Abram Epstein

Passover notes: A guide to making your seder more historical

I understand the dilemma. After years (perhaps) of engaging the gathered family and guests, often in a give-and-take of playful interactive questions about the items on the seder plate, and the other with three pieces of stacked matzot (plural) you shall no doubt hear yourself saying, “The matzah is a symbol of bread not having time to rise because we raced out of Egypt” and the “Bitter herbs are a symbol of the bitterness of slavery we endured–with sweet charoset–a delicious recipe resembling mortar for the bricks to build Ramses’ storehouses–and a lamb shank to recall that night of sacrifice to God with blood on our doorposts so the grim reaper’s 10th plague would Passover our Hebrew homes…”

Here are a few guidelines to more closely ascribe the actual historical origins of our three main Passover symbols: Matzah, Lamb, and Bitter Herbs.

Let me begin by painting a picture of what was going on the night of the escape. According to my estimation, from the time Ramses II came to power and took the men between 20 and 50 into forced labor, around 1280 BCE until his son Merenptah caved to the Tenth Plague about 1205, only the decimated families of women, children and seniors were those who participated as we sat down for that fateful dinner. Our enslaved Hebrew men would (after midnight) meet their families from whom they had been separated on the escape route traveling from Ramses to Sukkot, about 600,000 strong (Exodus 12:37).

In fact, for the apparent 75 years of their forced labor, those who had been conscripted included many of the first-born sons. Traditionally, before enslavement, they were the titular ritual leaders of what had always been the 14th of Nisan Festival thanking God for the bounteous barley harvest. NOW, for that past 75 years, and up until the very night of escape, the decimated families celebrated without their ritual leaders–those enslaved first-born sons.

Absent the terrifying prospect of what lay ahead on that fateful night of escape, their last dinner was a lot like our traditional seder–except without the order of rituals which were put in place millennia later.

YOUR SEDER NOW REPLICATES THEIR MEAL. (Those unfamiliar with the Torah passages, may find the basic description in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 12.)

After Kiddush, and washing hands, dipping a sprig of springtime vegetable in salty water–


The ritual is known as YAHATZ.

Many contemporary Jewish families focus on hiding one half as the so-called “afikomen” (last food item to be tasted) which is hidden and meant to be found by a child for a post-meal prize.

A far more sophisticated rabbinic tapestry of interpretations range from that hidden piece symbolizing our Hebrew exile, to mystical Kabbalistic insights about our relationship with the unknowability of our Creator.

Historically, however, such midrashic treasures are not tethered to circumstances in Egypt on that night of awe. In the Talmud, and more contemporary with our own time, prominent rabbis have proffered other erudite opinions as to why we break the matzah.

The two most prevalent conclusions are:

1. The breaking of the matzah symbolizes either: We Hebrews must always remember we had nothing in Egypt, that we were poor. Therefore, the middle half of the remaining matzah is a poor person’s bread; as we were in Egypt.


2. The breaking of the matzah symbolizes the miracle of God’s causing the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, enabling our People to cross, and drowning the Pharaoh’s pursuing army.

Forgive the pun, Neither of these hold water–at least not historically.

The problem, I strongly assert, begins with not understanding the reason God commands us to eat matzah in the first place.

(And please do not say we eat matzah because the bread did not have time to rise. Moses issued God’s command we eat only matzah and had the bread risen it would have been a sin to eat it.)

So, I suggest, even before breaking the middle matzah, a seder leader would do well to share a brief chat about matzah itself. First, it was the only grain permitted as an offering to God. Yeast, which caused bread to rise, was a recognized impurity and was prohibited.

But why do we eat matzah–and why do we have a plate of three, one atop the other?

On the 14th of Nisan, apparently before enslavement began with Ramses II, the first-born Hebrews were Consecrated as leaders in a ceremony where three recipes of matzah cake were waved over a fire-pit and thrown into the flames as a sacred offering to God both for Thanksgiving (Exodus 7:11-7:15) and to Consecrate the first-born as ritual leaders (8:26; 8:30) (post-Exodus, to be replaced by Aaron and the Levite Priests).

So, the three matzot waved overhead and tossed on the out-of-doors fire pit,were Consecrating everybody at that ancient table as stand-in ritual leaders for the still- enslaved firstborn and such was probably the Goshen household ritual commencing the 14th of Nisan Festival for the entire period of slavery.

To be explicit: Although more a likelihood than a certainty, on that ancient night as the lamb was about to be roasted in the outdoor fire pit of each house, the gathering exited their dwelling and waved the two whole and 1/2 matzah piece over the flames and tossed them as Thanks and as Consecration of their role as a Nation of Priests.

A passage in Exodus (19:6) is explicit in describing the reality: “You shall be to Me a Kingdom of Priests.”

The community of Goshen families in their shattered state would express to God their brokenness as they tossed not the three matzot of Thanks and Consecration–but two, plus a fragmented one, to express to God that they were not whole and awaited His redemption.

All Hebrews observing the Festival’s rites as a national Priesthood were thus consecrated as equal before YHWH without lesser status or differentiation in holiness one from the other.

AT this point in your seder you take the middle of the three matzot and sunder it in two. After hiding the afikomen, you stand up–as may others who choose to do so –and waving the three matzot overhead say or chant the ancient words, “Ha Lachma Anya”–“This is the Bread of the Downtrodden…let all who are hungry come in and eat.”

No genuine seder may begin its telling of our freedom from Egyptian slavery without reciting these words. Coming down to us in their current Aramaic formulation from Ancient Babylonian exile over 2500 years ago, they would be loudly chanted at the gates of every ancient Jerusalem courtyard to insure no stranger was bereft of a seder on Pesach night.

If the ancient Babylonian community of Hebrews were breaking a piece of matzah and reciting “Ha Lachma Anya” (which they were), the broken matzah ritual of YAHATZ would indeed appear substantiated as having occurred during the era of enslavement in Egypt.

Notably the last line of “Ha Lachma Anya ” reads,

“Now many are still enslaved…next year may all be truly free.”

which seems to reflect an awareness the Babylonian “Ha lachma anya” was linked then, as it is now to the breaking of the matzah as a supplication to God for the redemption of the enslaved People.

Even as we are now consecrated as a Nation of Priests having waved the three matzot over our own seder tables, we may apply our understanding of the historical explanation of YAHATZ to our own time.

IF you would be true to the more historical ritual of YAHATZ, when you break the middle matzah, share the thought that it is meant to awaken our prayers for the return of those still enslaved or in exile–and those among all the world’s Peoples who may be suffering EXILE from their right to live in peace and tranquility and to rejoin their families as our People did the night we all made our escape from bondage in Egypt.

Still, you may ask, on Passover do we really become a Nation of Priests–all equal before God?

Though you may not have thought much about it, if you are traditional and did a search for and removal of “Hamaytz” (yeast/grain) from your household environment in order to perform the commandment of purifying your home of all leavening on Passover, you just turned it into a mini-Temple. That is exactly what the Levites and Priests did (post-Exodus) when they ceremonially prepared the earliest Temple court where sacrifices would be offered to God.

Furthermore, as we turn to the symbol of the lamb shank, and the lamb sacrifice– it recalls the offering made by the family’s ritual leader(s)–and NOT the priests, even after the escape from slavery. All the People acted as Priests in making the lamb sacrifice. And, the Passover lamb sacrifice was the only one offered by the whole People as a Nation of Priests–and not by the actual Priests, forever after.

Therefore, hold up the lamb shank, as a symbol of all people being equal before God.

AND, about that blood on the doorposts and lintels…

For those unfamiliar with Jewish law, Torah prohibits eating meat with blood still in it. Blood has always been considered sacred, containing the power of life. God’s command to put the lamb’s blood on the door lintels was to say: We recognize the value of the life you have given all living things. Please let us leave our dwellings this night without becoming ill from the terrible plague. And, in those days, when an animal was sacrificed, its blood, having the power of life, would be sprinkled on the altar itself and other areas of the shrine to ward off any sources of death. It had God’s power of life in it.


Have NOTHING to do with recalling the bitterness of slavery!!

There is no sensible basis for saying they served to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. First, the Torah does not say so. And why should it? Moses is directing they be eaten while the Hebrews are still enslaved. Is it likely slaves needed to be reminded of the bitterness of their own slavery?

Then what were the bitter herbs all about? They apparently were a medicine against intestinal ailments such as are attested in 19th century America as “Bitters” and lined every pharmacy shelf in varieties of bottled herbs and spices also promising relief from manifold maladies.

For us, that makes the Bitter Herbs evidence the plagues were real!

Why else would Moses direct the People to eat their meal with a condiment of preventive medicine preceding departure from the safety of their Goshen homes unless they were trekking into a region disease-wracked by an epidemic-wide plague. The Tenth!

As for the sweet haroset? What better way to make the bitter herbs palatable to the children and sufferable to the adults.

A last remark: To grasp the historical legacy of that ancient era–when we were slaves–to our own time we must make allowances for both the over-active Hebrew imagination, that of rabbis and sages over intervening eras, and generally time-eroded facts which have caused actual circumstances of those past times to be lost under the sands of time.

What we may realize is this: The ritual significance of matzah, lamb-sacrifice and bitter herbs originating in that bygone time, commonly lost to fanciful anachronistic symbolism, have been largely recovered in my work, while the rituals themselves have been preserved through canonized performance over the millennia. The vacuum left by the uncertainty of what circumstances led to the rituals has produced an array of scholarly and Talmudic explanations ranging from those which obfuscate our history to those which enhance the spiritual dimension. Absent those luminous ideas and midrashim which may contradict the circumstances I have outlined above, a seder benefits from the erudition each participant may bring to the ever-continuing subject of our struggle for a better, more liberated world.

Hag Pesach Sameach!
Happy Passover!

About the Author
Abram Epstein, a New Yorker, has served as Director of Education for several synagogues and actively participated in the Manhattan Educators’ Council. His graduate studies at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center focused on ancient Near Eastern religion and Biblical Judaism. He is a recipient of the university’s prestigious Founders’ Award for Academic Accomplishment and has a screen credit as Historical Consultant for "The Seventh Sign" starring Demi Moore. His other books include, "The Historical Haggadah," "The Matthias Scroll," "A Documented Biography of Jesus Before Christianity," and most recently, "The Matthias Scroll–Select Second Edition." Abram invites communication on his FB page: "Abram Epstein" or "Abram's Historical Writing."