The Passover & the Festival of Unleavened Bread
(ha-Pesach v’ha-Chag ha-Matsot)


Strictly speaking, the ‘Passover’ is purely the sacrifice itself, the offering of a lamb that opens the Festival of Unleavened Bread; it is not the name of the entire festival. However, in common parlance, it mistakenly became the name for the first night of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and then the whole festival itself.

To demonstrate that it was originally only the name of the sacrifice, in Ex 12:11 it says, ‘Eat it in haste; it is a pesach dedicated to YHVH’. And in Ex 12:21, it says, ‘Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the pesach’. It is clear from these verses that the pesach is only the lamb itself, and not the festival. The pesach opens the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

What the Pesach was for

Just as we have fellowship-offerings, sin-offerings, burnt-offerings etc, so the pesach was a ‘spare-offering’. The word implies sparing or immunity from calamity (see Gesenius’s Lexicon, p 683). It is NOT a sin offering; it was intended as an offering against disease, plague and death, like the half shekel offering (Ex 30:12). 

In pre-Exodus times, the ancient Hebrews were pastoral nomads. It is conjectured that Moses adapted existing Hebrew festivals and gave them new meaning. Some scholars think that they may have had a spring festival whereby the first lambs were slaughtered as a spare-offering to ward off disease and death among the new-born lambs. 

In Ex 12:13 it says, ‘The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will spare you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.’

In the context of the Exodus, the slaughter of a lamb to ward off disease was translated and converted into a spare-offering to ward off the plague wrought by the visitation of the angel of death. 

Instructions for the Pesach offering in biblical times  

The community was to take a year-old sheep or goat on the tenth day of the First Month. A lamb a year old is virtually a full grown sheep, it is not a small, helpless new-born. There is therefore more than enough for a family; several families can in fact benefit from just a single year-old ‘lamb’. Ex 12:4  says, ‘If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbour, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat.’ This would markedly reduce the number of lambs taken for slaughter.

The instructions were for the pesach to be slaughtered on the fourteenth day of the First Month, ‘beyn ha-arbáyim’ – literally, ‘between the two evenings’; that is, at twilight. A Hebrew day only has only one evening. However, the evening before full darkness is divided into two: the period when the sun’s disc starts going below the horizon, but when it is still relatively light – this is early dusk; and the period after the sun’s disc has disappeared completely below the horizon, which is late dusk or deep twilight. These are the ‘two evenings’ being referred to.

Many hundreds of priests were called in for the 14th of Nisan to slaughter the thousands of lambs. The priests were very fit, and Talmud relates that they were able to do this very quickly – to slit the artery in the throat, drain the blood and skin the animal – the skinning was done amazingly fast, in one quick movement.

How the ancient Israelites cooked and ate the Pesac

The pesach – the spare-offering – was to be ‘roasted over the fire’ (Ex 12:8); it was not to be eaten ‘raw or cooked in water, but roasted over the fire— head, legs and inner parts.’ (Ex 12:9).

The meat was to be eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex 12:8). Now, rabbinic tradition has horseradish, but these were not the bitter herbs referred to in the Bible – they did not have horseradish in ancient Israel! In those days, bitter herbs were things like hyssop, wild lettuce, endives, celery or sorrel. Today, bitter salad leaves are a good substitute. 

The unleavened bread also was not like the hard crackers we have today; the bread was large, round, flat and soft, like Arabic bread. Matsot (unleavened bread) cooked on a griddle is soft; matsot cooked in an oven is hard and brittle.

We roll up the lamb and bitter leaves in the soft matsot. One eats the bread, roast lamb and bitter herbs in haste, ‘with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand’ (Ex 12:10) – that is, ready as if prepared to go on a journey.

The Talmidi tradition of Pesach

The general Talmidi structure of the pesach meal is very close to that of biblical times, with the exception that we don’t slaughter the pesach lambs; those of us who are not vegetarian have a ‘symbolic’ pesach lamb instead . We read the commandments surrounding the pesachoffering, we dress in clothing as if ready to set off on a journey, and we stand at the door, eating our lamb and bitter herbs wrapped in unleavened bread (then we go and sit down at table for the rest of the seder). We only include those traditions that existed during the Late 2nd Temple Period. Therefore we do not have any charoseth, dipping of parsley in salt water, or roast eggs, nor do we relate any of the rabbinical stories attached to the Seder. All these things came after the Temple was destroyed.  

For those Talmidis who are vegetarians, conscience dictates that no meat be eaten at all. For vegetarians, I would suggest not making any substitute at all for the lamb; simply eat the matsot with bitter leaves. It must also be emphasised at this point that Talmidaism realises that the festival is not about the slaughter of lambs – it is much more, and I shall be taking this point up later. 

Ex 12:43 says, ‘No foreigner may eat of it’; and Ex 12:48 says, ‘No uncircumcised male may eat of it’. The instruction was that no one uncircumcised could eat ‘the Passover’. Some people, Godfearers who are not circumcised, feel unable to observe ‘Passover’, or attend any part of a seder meal at all. However, because the ‘Passover’ – pesach – only actually refers to the lamb itself, Godfearers are free be present, read the haggadah, and to eat the rest of the meal. In fact, we also encourage non-Jews to witness and participate in our seders, especially in the telling of the story of the Exodus.

Karaites do not eat the pesach at all, nor do they read or re-enact anything to do with the pesach; they concentrate instead solely on the haggadah – the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. They say that this is because we no longer have a Temple in which to sacrifice the lambs. This is because in Deut 16:2 it says that the lambs have to be sacrificed at the place where YHVH puts His Name ie the Temple. However, the commandment was that eating the pesach  was an ‘eternal ordinance’ (chuqqat `olam, Ex 12:14). We faced the question, which is more important: to slaughter the lamb at the place where YHVH puts His Name, or to eat the pesach (more importantly, eat the matsot and bitter herbs) as an eternal ordinance?

At the first pesach, there was no Temple, and this gives us a suggestion of what to during those generations when there is no Temple. Our decision was that it was more important to have an eternal witness to God’s mighty deeds, and so we have a symbolic pesach with matsot and bitter herbs. It is not ritually slaughtered, but those of us who are not vegetarians still eat the lamb as a symbolic pesach.

There is a good, practical reason for including the commandments, prayers and ritual surrounding the pesach offering, even if we don’t even have one. Because the Talmidi structure of the seder is almost eactly the same as it was in biblical times – ie the way that Yeshua` and his earliest followers would have celebrated it – it brings home to us the realisation that the Last Supper was not a passover meal at all.

To open the Seder meal, we say the pesach prayer of King Chizqiyahu (Hezekiah), asking God to forgive us if we are not doing something correctly – if we are not ritually ‘fit’, but that because our heart and intent is towards God and His commandments, for God to bless our observance: 

“May YHVH, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God – YHVH, the God of their ancestors – even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.’ And YHVH heard Chizqiyahu and healed the people.’

The meaning of Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread

As Talmidis, we need to get away from the emphasis on the pesach offering, and look at the wider picture – the festival is not about slaughtering lambs. It is a remembrance of redemption and the power of YHVH to save us from the worst of our plights. The main themes of the festival are salvation (the power of YHVH to save us from our worst plights); redemption (eg from oppression and slavery to freedom, from a foreign land to the Promised land); and the birth of Israel as a nation.

If you have ever read a traditional haggadah, with all the traditional commentary that surrounds it, you might be forgiven for thinking that suffering is what the whole festival is about. But if you have ever read the story with no commentary – just the story itself as told in the book of Exodus (as it’s supposed to be), you get quite a different feel. That’s why in our haggadah, there is virtually no commentary. The story speaks for itself.

Yes, it starts off with a recounting of the pain of the Israelites, of their slavery and their suffering under the Egyptian yoke. But it moves on. In wave after wave, it tells of the great and awesome power of YHVH, of how much more mightier than the false Egyptian gods is the God of Jacob, of how YHVH with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm saved His people.

The Exodus story is the pivotal event of the Israelite religion. Whether you are someone who believes it really happened or not, it is what we are called to remember throughout all time, the story we are meant to tell every year throughout every generation, forever. We remember the Exodus every year at this time, and we also remember it every Sabbath. Also, the firstborn of every animal and human is dedicated to God as a remembrance of the Exodus.

The 15th Nisan is first and foremost the day we celebrate our nationhood – it is the true Independence Day of Israel. On this day we are meant to remember the birth of Israel as a people. Every day of the year, unceasingly we proclaim how YHVH’s Kingdom is to be established for all the peoples of the earth; throughout the year whenever the occasion arises, we acknowledge how all nations have the right to be free of oppression and slavery; but on this one day of the year however, we concentrate on the anniversary of our freedom.

We also celebrate the power of YHVH to redeem and save. Again, every day of the year, we acknowledge how YHVH’s salvation is for everyone, for all nations; but on this one day however, we focus on how YHVH saves us – what YHVH has done for us as Israelites and Godfearers. In times of oppression, crisis and trial, it is an annual reminder to us that YHVH will not abandon us, that YHVH will remember the covenant He made to preserve us as a people forever, and not forget us, even in our darkest hour.

We are told to remember the story of the Exodus, because it is also meant to have a psychological effect on us. Stripped of all the rabbinical additions, presented only with the story itself, we are brought emotionally from the depths, to the heights of reverent awe in YHVH, to proclaiming, ‘Who is there like You among the pagan gods, O YHVH?’ The story is supposed to evoke this awe; for those who have difficulty ‘experiencing’ God, it is a good way for such people to share in the ‘God-effect’, and keep up even their spirits.

Passover is there to help us remember the power of the God of Israel. It is not a festival of the remembrance of suffering, but of the remembrance of salvation and redemption. It is not the remembrance of oppression, but of liberation and independence. When we ask in the seder,

“What does this ritual mean to you”

our answer should be that it means victory, freedom, the dignity of Israel as a people, and the awesome, life- and world-changing power of YHVH.