History of Passover
Sunset tonight, April 15, marks the beginning of Passover. Exodus 12 in the Hebrew Bible tells the story of Passover from the life of Moses. Ten plagues were visited upon the Egyptian pharaoh (starring Yul Brenner in “The Ten Commandments,” but he was much better in “The King and I“) to get his attention to release the Children of Israel from bondage.
The final plague was the death of the first-born son visited upon the land by the angel of death. The Jews were to smear the blood of a sacrificed lamb upon their doorposts so that the angel of death would “Passover” them unharmed. Pharaoh relented and released the Israelites. The Israelite slaves took the road out of Egypt; the Greek for “road out” is Exodus.
Seder of Passover
In making their hasty exit, the Jews did not have time to let their bread rise, so in commemoration, they celebrate the Passover Seder (“order”) meal with unleavened bread (matzo), bitter herbs, and roast lamb to be eaten in traveling garb. The term Passover is often used interchangeably with the term Feast of Unleavened Bread, at least in St. Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 22:1,) though the first century Pharisees marked the seven-day feast to begin on the day after Passover. Nevertheless, only unleavened bread was eaten during the seven-day celebration following Passover. In present-day celebration, all yeast is to be removed from a Jewish house during this time.
Passover as a Holy Day
Passover is one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals in the Jewish calendar — along with the Feast of Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles — and is a major holiday. Jews from all over the world return to Jerusalem for celebrations at the Temple. During Easter Week, which was at Passover, the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time would have tripled from its population of about 50,000.
Passover and The Last Supper
Could The Last Supper (made famous by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting now hanging in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazia in Milan) that Jesus had with his disciples in the Upper Room have been a Passover meal? It seems likely from the New Testament Gospels and the Epistles make it explicit. The Gospel of Mark 14:12 says it was
“on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread”
when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb. Some churches commemorate this meal by using unleavened bread for their Communion “Lord’s Supper.”
The traditional Jewish greeting for this holiday is Pesach Sameach.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian