{4F805597-AC32-42F4-9EE2-BAD88CE3B8B2} Historical Background
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Historical background

General Introduction Basic Ideas Historical Background Laws and Customs Sources Activities Educational Aims

Pesach is the oldest festival in the history of Israel. The Hebrews were instructed to prepare an animal on the tenth of Nisan to be slaughtered on the fourteenth in the late afternoon. They ate the Pesach during the night in which God skipped over the houses of Israel and struck dead the firstborns of Egypt. At daybreak the people - about six hundred thousand man, not counting women and children - hurried out of Egypt.

Pesach in the Desert.

The command to the Israelites to observe the Pesach anniversary each year applied only to when they reached a settled land, not in the desert. When you reach the land of the Canaanites ... then you are to perform this service in this month ... eat matsot ... (Exodus 13:5-6).

On the first anniversary of the Exodus, while still at Sinai, they offered up the Pesach sacrifice on the fourteenth of the month, but could not eat matsot as they only had manna. There were people who were contaminated and could not bring the sacrifice, so an alternative date was fixed for them, the fourteenth of the second month (Iyyar) in the late afternoon. This is now known as Pesach Sheni (the Second Pesach).

After forty years, when they crossed the Jordan: the Israelites encamped at Gilgal and offered the Pesach on the fourteenth day of the month, in the evening, on the Aravot of Jericho. This time they were able to obtain produce from Canaan and bake matsahs: and they ate of the produce of the land from the day after the Pesach - matsot and toasted barleycorn - on that very day (Joshua 5:11).

Pesach in the period of the First Temple.

During the period of the Second Temple, the laws and customs of the Festival were intensified. The return to Zion from Babylonian exile added no little meaning to the Festival of Freedom. They continued to eat the Pesach with matsah and maror, in haste (as at the time of the Exodus) with 'loins girded' (the equivalent of having your hat and coat on today), shoes on (which people did not always wear in the house) and walking-sticks in their hands.

But the rabbis of Mishnaic times wanted the Festival to have an atmosphere of peace and calm as is fitting for a festival of freedom, with all the members of the family sitting round the table discussing the Exodus. Everyone who tells more about the Exodus deserves praise. Here they gave children an important place in participating in the festival, based on: When your son asks you "what is this?" (Exodus 13:14), and: you are to tell your son on that day ... (Exodus 13:8). The form of the meal was fixed. Men accompanied by their sons went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from al parts of the country. Flocks of sheep and goats, washed white, were available alongside the wall of the city, and every pilgrim brought a lamb or kid for himself and his family. By fantastic organisation the priests and Levites working in shifts managed to cope with the enormous number of slaughterings, reaching at times into tens of thousands of animals. The meat was roasted in special ovens throughout Jerusalem. They ate in groups, and according to the Talmud the songs of praise split roofs ! festival acquired an even greater significance. The aspiration to be liberated from the subjection to Rome and to return and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem strengthened the character of the Festival of Freedom and captivated the hearts of the People. They established the custom of drinking four cups of wine at intervals during the meal, while reclining, making a separate blessing over each cup.

The Mishnah relates that on the day before Pesach they established the custom not to eat from about three o'clock in the afternoon until the evening, so as to able to fulfil the mitsvah of eating the matsah with sufficient appetite. They poured out the first cup, and said kiddush over it with a blessing over the festival. Next they ate matsah and maror - for the latter they used hazeret which they dipped into haroset. (The word hazeret as used in the Mishnah and Talmud means lettuce, but in recent centuries the word has come to be used for horseradish, leading to some confusion.) Two different types of meat dishes were then eaten, one as a reminder of the Pesach sacrifice and the other as a reminder of the hagigah sacrifice. After they finished the meal, they would pour out the second cup, and the son, who had noticed all the differences in the meal from the procedure on ordinary days, would get up and ask his father about them, in the form of the mah nishtanah - Why does this night differ from all other nights ?

The father would then answer his son, according to the boy's ability to understand. He would begin with words of discredit ( 'Initially our ancestors worshipped idols ... ') and finish with praise, namely the liberation of Israel from slavery. Then they would say the Grace After Meals over the third cup of wine, and over the fourth cup they would finish the Hallel, which they had already started before the meal.

The book of Chronicles describes how, during the reign of King Hezekiah (about 700 b.c.e.), the whole population celebrated the Festival of Pesach. After consultation, the king decided to hold the celebration in the second month instead of the first, because many of the priests were contaminated, the population was not assembled, and there was not enough time to arrange all this. The king sent messengers with letters throughout Judah and even into Ephraim and Manasseh, asking people to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Pesach. A large population assembled in Jerusalem to celebrate the Pesach in the second month, a very large congregation. .…. And the Israelites assembled in Jerusalem celebrated the seven days of the Festival of Matsot with great joy, giving praise to God, day by day, the priests and Levites with musical instruments ... (2Chron. 30:13 and 21).

The rejoicing was very great because for once the barriers had been removed and some people from the North, from Ephraim, Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun and elsewhere, had joined with their brothers from Judah, after centuries of separation, and come to Jerusalem to celebrate together. There was so much emotion that the leaders of the people consulted and decided to extend the festival for a further seven days. The king and the top officials donated between them two thousand head of cattle and seventeen thousand sheep and goats to the congregation. The story continues: there was great rejoicing in Jerusalem, for nothing like this had occurred since the days of King Solomon (2 Chron. 30:26).

A special Pesach celebration was held at the time of Josiah. The story is told in the Book of Kings (2 Kings 23:21-23) and in greater detail in 2 Chronicles 35:1-19.

Pesach in the period of the Second Temple.

A special Pesach was held by those returning from Babylon at the time of Zerubbabel. The story is told in the Book of Ezra (6:19-22).


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