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Passover - (Hebrew: פסח, transliterated as Pessach or Pessah or Pesah , pronounced Peh' sa'h)  (guttural "h") Literally - passing over or skipping.) A Jewish holiday celebrating the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and freedom from slavery in ancient times. The week of Passover opens with a festive ritual meal, the Seder (meaning "order"), during which Jews must eat only unleavened bread (Matza). The meal and the ritual follow the order set down in the Haggadah, a book, perhaps transmitted originally by oral tradition, that contains prayers and liturgy and instructions on every aspect of the holiday. 

According to Jewish tradition, the Lord ordered the Jews to sacrifice a lamb and smear the thresholds of their doors with the blood. The angel of the Lord then went through Egypt and killed off all the first born sons of the Egyptians, passing over the houses that were marked with the blood of the paschal Lamb. That is the derivation of the name "Passover" or Pesah.  The lamb shank is therefore part of the traditional Seder.

The Seder meal is accompanied by reading of the Haggadah, a book of prayers, parables, chants and rabbinical sayings, compiled over a very long period. The Haggadah service opens with the wish or vow: "This year we are here [in the Diaspora], next year in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves; Next year will shall be free. The Haggadah closes with the wish, "Next Year in Jerusalem." Thus it came to embody core of the Zionist idea and made the holiday a vehicle for the transmission of the love of freedom and the love of Zion for 2000 years. Zionism turned the "wishes" into pledges for those who want to take them.

Passover, like Hanukkah, is a festival of national liberation. It is also a festival of liberation from slavery and oppression. The story of Passover  therefore became a symbol of the longing of African slaves in the United States for freedom and was incorporated into spirituals. Passover also became a special holiday of the Labor Zionist movement for that reason.

In Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, some modify the final pledge to say "Next year in  rebuilt Jerusalem."

The Passover ritual is the product of a long evolution. It underwent several key changes. The Seder ritual itself was first codified in the time of the Mishna, about 70-200 CE. It is reflects the need to provide a mobile form of worship and of celebrating the holiday following the destruction of the temple and the exile. It is probable that at this time competition from Easter, celebrated by Christians at the same time, may have stimulated interest in strengthening and elaborating the holiday observance.

Kosher for Passover

The original commandments state only that one may not eat leavened bread on Passover or have any such bread in one's possession. This injunction has been widened and reinterpreted in many ways. All earthenware, china or plastic vessels that may have absorbed food that has leavening in it must not be used during the holiday. All foods and anything that touches the mouth, from Coca Cola to lipstick and lip balm, must be produced specially for Passover under rabbinical supervision to ensure that they do not accidentally contain unleavened bread (Chametz) or yeast. All different kinds of grains such as barley and rye and oats, as well as wheat, that were not especially harvested and prepared are forbidden. Additionally, Ashkenazi Jews do not eat any foods that contain beans or rice. This last prohibition was evidently instituted within the last few hundred years, on the supposition that wheat grains and or yeast may have accidentally gotten into rice or beans.

An extreme orthodox Ashkenazi  prohibition forbids the eating of wet Matzot, since dampness may cause germination of yeast. This includes Matzot that have been broken into soup or that became wet with wine. It is called "gebrochts." You can make up your own mind as to which of these customs suits your temperament and understanding.

Blood Libel and Passover

In the Middle Ages, Christians developed the notion that Matzot were backed from the blood of Christian children. This idea may have originated because of the Christian idea that the Passover sacrifice was somehow related to the sacrifice of Jesus which would absolve the world of its sins. This led to periodic outbreaks of the blood libel.  

Historical Evidence for the Passover story

The historicity of the Passover story has been questioned in recent years. Some of this questioning is due to legitimate scientific inquiry and academic debate. Some however, is tendentious, and is intended to delegitimize the claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. The biblical account cannot be directly related to any any specific event recorded in the admittedly very incomplete records of Egyptian history, nor can it be refuted. The bible does not give the name of the Pharaoh in whose reign the Hebrews had entered Egypt nor the reigning Pharaoh when they left Egypt. He is simply "Pharoah."

The name Moses and some others are Egyptian in sound and probably in derivation, but those details could have been devised to lend authenticity to the tale. There are ten commandments and ten plagues - the Egyptians counted by tens and had a ten-based number system, while the Hebrews and Canaanites and Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations had a 12-based system. This is suggestive but not conclusive. There are proto-Semitic inscriptions in Sinai that could have been left by Hebrews wandering in the desert, but they could as well have been left by other Semitic tribes. The song of Miriam recorded in Exodus 15 is certainly archaic and indicative of a very old oral tradition. There is no evidence of the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews at a specific date, though archeologists once believed there was. 

Attempts to prove the historicity of the Exodus narrative give widely different dates for it, ranging from 2200 BCE to circa 1500 to about 1200 - 1300 BCE. The last date is the one accepted by most biblical scholars.

Some of the conflicting evidence is discussed in these references:


Has the Exodus Really Been Disproven?

Is there evidence of the Exodus from Egypt?

The Hebrew Exodus

While the authors offer seemingly convincing proof for the Exodus, the fact that they cannot agree on a date for its occurrence is troublesome, and it seems that they too are trying to prove a point about religious belief rather than simply examining historical evidence. Much of the evidence they present has been discredited by others.

We have to accept that the story of the Exodus is at present unverified. The historical narrative of the bible was oral history that had been handed down for an indeterminate period, spun into various legends and then recorded and codified. If there is no basis at all for the Hebrew Exodus, then it is remarkable that a people would record as a point of pride that they had once been slaves. When the Romans and others invented genealogies for themselves they portrayed themselves as the sons of gods and mythical war heroes. So if the Hebrew Exodus is entirely a fable, it is still a tradition that attests to remarkable features of Jewish culture and outlook. It is also a very old tradition, probably older than the Illiad of Homer.

The remarkable thing about oral traditions like the Illiad is that eventually they seem to gather backing from archeological results, despite skepticism. However, even if it could somehow be proven that the entire history of the Hebrews before 700 BCE was a fabrication, and that they had sprung upon the world from nowhere about that time, it is unclear what would be gained by anti-Zionists who champion views in order to discredit Zionism, No rational person can seriously suggest that while the story of the Hebrews is a fable, the tale of Muhammad journeying through the air on his horse al Buraq to Jerusalem, to heaven and to hell nearly two millennia after the Jews arrived in Israel, and tying his horse up at the wailing wall, is an established fact that gives Muslims title to the land of Israel. Moreover, as Muhammad and traditional Islam accepted the Hebrew story of the Exodus and the existence of Moses as well as Abraham, these views would be as disrespectful of Islam as they are of Jewish traditions.  

Ami Isseroff

October 19, 2008

Synonyms and alternate spellings: Pessah, Pesah, Pesach, Pessach.

Further Information: See  PassoverPassover, Seder Haggadah Ha Lachma Aniah, Ma Nishtana Nirtzah

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

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