This festival, observed on the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan (March/April), commemorates the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Of the five lists of festivals in the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 23.14–17; 34.18–25; Lev. 23.1–37; Num. 28–29; Deut. 16.1–6), only the last three make reference to Passover (Lev. 23.5; Num. 26.16; Deut. 16.1–8), and all of these associate the celebration with the seven‐day festival of unleavened bread, which commences on the fifteenth of the month. Exodus 23.14–17 and 34.18–23 mention only the festival of unleavened bread as an early spring celebration. The narrative in Exodus 12.1–36 provides an explanation of the origin of Passover as well as the features involved in its celebration; this narrative also associates Passover (12.1–14) with the festival of unleavened bread (12.15–20).

According to Exodus 12.1–13, the following were characteristic of Passover. On the tenth day of the month, the animal to be slaughtered was selected and set aside for safekeeping; according to Exodus 12.5, the animal was an unblemished, one‐year‐old goat or lamb, although Deuteronomy 16.2 includes calves. The animal was slaughtered on the fourteenth day late in the afternoon. Some blood of the animal was smeared on the doorposts and lintels of the houses. The animal was roasted whole (see Exod. 12.46 and Num. 9.12; Deut. 16.7 specifies boiling, which would have required dismemberment). The flesh was eaten, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, by members of the household or associated households. The meal was eaten in haste, with the participants dressed for flight. Any uneaten meat, should there be any, was to be burned the next morning.

The eating of unleavened bread at the meal is explained by the haste with which the Israelites had to flee (Exod. 12.34, 39), but no biblical explanation is offered for the consumption of bitter herbs. The daubing of the blood on the doorposts, later assumed to have been part of only the original episode, is described as marking the houses of the Israelites so that God would bypass their homes in the slaughter of the firstborn. (Note the similar substitution of a ram for the firstborn in Gen. 22, and the similar use of a red marker to avoid death in Josh. 2.17–21.)

If people were ritually unclean or away on a journey when Passover was observed in Nisan, they could celebrate the festival in the second month in similar fashion (Num. 9.1–13). Foreigners and thus non‐Jews who had settled among the people were allowed to keep the Passover, provided they were circumcised (Exod. 12.48–49; Num. 9.14).

Although Exodus 12 seems to imply that Passover was a home festival and thus could be observed apart from a pilgrimage to a sanctuary, Deuteronomy 16.5–7 requires that the slaughter of the animal and the meal occur at a place (sanctuary) that God would choose. The same pilgrimage requirement seems assumed by Exodus 34.25 and Leviticus 23.4–7.

The Hebrew name of the festival, Pesah, is derived from the verb that means “to protect,” “to have compassion,” “to pass over,” and is used to describe the action of God in the Exodus narrative (12.13, 23, 27). The English designation “passover” shows the influence of the Vulgate translation.

Most scholars assume that Passover was originally a spring festival, associated with a shepherding culture, that was secondarily related to the Exodus story (note the reference to a festival in Exod. 5.1 before the Exodus). Such a celebration would have been connected with either the annual spring change of pastures or the sacrifice of the firstborn to insure the continued fertility of the flocks (see Exod. 22.29–30) or both. Characteristics pointing to such an origin for the festival in Exodus 12 are the lamb or goat to be slaughtered, cooking by roasting, the time of the year (which coincides with the lambing season and the change of pastures), the absence of priest and altar, the lack of dedicating any part of the edible flesh to God, the family nature of the celebration, and the nocturnal observance at the time of full moon.

The tractate Pesaḥim in the Mishnah provides a description of the way that the rabbis (about 200 CE) understood Passover to have been celebrated before the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). Many of the features reflected in Pesaḥim are thus characteristic of the observance at the time of Jesus (see Lord's Supper), and some have continued in Jewish tradition to the present. The following elements in the celebration are noteworthy.

The people brought their Passover animals to the Temple in the late afternoon and, because of the numbers of worshipers, were admitted to the sanctuary in three separate groups. The worshipers slaughtered their animals and the priests caught the blood and tossed it against the altar. The animals were flayed and cleaned in the Temple courtyard, with the required fat and internal portions being burned on the altar (Lev. 3.3–4). While each group was performing these functions, the Levites sang the Egyptian Hallel psalms (Pss. 113–118) and repeated them if time allowed (Pesaḥ. 5.5–10).

The animals were carried from the Temple precincts and cooked for the Passover meal. Cooking was done by roasting so as not to break any bone in the animal (Pesaḥ. 7.1,11; see Exod. 12.46; John 19.36).

At the meal, everyone ate at least a portion of the Passover animal. The flesh was eaten along with varied herbs (Pesaḥ. 2.6), unleavened bread, a dip (ḥărôset) composed of pounded nuts and fruits mixed with vinegar, and four cups of wine. After the second cup, a son asked the father, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and the father instructed the son on the basis of Deuteronomy 26.5–11. Between the second and third cups, Psalm 113 (or 113–114) was sung. After the fourth cup, the Hallel was concluded. At the conclusion of the meal, the people departed but not to join in revelry (Pesaḥ. 10.1–8).

The people sought to celebrate the meal as if they themselves had come out of Egypt—“out of bondage to freedom, from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to festival day, and from darkness to great light, and from servitude to redemption” (Pesaḥ. 10.5).

See also Feasts and Festivals; Leaven


John H. Hayes