children of Israel', 'the sons of Israel', 'the descendants of Israel', 'the people of Israel', 'the Tribes of Israel' and 'the nation of Israel', as they are known to this day. Jacob's family was also called 'the Hebrews', because one of Jacob's paternal and maternal ancestors was named Eber. All of Eber's descendants spoke the Hebrew language, which is named for him. In ancient records, some of Eber's offspring were also referred to as the 'Habiru' or 'Apiru'.
"Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him."
– Genesis (Bereshit) 37:3, 4
Since the days of Abraham in about 1900 BCE, the family established its homestead in the land of present-day Israel, in accordance with the decision and the command of God.
As in most families, Jacob's family was not without a skeleton or two in the closet. Because Jacob fathered twelve sons from four mothers, his family was never a closely knit unit. Jacob favored his wife Rachel – the only woman he wanted to marry – and her first-born son, Joseph. Because of this favoritism, Joseph's older brothers were enraged with jealousy and sought to kill the teenager.
When the opportunity arose, they decided to sell him into slavery to a passing Midianite caravan. They informed their father that they found Joseph's famous 'coat of many colors', stained with his blood, and convinced their father that Joseph had been killed by animals.
The Midianites sold Joseph as a slave in Egypt to one of the Pharaoh's military officers. Thus began the history of the Israelites in Egypt.
Genealogy of Jacob and the Twelve Tribes of Israel
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Joseph in Egypt
In Egypt, Joseph found favor with the Pharaoh because of his wisdom and his ability to prophecy Egypt's future. Joseph predicted a period of seven bountiful years for Egypt's harvest which would be followed by seven years of famine. The Pharaoh appointed Joseph as Vizier, second only to Pharaoh in command of Egypt.
The Pharaoh who blessed Joseph is believed to be Apepi (or Apophis), one of the Hyksos rulers of northern Egypt and a Semitic descendant of Shem. Because the Hyksos people were not descendants of Mizraim (father of the Egyptian people), Joseph and Pharaoh Apepi were distant relatives and shared a common cultural heritage.
The Hyksos pharaohs (Fifteenth Dynasty) ruled Egypt from from 1674 to 1535 BCE and Apepi's rule lasted more than 40 years.
When the famine Joseph predicted covered Egypt, it stretched throughout the Middle East. After two years, the family of Jacob living in Beersheba was without food and Joseph's brothers journeyed to Egypt to purchase grain from the country's storehouses. Their two-hundred-mile (322 km) trek ended in Goshen.
"And Pharaoh spoke unto Joseph, saying '…The land of Egypt is before you; in the best of the land make your father and your brothers to dwell; in the land of Goshen let them dwell. And if you know any able men among them, then make them rulers over my cattle.'"
– Genesis (Bereshit) 47: 5, 6
Joseph, of course, was the official in charge of Egypt's food reserves. After a tearful reunion with his father and his brothers, Joseph was given a large portion of the most fertile land in Egypt to house his family and their livestock. So Jacob and his children and his grandchildren moved to Egypt, 70 souls in all.
Before they left their homeland, God promised Jacob:
"Fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation. I will go down with you into Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again."
– Genesis (Bereshit) 46:3, 4
And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they acquired possessions therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly.
– Genesis (Bereshit) 47:27
Hebrew Slaves in Egypt
Settled in the southeast portion of the Nile Delta in Goshen, the children of Israel lived in Egypt for 350 years and, as God had promised, became a great multitude of people.
"Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people: 'Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there is any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and depart from the land.'
"Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses [Rameses]. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And they were in dread because of the children of Israel.
"And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve rigorously. And they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field; in all their service, wherein they made them serve rigorously."
– Exodus (Shemot) 1:8-14
Then, under the Nineteenth Dynasty (circa 1292 to 1186 BCE), the relationship between Egypt's rulers and the children of Israel took a turn for the worse. The new dynasty considered the Hebrews to be a threat, due to their sheer numbers and to the size of their landholdings in the breadbasket of Egypt.
An 80-year period of sanctions and forced employment began which proceeded to servitude. The Pharaoh confiscated some of land of Goshen and required the Israelites to build cities for his use there, the cities of Raamses (Rameses) and Pithom.
Fearing a military uprising by the Hebrews or their possible alliance with Pharaoh's enemies such as the Hittites, the Pharaoh commanded that all male babies born to the Hebrews must be put to death. The midwives assisting births refused to comply with Pharaoh's order. In fact, the survival rate of the Hebrew's children far exceeded that of the Egyptians who, according to Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ph.D., professor of archaeology at the University of Liverpool, lost over a third of its population in childhood.
"And the children of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God because of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them."
– Exodus (Shemot) 2:23-25
The period of harsh servitude lasted for 80 years. And this is when the Passover story begins to unfold.
The Tribes of Israel cried out to God to intervene and to remember His ancient covenant with them and His promise to Jacob to bring his descendants back to their own land in Israel.
God chose a man from the tribe of Levi to confront Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The man's name was Moses, the great-great-grandson of Jacob, and the Pharaoh was most certainly Ramesses II.2
Moses and Pharaoh Ramesses II
Moses was an eighty-year-old man with a speech impediment, hardly a match for Ramesses II.
Ramesses II was born with a golden spoon in his mouth in the Golden Era of Egypt. His father, Pharaoh Menmaatre Seti I, appointed him commander in chief of the Egyptian army when he was only ten years old. At the age of 13, he was appointed Crown Prince Regent of Egypt.
When he inherited the throne, Ramesses II began a massive building campaign that included more statues of himself and monumental structures for his own edification than any other ruler of Egypt, before or after him. In the 30th year of his reign, he had himself declared a god in an elaborate ceremony which was reenacted every three years.
Never before had Egypt seen such an egomaniacal ruler; and it never would again.
Of particular affront to the Israelites, he moved his capital to their land in Goshen, to the city he named for himself, Raamses (Rameses or Pi-Ramesses). There he built a temple to himself in their midst.
"And you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, unto the king of Egypt, and you shall say unto him: 'My Name, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. And now let us go, we pray thee, three-day journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to The Name of our God.' And I know that the king of Egypt will not give you leave to go, except by a mighty hand. And I will put forth My hand, and smite Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in the midst thereof. And after that he will let you go."
– Exodus (Shemot) 3:18-20
At God's instruction, Moses took the elders of the Tribes of Israel and went to Pharaoh. They petitioned him to allow the Hebrews to sacrifice to God at a distance of a three-day journey, taking their children and all of their livestock.
Pharaoh's response was to increase the labors of the Hebrews. They were no longer to be given the straw to make bricks, but must harvest their own. Their daily quota of production would not be reduced.
When the new workload was impossible to achieve, their foremen were cruelly beaten.
The Ten Plagues
And so began the famous test of wills between the God of Israel and the Pharaoh of Egypt, which led to the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt on the day of Passover.
Let My People Go
At God's direction, Moses brought His message to Pharaoh with the phrase, 'Let my people go.' This became the slogan of the Passover holiday ever since that day.
"Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, 'Let My people go, that they may serve Me.'"
– Exodus (Shemot) 9:1
Ten plagues were sent to the Egyptian kingdom to force Pharaoh to release the Tribes of Israel. The first nine plagues resulted in the loss of their livestock and crops3, but left the Israelites unscathed.
The tenth and final plague is the plague of the Passover night.
List of Ten Plagues
Nile Turns to Blood
"Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them."
Exodus (Shemot) 7:14-25
"'Entreat the Name of God, that He take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go'...But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart."
Exodus (Shemot) 7:26-29; 8:1-11 (8:1-15 in some translations)
"But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them"
Exodus (Shemot) 8:12-15 (8:16-19 in some translations)
“'I will let you go, that you may sacrifice to the Name of your God in the wilderness.'…And Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and he did not let the people go."
Exodus (Shemot) 8:16-28 (8:22-32 in some translations)
"But the heart of Pharaoh was stubborn, and he did not let the people go."
Exodus (Shemot) 9:1-7
"And God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them."
Exodus (Shemot) 9:8-12
"'I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer.'…And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders were ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart… and he did not let the children of Israel go."
Exodus (Shemot) 9:13-35
"'I have sinned against the Name of your God, and against you. Now therefore forgive, I pray you, my sin only this once, and entreat the Name of your God, that He may take away from me this death only.'…and he did not let the children of Israel go."
Exodus (Shemot) 10:1-20
"...and he would not let them go...'See my face no more; for in the day you see my face you shall die.'"
Exodus (Shemot) 10:21-29
Deaths of Firstborn
“Rise up, go from among my people, both you and the sons of Israel; and go, worship the Name of God, as you have said. Take both your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and go, and bless me also.”
Exodus (Shemot) 11-12:41
"For God will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two side posts, God will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite you.
"And you shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever. And it shall come to pass, when you come to the land which God will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite.
"And it shall come to pass when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of God's Passover, because of that He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but delivered our houses.’”
– Exodus (Shemot) 12:23-27
The Passover Meal
Before the tenth plague befell the Egyptians, God forewarned the Israelites to protect their households from the last plague which would slay the firstborn in every family. God commanded each Hebrew household to select a male yearling from their sheep or their goats and to prepare a meal.
The animal was to be slaughtered at sundown at the end of the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan and roasted whole over fire. Each family was to eat the meal within its own house and the meat was to be served with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. When the dinner was prepared, each family was commanded to take some of the blood from the animal and put it on the lintel above the entrance door and on each doorpost.
Then the door was to be closed and no one was allowed to leave or enter the house until sunrise.
God said that he would bring the tenth plague at about midnight on the 14th of Nissan, and would slay the firstborn of every household in Egypt; but, if He saw the blood of a lamb or a goat on the lintel and doorposts, he would 'pass over' that household and it would be spared the plague. The word Passover, was first used here:
"It is the Passover of God."
– Exodus (Shemot) 12:11
The evening is also called "a night of watching to God."
On that first Passover night, when death came to the Egyptian households, a great cry rose up in Egypt. Pharaoh called for Moses and, finally, let the people go.
On the morning of the 15th of Nissan, the Tribes of Israel began the Exodus from Egypt. It was exactly 430 years to the day that they had first come to Egypt, according to Exodus (Shemot) 12:41. The family that came to Egypt had only 70 people; the family that left numbered in the millions.
Unleavened Bread from Israel
Matzah is the unleavened bread eaten for the seven days of Passover.
God commanded the Tribes of Israel to reenact the Passover meal as a memorial every year and to observe the holiday with a seven-day festival, and a feast on the first and the seventh days. And it has been observed every year since. The Passover meal observed today is called the Passover Seder.
The Passover meal is eaten with unleavened bread (matzah in the Hebrew Bible) and with bitter herbs, as on the first Passover night. For seven days, nothing leavened is eaten and no leavening may be kept. Whoever eats anything leavened during these days is cut off from the congregation of Israel.
In fact, the Bible often refers to the holiday as 'the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the Feast of Matzah).' See Exodus (Shemot) 12:17; 23:15; 34:18; Leviticus (Vayikra) 23:6; Numbers (Bamidbar) 28:17; Deuteronomy (Devarim) 16:16; 2 Chronicles (Divrei Hayamim 2) 8:13; 30:13, 21; 35:17; Ezra 6:22; Ezekiel (Yechezkel) 45:21.
Next to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Passover is the most widely observed Jewish holiday.
Gorgeous illustrations by Adam Rhine. Click to look inside the calendar and read the rave reviews.
Passover was so significant that God commanded that the calendar be changed so that the month of Nissan (Abib) became the Jewish New Year month and the previous New Year (now called Rosh Hashanah) became the beginning of the seventh month on the Jewish calendar.
"This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you."
– Exodus (Shemot) 12:2
Because a Jewish month begins with a new moon, it seldom starts on the same day as a month begins on the Gregorian calendar. But this year, the months of Nissan and April begin on the same day.
This hand-painted Passover Seder Plate recalls the Exodus from Egypt.
The Exodus from Egypt
As families gather around the holiday table on Passover, the Exodus from Egypt is recounted: the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the 40-years in the wilderness, the death of Moses and Joshua leading the Tribes of Israel across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.
Passover is one of three pilgrimage festivals for which God commanded all males over the age of twenty to observe by traveling to the city of Jerusalem.
For those living outside of Israel in the Diaspora, every Passover night ends with these words:
"Shana Haba B'Yerushalayim"
(Next year in Jerusalem)
Although there have always been Jews living in Israel since the days of Joshua, only 6.1 million live in Israel today. In 1897, a movement began to encourage Jews to return to their homeland in a modern exodus from countries all over the world. This new exodus spawned the return of Jews from more than 150 countries, the birth of the modern nation of Israel in 1948, and the immigration of more than three million Jews to Israel since statehood.
When the commandments were given on Mt. Sinai, God commanded the Israelites to say these words when they entered the Promised Land of Israel:
"And God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror, and with signs, and with wonders. And He has brought us into this place, and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey."
– Deuteronomy (Devarim) 26:8, 9
These are the same words every immigrant to Israel repeats today.
In the video below, Broadway performer and Chief Cantor of New York Synagogue, Israeli David "DuDu" Fisher, sings the title song of the epic movie Exodus, accompanied by clips of the modern Exodus. The video was shot on location in Israel.
Chag Pesach Sameach!
(Happy Passover Festival!)
1 The date of the Exodus, according to the Bible, was 1446 BCE. This is noted when Solomon began to build the first Temple in Jerusalem:
"In the 480th year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel…"
– I Kings (Melakhim I) 6:1
Solomon's fourth year of reign was in 967 BCE and adding the 479 years which had passed gives the date of 1446 BCE.
However, the dates of the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II are usually given as 1279 – 1213 BCE. The overwhelming majority of researchers conclude that he was indeed the Pharaoh who confronted Moses. The dates for his reign are surmised from Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Hebrew language has never lacked people who could read and write it. Egyptian hieroglyphs, on the other hand, fell out of use and are open to various interpretations.
2 Ramesses II is considered by most scholars to be the Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. Archaeological evidence from the cities of Rameses and Pithom support this.
3The Kingdom of Egypt was so devastated by the plagues that it was virtually bankrupt by the time of Ramesses' death, when succession passed to his 13th son, Merneptah. The twelve brothers and half-brothers closer in line to the throne had died. There is speculation that some of the deceased brothers might have been the first-born of their mothers and died in the 10th plague or that some could have led the chariot troops who perused the Children of Israel and perished in the Red Sea. Ramesses built many monuments to them, such as Temple Wadi es-Sebua.
Learn all about the Passover Seder, the Seder Plate, and see the guide for the 17 steps in the Haggadah, This is everything you need to be a guest at a Seder or to conduct your own.
Say 'Happy Passover' with a free Passover greeting. Choose from dozens of Passover greetings which say 'Happy Passover' in Hebrew and in English.
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