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Decoding Pesach 1/2

Pesach is a very important holiday in the Jewish religion. It celebrates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the birth of Israel as a people. It also inaugurates the beginning of the barley harvest season. [i]

Considered as the Jewish Passover, Pesach begins at nightfall on the 14th of Nissan (in March or April depending on the year) and lasts for 8 days. Its celebration includes the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and is characterized by the prohibition for believers to eat food containing leavened flour.

The History of Pesach

The festival of Pesach commemorates the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in ancient Egypt. By performing the rites of Pesach, they relive and feel the real freedom achieved by their ancestors.

After many decades of slavery under the Pharaohs of Egypt, during which the Israelites were forced to do overwhelming labor, God saw the plight of the people and sent Moses to Pharaoh with this message: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me. ”

When Pharaoh refused to obey the command, God sent ten devastating plagues upon Egypt, destroying the livestock and the people. In the middle of the night of the 15th of Nissan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 B.C.), God inflicted upon the Egyptians the last of the ten plagues, killing all of their first-born. In doing so, God spared the Children of Israel, “leaping over” their homes – hence the name of the holiday: Pesach means “leaping” in Hebrew. [ii]

Pharaoh literally drove his former slaves out of the land, and the Israelites left in such a hurry that the bread they were to use for the road did not have time to rise.

600,000 adult men, and many more women and children, left Egypt that day, beginning their journey to Mount Sinai and their birth as God’s chosen people.

In ancient times, the observance of Pesach included the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, which was roasted and eaten at the Seder on the first night of the holiday. This was the case until the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the first century. [iii]

It is this story that is traditionnally read, in Hebrew, in the text on Pesach night, [iv] in a book called the “Haggadah”. [v]

The wanderings in the desert

If the Hebrews are chosen by God to seal his covenant with mankind, they are first of all a “stiff-necked” people [Book of Exodus]. And this character is far from being a quality, so much so that their resistance to the divine orders will delay them, according to tradition, in the great plan that he has conceived for them.

Nevertheless, in the obstinacy of doing as they please lies certainly all the depth of the peregrination of the Hebrew people recounted in the Books of Exodus and Numbers: the Hebrews are above all human, and it is with this humanity that they will follow Moses into the desert – a geographical place which, in a spiritual reading, must be understood in a symbolic way.

The wanderings in the desert are the image of the inner life of the believer” and its trials are “so many purifications of the human heart“, explains the religious writer Philippe Plet in his book: Les Hébreux au désert. Lecture du Livre de l’Exode [vi] (a spiritual reading of the biblical episode). Walking in the desert requires an initial act of faith: the Hebrews advance towards a land only promised as the believer walks in himself armed with the only certainty that he is going towards God. [vii]

But before reaching the land “flowing with milk and honey” (“So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites.” (Exodus 3:8)), [viii] they must endure the desert, first of all a place of light and deprivation, and therefore of purification. It is also a place of temptation – Jesus will spend forty days resisting the devil – because everything is missing.

And it is precisely because everything is lacking that, laid bare, man cannot take refuge behind the vanities of worldly life. The violence of the trial can therefore shake the believer, as it inspires the murmurs of the Jewish people against their fate.

Two months after leaving Egypt, the Hebrews are thirsty and hungry. They rage:  “Why did we not die at the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the meat pans, when we ate bread to our fill? Instead, you led us into this desert to starve this whole assembly” (Exodus 16:3). [ix] Faced with the difficulty of the path of faith, the believer is tempted to turn back and return to Egypt.

Here, the land of Pharaoh is the metaphor of a world of immanence, from which the spiritual journey must lead one to emerge. With its monuments, its paintings and its statues, “Egypt is by nature the world of images” and appearances, analyzes Philippe Plet, who sees a parallel with the current world. According to him, “to leave Egypt was therefore to leave the world of images and idols, to enter the desert without form, which purifies the sight of all human representations [and] prepares for the contemplation of God. “

Pesach, the festival of freedom

After 400 years of enslavement in Egypt, the Jewish people led by Moses are finally liberated. According to the Old Testament, ten plagues were necessary to convince the Pharaoh to let the Jews go, [x] among which the death of all the first-born in Egypt. The word “Pesach”, which means “to pass over” in Hebrew, refers to this plague, since the death spared the Jewish houses and fell only on the firstborn Egyptians.

For eight days, Jews do not eat any food containing leaven, hence the consumption of unleavened bread cakes called matzot, in memory of the flight of the Hebrews, who, in their haste, carried the bread away before it was leavened. The leavened food, called Hametz, [xi] must be removed from the house, resulting in a great cleaning for this celebration. [xii]

At the Seder meal, different foods are presented, each with a strong symbolic meaning. The Passover lamb is a reminder of the night of the Exodus when the Hebrews sacrificed a lamb as a sign of their conquest of freedom. The lamb, in fact, was considered by the Egyptians as a sacred animal, a god. [xiii]Sacrificing a lamb was therefore their first act of freedom. Herodotus, in his survey of Egyptian customs, writes (Histories, 2:42): [xiv]Now all who have a temple set up to the Theban Zeus (=Amun) or who are of the district of Thebes, these, I say, all sacrifice goats and abstain from sheep… the Egyptians make the image of Zeus (=Amun) into the face of a ram… the Thebans then do not sacrifice rams but hold them sacred for this reason.’’

Bitter herbs are also found on the table, as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. The Seder ceremony is marked by a reminder of the story of the exit from Egypt, where the children are invited to ask their questions.

There are similarities between the Christian feast of Easter and the Jewish feast of Passover. The Passover lamb is common to both feasts, but there is also a connection between the unleavened bread and the bread Jesus consecrated at the Last Supper. In fact, the Christian holiday of Passover bears this name because, according to the Gospels, the death and resurrection of Jesus took place during the period of celebration of Pesach. [xv]

Meaning of the term “Pesach”

The term Pesach means “to leap, to pass over” in memory of the ten plagues, and in particular that of the death of the first born, from which the Hebrews were spared. It is said that death passed “over” [xvi] their houses which were distinguished by a red mark on their lintels (made with lamb’s blood): “I will recognize this blood and I will pass over you; the plague will not take hold of you“. [xvii] By extension, it is to be protected from any misfortune that Jewish houses carry a mezuzah (a box containing two biblical passages written on a small parchment) to the right of their entrance doors.

This holiday is also called:

– “Feast of Unleavened Bread” (Hag Ha matsot)

– The Festival of our Freedom” or “The Time of our Freedom” (Zman Khirotenu, Hag Hakhirut)

– The Festival of the Sprouting of the Barley/Springtime (Hag Ha Aviv).

Particularly rich in rites and customs, the festival was originally distinguished by the Passover offering (lamb) which the Jews have not been able to perform since the destruction of the Temple (the Samaritans continue to offer it on Mount Gerizim). But also the great cleaning of ” Pessah ” (or of Spring) where the leaven (hametz) must be eliminated from the home. This is any food or product that comes from or derives from the fermentation of the five cereal species (wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt) by the addition of ferments, heating or contact with moisture or water and having risen for more than 18 minutes.

This cleaning generally begins after the holiday of Purim (one month before), [xviii] which does not prevent a meticulous search for hametz on the eve of the holiday, [xix] that is to say on the evening of the 13th of Nissan (this craze will be explained in Hasidic literature by the desire to drive out the “spiritual hametz“, i.e. the “evil inclination”, through the material).

The hametz must then be searched for throughout the house by candlelight, beginning at nightfall before the holiday. [xx] Whatever is found during this search must be burned in the morning of Pesach Eve. Kitchen utensils must also be removed by boiling or heating them to a white heat; since not all utensils can be subjected to such processes, it is customary to have a set of dishes reserved for the week of Pesach. [xxi] Alternatively, some people sell their hametz to a non-Jew, possibly planning to buy them back after the holiday week.

 

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End notes:

[i] Hayoun, Maurice-Ruben. La Haggadah de Pessah : La Pâque juive. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France – PUF-, 2011.

On Passover, the family gathers around a table for a traditional meal, which commemorates the exit from Egypt and the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery. The Pesach Haggadah brings together the liturgical texts and comments on the rites that mark the ceremony. The manuscript reproduced here was produced by a highly reputed fifteenth-century illuminator, Joel ben Simeon, whose workshops in both Germanic countries and northern Italy are known for the exceptional quality of their production. We will follow the different stages of the celebration while contemplating the sumptuous illustrations of this book, witnessing a key moment in the history of Jewish culture.

[ii] Alcoloumbre, Thierry. « Israël comme peuple : entre Juda Hallévi et Maïmonide », Pardès, vol. 45, no. 1, 2009, pp. 189-201.

[iii] Ritmeyer, Leen. The Quest: Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jerusalem: Carta, 2006.

[iv] The Pesach Haggadah (Hebrew: הַגָּדָה שֶׁל פֶּסַח “Passover narrative,” also known among Yemeni Jews as Babylonian Judeo-Aramaic: אגדתא דפסחא) is a ceremonial ritual for the Jewish Passover Seder, which derives its name from the main element, the narration of the exodus from Egypt prescribed in Exodus 13:8.

It contains in its present form a collection of verses and their midrash, psalms of praise, sayings of the Sages, blessings, prayers and liturgical poems designed specifically to celebrate annually the miraculous deliverance after the main biblically prescribed rite, the Passover offering, was rendered obsolete by the destruction of the Temple.

Cf: Schneerson, Rabbi Menachem M. Haggadah for Passover with Collected Customs and Reasons. New York: Kehot Publication Society, 1964.

[v] Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Haggadah and History. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974.

[vi] Plet, Philippe. Les Hébreux au désert : Lecture du livre de l’Exode. Paris: Salvator Editions, 2018.

The expression “crossing the desert”, which has become part of everyday language to designate difficult periods in a person’s life, masks the rich spiritual significance of the peregrination of the Hebrews when they left Egypt, as recounted by the Bible in the books of Exodus and Numbers. Philippe Plet invites us to follow this peregrination in the desert, step by step, to the rhythm of the joys and fatigues, the days and nights. Beyond the facts themselves, beyond the sole historical dimension, it is indeed the discovery of a God of love and the growth of faith, a pedagogy lived by a people on the march. This path of purification, this collective experience that merges with the life of Moses cannot remain a dead letter for the Christian of today. Following Christ who died and rose again, it invites us to a movement of personal conversion. For we all have to leave the profane world, these “Egyptians” who imprison us, in order to live a time of purification and interior liberation. Philippe Plet is a religious and passionate person who has published several works with Salvator, including Les grandes énigmes de l’Apocalypse, Babel ou le culte du bonheur, and La passion selon saint Jean.

[vii]https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-wilderness-years/

[viii] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus%203%3A8&version=NKJV

[ix] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus%2016%3A3&version=NIV

[x] Greifenhagen, F.V. “Plagues of Egypt”, in Freedman, David Noel; Myers, Allen C. (eds.). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Amesterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000, p. 1062.

[xi] The Bible prohibits the eating of leaven during the festival of Passover (Exodus 12:15-20). The Hebrew word “hametz” is translated as leavened bread and refers to food prepared from five species of grain–wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye–that has been allowed to leaven. To these, Ashkenazic authorities add rice, millet, corn, and legumes, collectively known as kitniyot. [It should be noted that the Conservative movement has declared that kitniyot may be consumed on Passover even by its Ashkenazic followers.]

[xii] The rule against leaven applies not only to its consumption but also to enjoying any benefit thereof and even to its possession. Therefore, before the arrival of Passover, all leaven must be removed from one’s premises. Nor should one have leaven in his legal possession.

[xiii] Assmann, J. Farber, Z. ‘’Sacrificing a Lamb in Egypt”, TheTorah.com, 2016. https://thetorah.com/article/sacrificing-a-lamb-in-egypt

[xiv]Lloyd, Alan B. “Herodotus’ Account of Pharaonic History.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, vol. 37, no. 1, 1988, pp. 22–53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4436037

[xv] Daise, Michael A. “‘Christ Our Passover’ (1 Corinthians 5:6–8): The Death of Jesus and the Quartodeciman Pascha.” Neotestamentica, vol. 50, no. 2, 2016, pp. 507–26, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417647

[xvi] McGinnis, Claire Mathews. “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Christian and Jewish Interpretation.” Journal of Theological Interpretation, vol. 6, no. 1, 2012, pp. 43–64, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26421434

[xvii] https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/passover

[xviii] Purim is a Jewish holiday of biblical origin and rabbinic institution, which commemorates the events recounted in the Book of Esther: the miraculous deliverance from a large-scale massacre planned against them by Haman the Agaggite in the Persian Empire during the reign of Ahasuerus (Xerxes I).

The festival is celebrated every year on the 14th of Adar (in February or March of the Gregorian calendar). When the month of Adar is doubled (embolismic years), Purim is celebrated on 14 Adar II. This date corresponds to the last Full Moon of winter, one moon before the first Full Moon of spring, marked by the festival of Pesach.

To the traditional practices, recorded in the Book of Esther and ordered by the Sages of the Mishna, were added various customs, notably culinary, with the hamantaschen or deblas (ears of Aman), as well as joyous and carnivalesque demonstrations, and the use of rattles at the evocation of the name of Haman.

Cf. Elliott Horowitz. Reckless rites: Purim and the legacy of Jewish violence. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2006.

[xix] Bedikat Hametz: Searching for Leaven

The night before Passover, immediately after sundown, one begins the search for leaven (Code of Jewish LawOrach Chayyim 431:1). The aim of the search is to be sure that no leaven has been left behind after the cleaning of the house. The procedure includes these items: a candle; a feather, which acts as a broom; and a wooden spoon into which the pieces of bread will be scooped. First, a candle is lit, and the following benediction is recited:

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melekh ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’’zivanu al be’ur chametz. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made us holy by mitzvot [commandments] and instructed us concerning the burning of the hametz. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/leaven-hametz/

[xx] Kitov, Elyahu. The Book of Our Heritage. The Jewish Year and its Day of Significance Vol. I Translated by N. Bulman Tishrey –Shevat. New York & Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1973, p. 518.

[xxi] Upbin, DAnielle. “Searching for Chametz in Home and Heart: Shloshim for Ari Gold Z”L, 5781” , Sefaria, https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/307890?lang=bi

משנה פסחים א׳:א׳-ב׳

(א) אוֹר לְאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר, בּוֹדְקִין אֶת הֶחָמֵץ לְאוֹר הַנֵּר. כָּל מָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין מַכְנִיסִין בּוֹ חָמֵץ אֵין צָרִיךְ בְּדִיקָה. וְלָמָה אָמְרוּ שְׁתֵּי שׁוּרוֹת בַּמַּרְתֵּף, מָקוֹם שֶׁמַּכְנִיסִין בּוֹ חָמֵץ. בֵּית שַׁמַּאי אוֹמְרִים, שְׁתֵּי שׁוּרוֹת עַל פְּנֵי כָל הַמַּרְתֵּף. וּבֵית הִלֵּל אוֹמְרִים, שְׁתֵּי שׁוּרוֹת הַחִיצוֹנוֹת שֶׁהֵן הָעֶלְיוֹנוֹת:

Mishnah Pesachim 1:1-2

On the evening of the fourteenth [of Nissan] we check for leavened bread by the light of a candle. Any place which we do not bring leavened bread into does not require checking. And why did [the sages] say [that we must check up to] two rows in the wine cellar? [It is] a place which we bring leavened bread into. The House of Shammai say: Two rows upon the entire wine-cellar. The House of Hillel say: The two outer rows, which are the uppermost.

[xxii] Klein,Isaac. ‘’The Laws of Passover’’, JTS, February 11, 2013. https://www.jtsa.edu/torah/the-laws-of-passover/

[xxiii] The seder (Hebrew: סדר “order”) is a highly symbolic Jewish ritual specific to the festival of Pesach, aimed at making its participants, especially the children, relive the sudden accession to freedom after the years of slavery in Egypt of the children of Israel.

Celebrated on the evening of the 14th of Nissan in the Land of Israel, and on the evenings of the 14th and 15th of Nissan outside the Land of Israel because of the second holiday of the Diaspora communities, it is the result of a continuous, centuries-old elaboration of the Haggadah. Its core dates back to the Mishna and seems to show Greco-Roman influences; it was then enveloped in various Babylonian customs during the period of the Amoraim and the Gueonim, was the subject of various codifications during the Middle Ages and was enriched with numerous songs around the 16th century. Finally, it has undergone various recent reinterpretations, both Zionist and communist.

[xxiv] Sicker, Martin. A Passover Seder Companion and Analytic Introduction to the Haggadah. Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2004.

The Passover Seder, the most popular and widely celebrated occasion on the annual Jewish calendar, and its Haggadah, which is a unique combination of liturgy, biblical exegesis, and rabbinic lore, have both delighted and confounded celebrants for nearly two thousand years. Over time, the traditional Haggadah has become increasingly obscure as the distance between the authors and readers, in both chronological and cultural terms, widens over time. This is because the Haggadah is essentially a rabbinic work, much of which is written in a style similar to that found in the classic works of Rabbinic Judaism such as the Talmud and Midrash, works that demand much more from those who would understand them than casual perusal.

Although some good translations of the Haggadah have appeared over the years, even the best is necessarily an interpretation as well, and may tend to obscure some of the nuances in the original language of composition that permit alternative explanations of the author’s intent. The problem of maintaining fidelity to the original has become exacerbated as efforts to make the text more relevant to the modern reader have in some instances introduced assertions that, while essentially meaningful, bear little direct relation to the language and likely intent of the original work. This book strives to unravel the mysteries of the traditional text of the Haggadah and provide the reader insight into the highly sophisticated thought of its authors.

 

About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.
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