The Feast of Passover
By Marc Brettler
Passover, as it is now celebrated, is a creation of the rabbis, and many of its rituals are a reaction to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It has a long and complex history, and even in the biblical period, was celebrated in a variety of ways.
Modern biblical scholarship has reopened the question of the date, relative priority, and relation between many biblical sources. What follows is how I see the material; others would view the development of the festival differently, but would still acknowledge that the different sources reflect divergent understandings of the festival and how it should be celebrated. Scholars and translators also disagree on how some basic words used in the texts describing the festival should be translated — all translations from the Hebrew Bible are my own.
The earliest biblical legal text is in the Covenant Collection, in Exodus 20:22–23:33, from the monarchic period. 23:14–19 contain a collection of festival laws, which is introduced by: “You shall celebrate three pilgrimage festivals for me during the year.” This collection does not assume centralization of worship in Jerusalem, so the festivals are likely meant to be commemorated at a local shrine. The first festival noted is ḥag hammaṣṣot — the festival of unleavened bread. Its initial placement suggests that it was at one point a new year festival. (Rosh Hashanah, which is absent in this festival calendar, is a post-biblical festival. According to Leviticus 23:24, where that name is not used, it is celebrated in the seventh month, so surely it was not a new year festival when Leviticus was written.) Exodus 23:15 reads: “You shall observe the pilgrimage festival of unleavened bread as I commanded you; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread at the appointed time at the new moon (Hebrew: ḥodesh) of budding (or spring), and do not appear before me (literally: you shall not be seen by my face) empty-handed.”
This verse suggests that the name of the festival was “the pilgrimage festival of unleavened bread,” and not Passover, and that it was commemorated at the beginning of the month, not in its middle, as was later, and is now, the case. This short law says nothing about cleaning the house of yeast or leavening. It does note, however, that a gift must be brought to God (a sacrifice of undetermined type). When visiting ancient Near Eastern temples, worshippers typically brought gifts; this point needs to be emphasized here, since at the beginning of the agricultural season, where there was little extra food on hand, a gift still had to be brought to God.
Oxford Biblical Studies Online provides unrivalled access to six essential Oxford editions of the Bible alongside commentary and annotations from study Bibles seamlessly combined with reference material and primary texts. To receive an email notice and details when a new Focus On article or site update is posted, sign up for Oxford Biblical Studies Online update alerts.
Marc Brettler is a member of the editorial board for Oxford Biblical Studies Online. He is the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies and former chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. He is co-editor of the Jewish Study Bible, published by Oxford University Press in 2004. That book has won a National Jewish Book Award, as was called “a masterpiece” in a review in the Times Literary Supplement. His major areas of interest are biblical historical texts, Psalms, and gender and biblical studies.