The Passover Seder – Telling It Like It Was

Because most American Jews think the Hebrew Exodus was first documented in the Maxwell-house Haggadah, I offer the following observations.

With that thin, wine-stain-turned-brown pamphlet again placed on the once-a-year ceremonial Passover porcelain dinner plate, contemporary participants yawn their way across a desert of well-worn excerpts from Torah and Talmud re-treading the journey from slavery, eating matzah embittered with Goldman’s best red horseradish, crossing the divided sea, finally reaching the gateway to the Promised Land. Singing and reclining, everybody gives thanks more for the arrival of dinner than the miracle of freedom. Dayenu which originally thanked God for doing more than enough (at least for many) comes to mean “enough already!” having to do with the endless retelling of the same old story.

Those of Judean ancestry who have just read this and think they have “wrung out” the important message Pesach (Hebrew for Passover) conveys, reliving the Maxwell-house text year after year, I propose may wish to consider the following.

You probably were taught we eat matzah in order to recall how our ancient Hebrew forebears had to race out of Egypt in such a hurry the bread didn’t even have time to rise. But there’s something pretty odd about that explanation: It’s nowhere to be found in the Torah; in fact quite the opposite. God commands that we eat matzah before escaping!

(NOTE: Eloquently, in Exodus, chapter 12, God instructs Moses to tell the People to prepare for their escape, which is to be on the full-moon night of mid-month Nisan, and that the menu must feature a sacrificed, roast lamb, unleavened bread (matzah), and bitter herbs. This message is conveyed well in-advance of the 10th of Nisan, because that’s the date they are required to purchase their lambs, enabling four days of examination to assure the animals are disease-free. Chapter 12 Also details putting lamb’s blood on the doorposts, and dramatizes the coming departure).

Upon leaving Egypt under the full moon, we are commanded to carry our matzah and continue making it our only bread for the next week. Torah describes the People as carrying the dough and kneading bowls with them to continue baking unleavened bread once they reach their encampment. There is no description of any dough somehow becoming matzah as we made a run for it.

So what’s the big deal about matzah?

A bit of helpful context.

After the escape, our Hebrew priests, the Kohanim, always tossed only matzah on the altar of the traveling Temple (“mishkan”) as a harvest offering to God– and no ordinary leavened bread, while never mentioning Egypt in any associated prayers.

What would have been wrong with Levy’s seeded Rye? Leavened bread was susceptible to mold, and mold turned things sickly green and black and was known as a cause of illness and even death. Therefore, the only grain offering to God ever tossed on the altar was unleavened. Yes, Matzah. But, what does that have to do with Passover and our seder?

Let’s take a look at the three stacked matzot on the second seder plate.

The Torah describes the post-Exodus consecration of new Hebrew priests making a ceremonial offering of three recipes of matzah. Today regarded as symbols of the three strata of Israelite society (Kohanim, Levites, Yisraelim/Israelites), they were originally three types: matzah baked with oil, baked matzah spread with oil, and pan-fried flour mixed with oil (Exodus 29:1-29:2).

Today, we hold aloft the 3-matzot seder plate, as part of our ceremony in the fashion of that same offering. The seder leader raises the plate and invites the poor, or the outcast, to come and join in. (“Ha lachma anya”). Originally, raising the matzah offering overhead,waving, and tossing the three into the flames of the sacrificial altar or roasting pit was a ritualized form of making the matzah offering.

So we are enacting the consecration of the Hebrew people as: __ ______ __ ______ .

A NATION OF PRIESTS. (How’d you guess!?) Passover enacts the consecration of the Hebrew People as all equally holy to God, none superior or empowered to rule others in “the name of God.”

(Scholars’ corner: The Hebrew reads Exodus 19:6 “You will be to me a Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.” This wording has led Rashi and fellow-sages to conclude that there is a syntactical distinction between the Kohanim/Priests and those members of the nation who were not priests. I must therefore note that traditional Judaism would not accept my equating all Israel as equal in holiness to the priests. The evidence which proves Rashi was over-guarded in protecting the Aaronide lineage of the Kohanim, is, however, overwhelming. There is no doubt whatsoever that all Hebrews of whatever stratum of society were to consider themselves equal before God, and on the same spiritual level as the Temple priests. To ensure this message was not lost on the Kohanim, the very administrative functions of the priests were taken over by the People. Did that make them technically Aaron’s descendants? No. But whatever holiness could be ascribed to a priest, belonged to EVERY Hebrew in the most clearly expressed Torah doctrine of Exodus 19:6.)

The facts speak for themselves:

On the 14th of Nisan, who sacrificed the lamb eaten at every seder?

Every adult Hebrew was equally responsible for the sacrifice of the lamb. All the people were expected to participate in the sacrificial offering to God. If you could not come to Jerusalem, your home was to be equivalent to the Temple environs on Passover and you sacrificed it in your yard. That was Torah law.

Here is a summary of the main examples of the original Passover enactment consecrating the entire Hebrew People as a NATION of PRIESTS:

a.The search for impurity in the home (likening it to the area of the Temple and offering area).

b.The roasting of a lamb (emulating the altar)–not cooking it in any manner different than the Temple altar.

c. All the People sacrificing the lamb–not only the actual priests.

d. The putting of blood of the lamb on the doorposts emulating putting blood on the altar.

e. The offering of the three matzot, done by all the People, ceremonially consecrating all participants as members of the Hebrew nation in their role as a national priesthood.

Now that we’re all equal, let’s see who’s superior at answering these questions.

Question #1.

Which two items on the central seder plate are evidence the Ten Plagues were more than a legend, and in fact really happened?

Assuming you have adorned your seder table with traditional ceremonial items, the main plate will brandish a small shank of roast lamb, some parsley or lettuce, a few pieces of a bitter radish, some salty water, a roasted egg, and a sweet mixture of nuts, dates and honey, called charoset. To be sure, there may be creative variations, but the symbolic foods are what count.

After the seder leader invites a brief exchange about the symbolism of each, he or she may wish to challenge the guests with the above question.


Did you guess the bitter herbs and charoset?

The bitter herbs could not have commemorated the “bitterness of enslavement” as is the common interpretation of their importance.Why would they be on the menu as a memorial of slavery which had not yet ended? Nor are bitter herbs part of any ritualized Temple ceremony. They simply do not occur ever again in the context of a Torah commandment or scriptural passage. Then why did God command they be eaten before the escape from bondage?

The bitter herbs were medicine. They were what we may call a palliative, almost surely for the cure or onset of serious internal ailments typical of those afflicting the Egyptians as the plagues spread. The evidence is the countless variety of commercial “bitters” sold as remedies for disease prescribed and recommended for more than a century in our own era before the advent of modern medicine. As for haroset, nowhere is there any commandment requiring its ingestion. Yet, to a certainty, one may argue the strong likelihood a child would far more readily ingest bitter herbs if dipped in something as sweet and delicious as a nut and honey mixture. Therefore, I conclude, the bitter herbs and charoset are actual evidence there was plague, a historical remnant from the days of our first Pesach, that there was a lethal epidemic and the Hebrews living in Goshen were using bitters as a preventive medicine against the maladies affecting their Egyptian neighbors.

2. What is “Hametz”– and why does the Torah command us not to eat it on Pesach?

Answer: Hametz is yeast, a fungus which interacts with moisture to cause small bubbles in flour, and bread to “rise.” It may also be present in beverages like beer. When the process occurs in flour we refer to the change as “leavening.” In liquid we call it fermentation.

The Torah prohibits eating leavened bread (and fermented) products from the 14th-21st of Nisan. It does so because our Pesach heritage often recaptures a festival experience which has morphed over time, now having rituals with appended meanings. Leavened bread was originally understood to contain the same substance which might cause bread to become green if left exposed, might cause mold on walls, and could cause skin eczema. Mold was itself sometimes referred to as a “plague,” and was associated with serious illness. In the context of Pesach, the likelihood is that pre-slavery Egypt witnessed a Hebrew springtime festival when the firstborn and elders offered unleavened bread, tossing it onto an altar or roasting pit, thanking God for grain. NO LEAVENED BREAD could ever be offered to God on the altar. This holds true for all grain offerings tossed on the Temple altar after the Exodus. And, the reason had nothing to do with the escape from Egypt. Leavened bread was simply too impure to offer to God.

Here then, we have our first indication that by holding a seder we are acting as did the ancient “priesthood” of firstborn and elders, “offering” the matzah.

(A few examples of “hametz” today include: bread, pizza, cereal, cookies, donuts, pasta, grain vinegar, beans. Most booze. Note: Jews have gotten good at making unleavened look-alikes, if you take the trouble to check the Kosher for Passover label.)

3. Why was it necessary to put blood of the lamb sacrifice on the doorposts, and not red vegetable dye?

Answer: Blood was thought to contain God’s creative power of life itself. If too much came out of a living thing, it died. That was the evidence. So it could keep away death. The “Tenth Plague” does not enter Hebrew homes because God’s power of life is protecting their doorways — and therefore death (Heb: Mash-heet”), or, the cause of death, wouldn’t kill the Hebrews. Later it would be sprinkled on the Temple altar as a ritual to keep death away from the sacred precincts. (A footnote: The sanctity of blood is also at the heart of the kashrut prohibition of eating meat not drained of all blood.)

4. How are some of the biblical dietary laws (later called “kashrut”) evidence there were plagues? Is reciting kiddush (blessing over the wine) a possible legacy of the danger of the plagues?

Answer: Quite likely the plagues were real. One who doubts God’s miraculous intervention may still recognize they happened — and their effect was to empower us to escape. Here’s the first step in understanding the sequence of ecological disasters that may well have resulted in later kosher laws (kashrut):

Consider the water turning to blood was more probably the manifestation of red algae –seabeds of the oxygen consuming stuff. No air in the water, the fish die. The frogs come out for air and die in the heat (they’re cold-blooded). Swarms of insects feed off their decaying bodies, infecting cattle with skin disease and humans with boils. (Permit me not to dwell on hail, locusts, darkness). People are getting sick from drinking the water — and bottom-feeders like: Clams, oysters, crabs, lobsters, shrimp, calamari…all become toxic with the putrefying fish feces and their rotting detritus. BUT — not us Israelites! Living in Goshen with our own livestock and vineyards we knew how to check an animal’s health before eating it. Furthermore, we observed the danger inherent in seafood. No wonder we like being doctors!

As for Kiddush, two points. First, it’s a prayer thanking God for grape juice — not just wine. Imagine how important it became when the water went bad. Second, if the blessing over the “fruit of the vine” (i.e., grape juice) has nothing to do with the plagues, how come it ends with thanks to God for taking us out of Egypt (admittedly only circumstantial evidence)?

5. What does the word “Pesach” actually mean?

It has two definitions, First, it means to “skip” — either in the sense of a stone skipping on water, or a child skipping and, second, it has come to mean the sacrificed lamb roasted as an offering on Passover. Are these two meanings related? Of course today we name the entire festival with the name “Pesach.”

Answer: The style of a lamb when it runs is very similar to skipping and so there was the ancient name for a lamb as the “Skipper.” Just as in English today, “skip” could also imply that something was skipped over, that is, “not done” or “passed over.” So, by roasting the lamb and putting the blood on the doorposts, God says “I will skip over” your houses (Heb: Pasachti). God’s applying an image of a skipping lamb to Himself “Skipping Hebrew houses when causing the Tenth Plague) is actually word-play based on the movement and nickname for a lamb. Other than the resonance of poetic imagery, it has no other theological significance.

6. Is there an angel of death “passing over” Hebrew homes in the story?

Answer: Definitely not. First, God speaks of the events saying “I will mete out judgment — I and no angel. I and no other.” Second, the Torah explicitly states that it is God, passing over the Hebrew homes, causing the Tenth Plague.

AND for those who like trivial pursuit:

7. True or false: In the Torah, Moses’ mother speaks with the Pharaoh’s daughter.


8. True or false: Moses’ mother and father had an incestuous marriage.

True (Amram, Moses’ father, married his own father’s sister).

9. True or false: Moses tells the Pharaoh to let the People go so they may journey to the land of Canaan.

False: He repeatedly demands freedom to go on a three-day pilgrimage to worship God.

10. Where did they get their lambs, goats or sheep — if they were slaves?

Answer: They weren’t all slaves. Some educated guesswork suggests the men between 20 and 50 were — but the others could stay home and cultivate their herds and vineyards.

11. Most people spell “Pharo” “Pharaoh.” True.


12. How many people does the Torah say left Egypt?

Answer: 600,000 (not including children).

13. How long had the People been in Egypt when they made the Exodus?

Answer: About 430 years (Ca. 1650-1220 BCE)

14. For how many years were we “enslaved”?

Answer: About 75-85 years. From some time after the beginning of Ramses II (Ca. 1300 BCE) until some years into the reign of his son Merenptah (Ca. 1215).

15. What is the Pharaoh’s reason for enslaving the Hebrews?

Answer: To prevent the large Hebrew population from joining in war against the Pharaoh. This especially makes sense in the time of Seti I (Ramses II’s father) and Ramses II–because Egypt was battling in Canaan where Hebrews had joined in trying to prevent their conquest of Canaan. Yes, there were Hebrews who never moved to Egypt and the Pharaoh could correctly imagine the Goshen Israelites might ally themselves with their brethren in Canaan.

16. Was the Pharaoh’s law to kill the boys being born, meant for the “first-born?”

Answer: No. It was for all the newborn boys, not those who were older, that is, born first. Moses’ brother Aaron was the firstborn male in his family–being three years older than Moses and he is never threatened.

17. The Tenth plague brings death to all Egypt’s “firstborn.” This stands out as an odd punishment exacted by God. Why not match the Pharaoh and make it the death of the newborn boys? What’s significant about this plague?

Answer: A bit complicated, but crucial to understanding Pesach. The firstborn males were legally (in societal laws of the region) those who inherited the patriarchal role in each family. This included ownership of the family lands, etc. The choice ultimately depended on “approval” by the ruling gods. (In our Torah, God often reverses the choice, making an exception). So, if God were to cause a plague annihilating Egypt’s firstborn, it would signify a complete destruction of the gods of Egypt, taking away their power to choose the firstborn to inherit the land and rule. And, that is what the Torah describes: By destroying the firstborn Egyptians “I will strike down all the gods of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:12)

But what is the likelihood that an actual environmental catastrophe with an ecological breakdown of water and food, accompanied by disease carrying insects — would selectively kill the older sons, that is, the first-born. It wouldn’t. In fact, if we look at the Tenth Plague, quite noticeably it includes females. Furthermore, paralleling it to the Pharaoh’s edict, the ones dying would be newborns. So, here’s a reconstruction. The newborn, and those recently born — both male and female–being the most vulnerable may well have succumbed. The fact females are included suggests this was not a description with a theological “death-of-the-firstborn” agenda. When the story was canonized, the death of the newborn was changed to the firstborn to demonstrate God’s destruction of the Egyptian gods.

חג עם הקוהנים שמח!


The above is freely drawn from Abram Epstein’s “Historical Haggadah”

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."