Our latest RS blog looks at the Jewish tradition of Passover.
What is Passover?
At this time of year, while Christians are busy gearing up for Easter, Jews around the world look forward to the approach of Passover, or Pesah (to give its Hebrew name), one of the most important dates in the religious calendar. Whether you have a Religious Studies exam coming up, or would simply like to know more about the festival, here are a few introductory notes about the festival to help you along.
What are the Biblical Origins of Passover?
Much like Easter (and certain other Jewish holidays), Passover commemorates events that are narrated in the Bible. What Christians call The Old Testament is a collection of ancient Israelite literature known collectively by Jews as The Tanakh. The first five books of The Tanakh are the most important, and these are known as The Torah, or sometimes the Pentateuch (literally five books in Ancient Greek). And it is in the second of these books, commonly called Exodus, in which the passover narrative is found.
Here is the story in brief. After the death of Joseph, who in his life forged strong ties between the Israelites and the Egyptians, the Israelites find themselves enslaved in the land of Egypt. After many years of witnessing this suffering, God decides to intervene on behalf of his people, and elects Moses and his brother Aaron as prophets who will lead the Israelites out of Egypt into freedom.
Although Moses is at first reluctant, he takes up this daunting task. He goes to Pharaoh, ruler of Egypt, and demands that the enslaved Israelites are released. When Pharaoh refuses, God brings down a series of plagues on the land of Egypt. The first of these is that the river Nile turns into blood, and the second is that the land is overrun by frogs. After each plague, Moses repeats his demand to Pharaoh, and every time Pharaoh refuses another plague follows, each one more terrible than the last.
There are ten plagues in total: a significant number, as it prefigures the Ten Commandments that will later be given to the Israelites, and form the backbone of Mosaic Law. In The Torah, commandments and punishment for breaking them are always closely linked. The horrifyingly climactic tenth plague sees the death of the first born son in every Egyptian household. On the eve of this slaughter, God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to mark their homes with lamb’s blood over the door. This is the sign to the angel of death to pass over their houses, and leave the Israelites unharmed.
And this is where we get the name of the festival Passover. After this devastation, Pharaoh at last agrees to Moses’s demands and sets the Israelites free. When they have just fled, however, Pharaoh changes his mind and charges after the escaping slaves. The Egyptian army catches up with the Isaelites just as they have reached the Red Sea. Here God performs one final miracle. The sea parts, allowing the Israelites to walk safely across. But when the Egyptian horde follows them, the sea closes over their heads, crushing them down under the waves.
So Passover is a festival of giving thanks to God that the Jewish people are no longer slaves in Egypt.
Why is the Passover story so important to Judaism?
The escape from Egypt is one of the central stories of Jewish tradition. There are many reasons why this might be, but here I have decided to give just two. Firstly, one of the key moral lessons of the story is not to mistreat other nationalities.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22.20).
Throughout history, from the destruction of the Second Temple onwards, Jews are people who have found themselves guests in other countries. Until the foundation of Modern Israel in 1948, all Jews were living in non-Jewish nations. (That’s nearly 2,000 years of homeless wandering!) So getting on with your neighbours has been for Jews a practical necessity as well as a moral obligation. In rereading the Exodus myth each year, Jews are perpetually reminding themselves of this.
The other prominent reason that Passover is so central to Jews is that for the believers it is a demonstration that God never forgets his chosen people and that he will always deliver them from hardship eventually. Faith in a benevolent, protective God has certainly been tested over the centuries. Just consider the number of times Jews have been expelled from European countries (from England in 1290, from France in 1315, from Spain in 1492), let alone the centuries of pogroms and ghettoisation, and finally the horrors visited on Jews in the 20th Century by Hitler and by Stalin. In all these dark hours, Jews have looked for solace and wisdom in The Torah, and hoped that once more God might free them from their enemies.
How is Passover Celebrated today?
Traditionally, Passover is a seven day celebration.The most important part of the festivities is a special dinner that takes place on the first night, and is known as a Seder. Typically, Jews observe the Seder with their families, and use their very best china and silverware for the occasion.
The night follows a pre-set ritual, which is set out in a text called the Haggadah. Various questions are asked and answered by different members of the family according to a script, including “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and “Why is it that on all other nights we dine either sitting upright or reclining, but on this night we all recline?” During the meal, the story of the Exodus is told over, and various symbolic allusions are made, which give the answers to the questions posed. This night is different because we are celebrating the escape from Egypt, and we are reclining because it is a way of enjoying our freedom.
Even the food that is consumed relates to the Biblical tale: one begins the meal by eating bitter herbs, to recall the bitterness of bondage. During the Seder, and for the whole week of passover, it is forbidden to eat bread that has risen. Instead, observant Jews eat Matzah, which is unleavened bread (a bit like a large cracker.) Like many aspects of Jewish belief, there are many explanations for this, but the most popular is that when the Israelites left Egypt, they were in such a hurry that they did not have time to wait for the bread to rise. So in eating Matzah, you are again paying homage to the Exodus story. The abstention from leavened bread makes an interesting parallel with the Christian tradition of giving up a luxury during the weeks of Lent.
So there you have it. Happy Passover, everyone!
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.