Observing Passover throughout history: A History of Judaism

This week, Jews all over the world are celebrating Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. What is the history of this ancient festival, and how has it been observed over the centuries? Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism, a sweeping history of the religion over more than three millennia, includes fascinating glimpses of how Passover has evolved through the various strains, sects, and traditions of Judaism.

While the Second Temple stood, Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew) was one of three annual pilgrimage festivals. Every adult Jewish male was obligated to journey to the Temple for the festival. On the first night of Pesach, men, women, and children enjoyed a huge barbecue of roasted lamb along with a narration of the exodus story. For the following seven days, they abstained from leavened foods. Jews who couldn’t make it to the Temple ate roasted lamb and retold the exodus story at home. In the late fifth century BCE, the Jews of Elephantine, on the island of Yeb in the Nile river, received the following instructions in a letter from Jerusalem:

  • On the 14th day of the month of Nisan, observe the Passover at twilight.
  • Observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread from the 15th of Nisan to the 21st of Nisan, eating only unleavened bread for these seven days.
  • Do not work on the 15th or 21st of Nisan.
  • Do not drink any fermented beverages during this period.
  • Remove and seal up any leavened products, which must not be seen in the house from sunset on the 14th of Nisan until sunset on the 21st of Nisan.

-paraphrased from B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony (Berkeley, 1968), 128-33

Over two thousand years after the Elephantine Jews received their instructions from Jerusalem, rabbis and students were still discussing the exact meaning of the festival’s proscriptions. In this passage, Aryeh Leib b. Asher Gunzberg, a Lithuanian rabbi who died in 1785, weighs in on a disagreement between the Talmud commentaries of Rashi and those of the tosafists, medieval commentators writing after Rashi:

“The Talmud says that the search for and removal of leavened matter on the eve of the Passover is merely a rabbinical prescription; for it is sufficient, according to the commands of the Torah, if merely in words or in thought the owner declares it to be destroyed and equal to the dust. Rashi says that the fact that such a declaration of the owner is sufficient is derived from an expression in Scripture. The tosafot, however, claim that this cannot be derived from the particular expression in Scripture, since the word there means ‘to remove’ and not ‘to declare destroyed’. The mere declaration that it is destroyed is sufficient for the reason that thereby the owner gives up his rights of ownership, and the leavened matter is regarded as having no owner, and as food for which no one is responsible, since at Passover only one’s own leavened food may not be kept, while that of strangers may be kept. Although the formula which is sufficient to declare the leavened matter as destroyed is not sufficient to declare one’s property as having no owner, yet, as R. Nissim Gerondi, adopting the view of the tosafot, explains, the right of ownership which one has in leavened matter on the eve of Passover, even in the forenoon, is a very slight one; for, beginning with noon, such food may not be enjoyed; hence all rights of ownership become illusory, and, in view of such slight right of ownership, a mere mental renunciation of this right suffices in order that the leavened matter be considered as without an owner. R. Aryeh Leib attempts to prove the correctness of this tosafistic opinion as elaborated by R. Nissim, and to prove at the same time the incorrectness of Rashi’s view, from a later talmudic passage which says that from the hour of noon of the eve [of Passover] to the conclusion of the feast the mere declaration of destruction does not free a person from the responsibility of having leavened matter in the house; for since he is absolutely forbidden to enjoy it, he has no claim to the ownership, which he renounces by such a declaration.”

-Excerpted and adapted from the article on pilpul by Alexander Kisch in I. Singer, ed., The Jewish Encyclopaedia, 12 vols. (New York, 1901-6), 10:42

More pragmatic concerns were also on the agenda for nineteenth-century thinkers. In a discussion unimaginable to their Second Temple forebears, Solomon Kluger of Brody and Joseph Saul Nathansohn of Lemberg clashed in 1859 over whether matzo-making machines were allowable. Even today, handmade is often preferred to machine-made matzo.

The millennia of discussion over Passover and its observance are reflected – and predicted – by this timeless story from the Mishnah:

“‘It is related of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon that they once met for the Seder in Bnei Brak and spoke about the Exodus from Egypt all night long, until their disciples came and said to them: ‘Masters! The time has come to say the morning Shema!’”

-Ch. Raphael, A Feast of History (London, 1972), 28 [229]

Forget speaking about the exodus all night long – we could speak about speaking about the exodus all night long! To learn more about the diversity of practices and opinions in Judaism through the ages, check out Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Illustrating the Passover story: Skies of Parchment, Seas of InkThis Passover, read PUP’s 2017 National Jewish Book Award winners! >>