The book of Exodus details the plight of the Israelites in captivity and their miraculous escape to the Promised Land, and it is here we find the origin of Pesach as well. During 1447 B. C. (Thiele, 21), there was an Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt. The Israelites became the slaves of the Egyptians because the Pharaoh was afraid they were growing too numerous; so they were made slaves and Pharaoh decreed baby boys were to be killed (Exodus 1:16). One boy escaped the child killings, and was raised by an Egyptian princess. His mother put him in a basket and sent him down the Nile. A princess was bathing and rescued him, and named him Moses (Exodus 2). When Moses grew up, he killed an Egyptian slave master for beating a man (Exodus 2:12). This became known, and Moses fled to Midian where he married Zipporah and had a son (Exodus 2:22). One day, Moses saw a bush he thought was on fire and went to investigate. As he approached the bush, a voice called him and said, “Moses! Moses!” and Moses replies, “Here I am.” The voice turned out to be God, the same God of his ancestors Isaac and Jacob. He told Moses that he was to go to Pharaoh and demand the Israelite’s release (Exodus 3:10). Of course Pharaoh said no. God then sent a series of plagues, and after nine of them Pharaoh would still not let them go. The tenth plague was different. God told Moses that he was going to pass over all the firstborn of Egypt and they would die (Exodus 11:5). Then God spoke to Moses and Aaron and told them a few things: first, that this month was to be for them their first month of the year. Next, they were told to tell the whole community of Israel to take a lamb for his family on the tenth day, and to slaughter them at twilight on the 14th day (Ex. 12:6). Then they were to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they consume the lambs. They were to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs and bread made without yeast. They were to eat it with their cloak tucked in, with sandals on their feet, and staff in hand. They were to hurry, for it was the Lord’s Passover (Ex. 12: 8-11). The Lord told them that that day was to be commemorated for years to come, a lasting ordinance; and instructs them on how to celebrate it (starting in verse 15):
“For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. In the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day to the last must be cut off from Israel. On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat- that is all you may do. Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty- first day. For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And whoever eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is an alien or native- born. Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread. “
When the Israelites were delivered, they did celebrate this day and in this manner during Biblical times.
In those times, the emphasis of Passover was on the killing of the lambs rather than on the other customs. The temple ceremonies dominated the day, and the other customs the night.
The Bible recognizes two different festivals; Pesach on the 14th of Nissan, when the Passover lamb was sacrificed, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread or “ha matzot”, on the 15th. Since Rabbinic times, however, the name “Pesach” has been commonly referred to as “hag ha- matzot” (Solomon 285-6). Today Pesach has come to mean both, and the commemoration of each is combined.
The historical significance of Pesach is the redemption from slavery in Egypt, but there are agricultural and religious dimensions as well. Agriculturally, it is the festival of spring and new life and growth. In Biblical times this festival also celebrated the early cereal and barley harvest (Solomon 286). Religiously, it signifies that God is the Israelites’ Redeemer; they went from being slaves to pharaoh in Egypt to servants of God alone. The religious implications for this are perhaps the most important.
The “Seder” dinner is today the customary way to celebrate Pesach. Hebrew for “order,” the dinner is laid out on a special Seder plate in sections, for the telling of the Passover story. The meal is directed by the Passover Haggadah and its 15 rituals, and the meal consists of seven different symbols for the story. First, there is a ritual of washing hands, to get rid of impure or unclean influences for the meal. Then there are 4 cups of wine, symbolic of the four distinct redemptions promised by God in Exodus 6.
1. “I will take you out of Egypt,”
2. “I will deliver you from Egyptian slavery,”
3. “I will redeem you with a demonstration of my power,”
4. “I will acquire you as a nation”
These are the correlating promises, worthy of celebration with a drink! They remind the people every year that they can actively free themselves from whatever enslaves them (Klutznik- Harris 34). While there are four cups representing redemption drunk by the adults, there is a fifth cup reserved for the prophet Elijah, who is believed to visit every Seder table. This fifth cup represents redemption by the Messiah, and because the event has not occurred yet that cup is not drunk. There is also a custom of dipping drops of wine out onto a plate during the reading of the plagues, to show that the Israelite’s joy was tinged with sadness because the Egyptians were God’s creations too. The four cups of wine originated in Roman times, because the Romans began every feast or banquet by serving wine. The Romans also served wine while eating the main meal, and again after the meal was eaten. The rabbis of that time added the fourth and fifth cups themselves for symbolic purposes (Ha- Levi Web).
The next requirement for Passover is Matza or Matzo, Hebrew for “sweet” or “unleavened bread.” It has a number of symbolic meanings. One meaning is the sweetness of freedom, because matza is sweet and leavened bread is sour. It also symbolizes the speed with which the Israelis had to leave Egypt- they did not have time to add leavening to their dough before they had to take off. Therefore, it means both recalling the hardships of slavery along with the sweetness of freedom.
The next food item required is Maror, Hebrew for “bitter herbs.” Usually the herbs can be horseradish or romaine lettuce, and it symbolizes the hardship of slavery. It is placed in two places on the Seder plate, but sometimes the second place is replaced with “Chazeret,” Hebrew for “bitter vegetable.”
The next requirement is Beitzah, Hebrew for “roasted or hard- boiled egg.” In Aramaic, is means “want” or “desire,” symbolizing that the Israelites wanted to be saved from slavery. The hard- boiled egg symbolizes the gift that would have been brought to the temple in Jerusalem as an offering. This offering was brought during each of the three pilgrims festivals- Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Because the temple was destroyed, it also stands for the mourning of the temple. During Roman times, the rabbis declared that the egg would replace the Passover lamb sacrifice. Other meanings include fertility, Springtime, rebirth, and the cycle of life (Ha- Levi Web).
The next requirement is Zeroa, meaning either “arm,” or “shoulder bone” or “wing” in Hebrew. This is either a shank bone or chicken wing, and it symbolizes the Pesach, or first lamb killed for Passover. It also symbolizes the gift offering for the temple in Jerusalem. It is not eaten. Some interpret it to also mean the outstretched “hand” or “arm” of God when he delivered them from Egypt.
“Karpas,” Hebrew for green vegetable, is the next requirement. The literal meaning of the word is debated, because in ancient times it is used to mean both celery and parsley, as both looked very similar. The symbolism represents the tears and sweat of the Hebrews when they toiled as slaves in Egypt.
“Charoset,” meaning “a mixture of fruits and nuts blended with cinnamon, ginger, and sometimes honey, and either wine or grape juice,” and symbolizes the clay the Israelites used to build Egyptian cities. Its sweet taste is to overpower the maror, and further symbolizes the transition of depending on another culture to depending on one’s own self for survival.
Another requirement for the table is “Mei Melach,” or “salt water” in Evrit. It stands for two things: the tears shed during slavery, as well as the Red Sea the Hebrews crossed with God’s help. Some Jews use different substances such as lemon juice, vinegar, or lime juice depending on their geographical customs.
A final thing at some Seder tables is a 6th cup of water placed for Miriam, Moses’ sister, in her honor. According to Exodus Miriam was a prophet in her own right, and because she watched over her brother when he was in the Nile, the Israelites had a well of water in the desert because of her until she died. Not everyone does this, though.
The Haggadah is placed at each setting at the table, and details the 15 steps for the meal. The 15 steps were developed to be easily remembered in case a Haggadah was not available during the celebration, but it is encouraged to tell the story in as many ways as possible, so there are many forms of it.
“Hassava,” Hebrew for “reclining,” is also necessary. Cushions are placed for everyone partaking of the meal, and if cushions are not available then everyone can recline or lean to the left. Like the wine custom, this one was started during Roman rule of Israel as well, because it was a symbol of the free and rich to recline while eating.
It is custom to dip the vegetables in the salt water or fruit juices, and this custom may also have been taken from the Romans as well. The rabbis who wrote the regulations for the Seder were writing at a time when the Romans ruled, and it is likely they copied many Roman eating customs and formatted them to fit the needs of the Passover story. Romans usually dipped their vegetables in some kind of fruit sauce too.
An interesting fact regarding the matza is that there are three total, and two represent the “Afikomen.” The “Afikomen” comes from either the Aramaic word “dessert,” or the Greek word “epikomaizon” meaning “after- dish,” or “dessert.” It has two interpretations; one from the Talmudic Sages from Israel, and one from the Talmudic Sages from Babylon. The Israeli sages interpreted it to mean that one should not end with the Afikomen, and the other takes it to mean that one should not end the night with revelry or entertainment, because the Greek word “epikomion” meant going off to another party or banquet immediately following the first one, a practice the Romans indulged in. It was thought that if the Jews did this, than they would be following the pagan customs of the Romans and Greeks too closely, and it would be difficult to see the difference in the Passover meal from any other meal. The Babylonian sages simply took it to mean that the meal should not end with dessert. There is a custom of hiding the Afikoman in the house, and having he children hunt for it. Once a child finds it, he or she is to keep it until a reward is given.
Some songs are sung, too. Psalms 115-118 are commonly sung, and there are other songs such as “Dayenu” (“it would have been enough) and eliyahu ha- navi, a song about wanting the Messiah to come.
There is also a custom that the Ashkenazi Jews still practice from the Middle Ages. They do not consume beans, corn, or rice during Passover because it was thought that the flour produced from those things resembled wheat flour- one of the five forbidden grains- and didn’t want anyone getting confused. So they banned them. However, those three are permitted for making Passover wine with certain rules (Ha- Levi Web).
There are many important connections between Passover and the New Testament. The biggest connection links the Passover lamb to Jesus, who became the sacrificial lamb for everyone, in order to be saved from death from sin (spiritual death). The gospel of John in particular has many parallels between the Passover in Exodus to Jesus’ crucifixion.
The book of John begins by affirming Jesus’ identity as God, and then we see John the Baptist proclaiming in 1: 29, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” The lamb John is referring to is the Passover lamb, and he equated Jesus with it in that bold statement. When Jesus stands before Pilate in John 19:14, it was about the 6th hour and the day for Passover preparations. The 6th hour was the time that the priests would begin the slaughter of the sacrificial lambs, and here Jesus is being slaughtered by the people- they want his death. Also, the Greek word for “day of preparation” is “paraskeuh,” which is also the word for Friday, so it does not disagree with other gospels. John makes a connection between the Passover lamb and Jesus on the cross by mentioning that Jesus’ bones remained unbroken, just as Moses said for the lamb in Exodus 12:46. Another connection is seen in chapter 19 verse 29 were the drink offered to Jesus was given with a hyssop branch, and hyssop was the branch used to sprinkle the blood of the lamb in the Passover Law in Exodus 12:22. John calls attention to the garment Jesus wore when the soldiers stripped him- is it a seamless linen tunic (19:23-24). The Greek word for garment used here (chiton) is the same word for an Old Testament tunic worn by the official high priest when sacrificing (Exodus 28:4 and Leviticus 16:4). John pays attention to that detail because it seems to point to Jesus as our High Priest as well as being the Passover Lamb. One of the most important connections John makes, however, is through the Last Supper with his disciples. In John it is simply called the “Last Supper,” and not Passover, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke all assert that it was. John’s account of the supper seems to follow the basic structure of the Seder meal as well. The cup Jesus offers is identified as the third traditional cup of the four; the cup of blessing. We know it is the third cup because of the immediate singing of the Hallel as seen in Mark 14:26. Strangely, Jesus skips drinking the fourth cup of the meal, the cup of consummation. He declares that he will not eat or drink the meal again until he is in heaven. After the singing, Jesus goes to the Garden to pray, and prays that his Father’s cup would be removed from him, equating the cup of consummation with it, but yet prays that his Father’s will be done, and not his. Jesus tells Peter in chapter 18 that he is to drink the cup his Father has given him, and that when he does, it will finish the commitment he made to do the Father’s will. On the cross, Jesus says that he is thirsty, and takes the wine offered to him. This is the fourth cup; and after that he says, “it is finished” and gives up his spirit. This drinking of the wine finishes the Passover meal of the Old Testament and transforms it into the Passover of the New Covenant.
The feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths, is commanded by God in the book of Exodus to commemorate the liberation of the Israelites from the Egyptians, also known as the Feast of Ingathering.
“On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook” (Lev. 23:40), and “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt”
Like Pesach, Sukkot has three levels of interpretation: historical, agricultural, and religious. The historical significance is of course to remember living in tents in the desert. Agriculturally, it is the final harvest of the festival year. It traditionally celebrates the fruit harvest. Religiously, the festival is to highlight that God it the Israelite’s protector, and it is symbolized as they leave their houses and dwell in simple booths (Sukkot). The Mishna (RH 1:2) states that on Sukkot, heaven makes a judgment about how much water to provide for the coming year. This gives the festival a slightly different feel from other festivals, although the main prayer for rain is not prayed until Shemini Atzeret, which is a separate holiday unto itself but is understood to be combined with the 8th day of Sukkot (Solomon 365).
The structure of Sukkot is 8 days. The first day is celebrated like a full festival, but outside of Israel the first two days are celebrated as such. The six days following are known as festival weekdays, and the 7th day has its own special customs and is called Hoshana Rabbah, meaning “Great Hoshana.” Hoshana or Hosanna means Messiah, and this day has a special custom of walking around the sanctuary during morning prayers.
In Biblical times of the temple, it was celebrated a little differently. It was still celebrated from the 15th to the 21 or 22 day of the 7th month, and was a feast of thanksgiving. According to law, 70 bullocks were sacrificed on a decreasing scale each day, and the temple trumpets were blown daily. There was the ceremony of the outpouring of water, drawn from Siloam, in commemoration of the water from the rock Moses struck, and in anticipation of blessings for Israel and the world. The inner courts of the temple were illuminated, and the light of the great candelabra stood for the pillar of fire by night, which guided the Israelites through the desert. There was a parade of torches to the temple, and of course booths were erected by the people living in Jerusalem as well as those people traveling- because it is one of the pilgrim festivals. Deuteronomy (31:10-13) mandated that the Jewish king read selections from the Torah in the temple courtyard on the second day, and it was held every 7 years. The seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah, Hebrew for “Great Supplication,” is special because worshipers walk around the synagogue carrying something called “The Four Species” while reciting Psalm 118:25, and bundles of five willow branches are ceremoniously beaten on the ground. The “Four Species” are from the Torah, and are species of plants:
• Lulav (לולב) – a ripe, green, closed frond from a date palm tree
• Hadass (הדס) – boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree
• Aravah (ערבה) – branches with leaves from the willow tree
• Etrog (אתרוג) – the fruit of a citron tree
Today, there are many instructions for building the sukah, and rules about how to eat and live in them. In Jerusalem, it is custom to build apartments with a small outside slab of concrete just for celebrating this holiday.
In the Middle Ages, Jews were often confined to ghettos. It was difficult to get the required fruits for the holiday though, especially etrog. The distances from the ghettos to countries that grew it was often great, and so young men were sent on long journeys to acquire it. It was a lovely holiday because it brought the countryside to the squalid cities (Aspects of Jewish Culture in the Middle Ages 223).
Again we look to the gospel of John for the most prominent New Testament connections. In John chapter 7 we see that Jesus attends a Feast of Tabernacles, and in the middle of the feast week starts teaching openly in the temple. The Jewish leaders have to admit he knows what he’s talking about, but they are extremely annoyed. Jesus also presents himself as the “rock” of Moses’ day in chapter 7, implying that he is the rock from which flows rivers of living water. He does this on the last day of the feast, important because that is when the water ceremony is, and the prayer for water for next year. Jesus is speaking about the Holy Spirit here, and no one understands the full implication of his words until Pentecost later in the book of Acts. It is this that is the most important Net Testament connection. The Feast of Tabernacles celebrated the ending harvest, with special reference to the blessings received during the wandering in the wilderness, where God was pleased to manifest Himself in the tabernacle. But neither in the tabernacle nor the temple which replaced it was God fully manifested. The final and perfect manifestation of God was in Jesus, whose ministry would result in God’s dwelling neither in a tabernacle or temple, but in men’s hearts through his Spirit.
The book of Esther is unique to ancient and Biblical literature for two reasons: first, it is the only book of antiquity that portrays a woman as a hero. In patriarchal societies where women were second class people or lower, it is simply unheard of to have a woman hero narrative. Second, it is the only book in the Tenach and Bible where God is not mentioned explicitly.
During the third year of the reign of Persian king Ahasuerus, the king had a party. He ordered his queen, queen Vashti, to come before his guests with her crown and dazzle them with her beauty. She refused. Thus king Ahasuerus decided to remover her title and find himself a new queen. He ordered that all of the available maidens come before him after a ritualistic beauty purification rite that lasted 12 months, and when they were brought to him Esther, raised by her relative Mordecai, found favor in his eyes and became queen. She did not reveal that she was Jewish. Shortly after this, Mordecai learned of an assassination attempt on the king and notified his officials, and his service was recorded. He was never thanked properly, which came into play later. The king appointed a new vizier named Haman, who thought pretty highly of himself. It was one day at the palace gates where he passed by, and Mordecai was there. He would not bow down to him, stating that he only bowed to God alone. This angered Haman, and when he learned that Mordecai was Jewish, thought of a scheme to get rid of the whole minority from the kingdom. The king granted this, and so Haman cast lots to decide which day to do it. The day fell to the 13th of Adar, and so Haman made plans. When Esther and Mordecai learned of this, they asked all of the Jews in that city (the city was called Susa or Susha) to pray and fast for three days, after which Esther decided to approach the king. She was not allowed to do this, and her life hung in the balance. Nevertheless she went, and the king granted her her wish to see him. She invited the king to a feast, with Haman in attendance. This was done, and then Esther invited him to another feast the following day. In the meantime, Mordecai had again grieved Haman, and Haman constructed a gallows to hang Mordecai on. That night the king couldn’t sleep, and ordered that some of the court records be read to him. He learned of Mordecai’s service to him, and thought about a way to repay him. The next day, the king asked Haman how to show favor to a man who found favor in his eyes, and thinking the king meant himself, he said that the person to be honored should be led about on the royal horse for all to see. To his horror, the king ordered this be done for Mordecai. At the feast later that day, Esther reveals that Haman is plotting to kill the Jews and that includes her. Enraged, king Ahasuerus leaves the room, at which point Haman begs the queen for his life. Just then the king comes back, and thinks that Haman is attacking her, and so orders his death on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai. The king says he can do nothing about the edict, but allows Esther and Mordecai to write one of their own. They declare that the Jews can defend themselves from any attack. Smart. When the Jews were attacked, on the 13th of Adar, 500 attackers and Haman’s 10 sons were killed, along with 75 thousand Persians, though they took no plunder. Mordecai is then given Haman’s position, and he institutes a celebration of the events, now known as Purim, Hebrew for “lots” that Haman cast in order to determine the day of the attack.
The celebration of Purim has four main parts:
1. Listening to the public reading, usually in synagogue, of the Book of Esther in the evening and again in the following morning (k'riat megilla)
2. Sending food gifts to friends (mishloach manot)
3. Giving charity to the poor (matanot la'evyonim)
4. Eating a festive meal (se`udah)
The reading of the Megilla was prescribed by the Sages of the Great Assembly, in which Mordecai was reported to have been a member. Initially, the reading was only for the 14th, but later on in the 3rd century a rabbi prescribed it be read on the eve, as well. The rabbi also insisted that women attend the readings, since a woman is the hero of the story. The Talmud later adds other benedictions, such as the naming of Haman’s 10 sons in one breath, to indicate their simultaneous destruction.
Sending food or other gifts, known as Mishloah Manot, is customary, although it is better to spend more on the poor than on friends. This custom is mandated in Esther chapter 9, verse 22 mandates: "the sending of portions one man to another, and gifts to the poor." Typically the gifts sent to friends are consumable, such as wine or pastries or candy.
The Purim meal is known as Se’udat Purim, and wine is the prominent drink of choice. This is because the Talmud states that one should drink wine until he can no longer distinguish between the phrases “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai.” In Hebrew “המן ארור” and “מרדכי לברוך.“
Another component of the celebration is dressing up in costumes, to signify the “hiddeness” of God in the story. Even though God is not mentioned expressly, his presence is still acknowledged. Dressing up in disguises symbolizes this. This custom was first introduced by the Italian Jews in about the fifteenth century because of the Roman carnivals where such things went on (Goodman, 24).
An interesting fact regarding the omission of God is that it might have been done on purpose to show that God is behind the works in everything, even if He is hidden. There is a Hebrew phrase, “פנים הסתר,” meaning “hiding of the Face,” the face being God’s, and the pronunciation of it, hester panim, is sort of a play on words. The book of Esther in Hebrew, the Megillat Esther, means literally “revelation of that which is hidden.” It is a word play of sorts.
Purim is celebrated on two different days, depending on one’s geographical location. People who live in a city that has been surrounded by a wall since the time of Joshua celebrate it on the 15th of Adar, whereas those living in a city not walled since the time of Joshua celebrate on the 14th of Adar. The rationale behind this is that outside the capital city of Susha, the Jews were able to subdue the enemy and so they rested on the 15th from battle. The Jews in Susha, however, had more enemies to fight and so it took them an extra day before they rested. The exception to this rule is Jerusalem, which at the time of the story was in ruins and the Jews lived in the Diaspora. The rabbis thus decreed that in order to give special consideration to Jerusalem, the observance of Purim in a walled city would include any walled city that was in existence since the time of Joshua (Lazerson). So, even in Israel there are different days for celebrating. If one comes from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, I have no idea on which day he would celebrate.
The New Testament connections to the book of Esther are indirect at best. There are no mentions of her by name, or discussions of her anywhere. The only link I’ve ever heard connecting the book of Esther to the New Testament is from Galatians 3:28. It states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Theologians point to the book of Esther to illustrate that women are equally valuable to God, and are used by Him- it is used to demonstrate that God is no respecter of persons. This is not to say that men are not the head of their household, for that is in there too- but to point out that women are not to be looked down upon as inferior in any way.
Researching these holidays has been quite the experience. I have grown up hearing the stories, but the customs during the holidays were never explained or highlighted, and so this research illuminated my understanding of my Jewish friends along with my understanding of the New Testament. I learned that making sense of the New completely depends upon an understanding of the Old; and the things Jesus said at Jewish celebrations I now see as completely inflammatory and blasphemous to the Jews, if he was not the Messiah. Understanding the customs around Pesach and Sukkot were particularly helpful in understanding the four Gospels, especially John, and now I understand them on a much deeper level than I had.
I think it is amazing that Jews today still celebrate things ordained by God Himself- no other religion can claim that. Even Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter were not commanded to be celebrated, and are actually based on pagan customs- with the exception of communion, which Christ did command. But that is not a holiday. Overall, I am glad I was able to find out more about these three holidays and their religious and historical implications. These holidays back up a claim made by Kierkegard: Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.” These celebrations show that history is indeed important; without it we do not remember all that God has done, or that He has a theme running throughout history itself- the ultimate story of the redemption of His people.