The Passover

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 10 December 2018; Revised 13 June 2022



Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version (TLV), © 2014 by Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.

Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at The numbering system of the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is identified with "SH" (Strong's Hebrew number). Strong's Online.

Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic and Jewish nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).


Institution of Passover

Passover After Egypt

The Passover Seder

The Passover Question

Institution of Passover

"This month will mark the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year for you." (Ex 12:2)

The Passover is a special meal that has been celebrated by Jews since ADONAI commanded the observance and gave instructions to Moses. The first Passover was eaten in the context of Egyptian captivity and served as the means of deliverance from slavery and a plague of death on the firstborn. Unlike the previous nine plagues on the Egyptians in which the Israelites were miraculously protected, they would have suffered the tenth plague if they had not followed the Passover instructions.

The story of the plague and the first Passover are detailed in Exodus 12:1—13:16. Thereafter, Passover would celebrate that rescue and remain a living memorial of that great work of redemption (Deut 16:1-8). The Passover deliverance made salvation distinctly national in scope and truly set Israel apart as a special people. Slaves and sojourners or resident aliens (Gentiles) were allowed to share the meal with the Israelite families as long as they were circumcised (Ex 12:48). This simple provision demonstrated that salvation for Gentiles has always been based on inclusion in Israel (cf. Eph 2:11-13).

Divine instructions for the observance of the first Passover were given at the new moon in the first month of spring, Aviv (later called Nisan; Esth 3:7; Neh 2:1). On the 10th day a year-old male lamb would be chosen for each household and subsequently killed on the 14th day of the month. Having the lamb for four days in the home allowed sufficient time to determine whether there were any physical abnormalities or health problems in the lamb, because ADONAI would accept only a perfect lamb. The blood of the slain lamb was then smeared on the doorframes so that the angel of death would "pass over" the household and spare the firstborn therein from death.

The first Passover meal had only three ingredients – roasted lamb, unleavened bread (Heb. matstsah, Anglicized as matzah) and bitter herbs (Heb. maror) (Ex 12:8). These foods were chosen for both practical and theological reasons (Deut 16:3). The lamb had to be roasted in its entirety over an open fire without breaking any bones. Under no circumstances was the lamb to be eaten raw or boiled with water. The matzah was prepared as a flatbread, using just whole grain flour, water and oil. The original instruction (Ex 12:39) described its preparation as "disc-shaped" (Heb. uggah). The dough prepared by hand was flattened, then poked or pricked with a sharp instrument to keep the finished product from puffing up and baked at a high temperature.

The meal was to be eaten with shoes on and staff in hand and "in haste" (Ex 12:11), presumptively ready to depart, because they could not be sure when permission would be received from Pharaoh to leave the country. However, the instruction in verse 22 not to leave their houses before morning would clarify the common translation of verse 11 that the Passover meal was to be eaten in a hasty manner. We should not assume the meal that took hours to prepare was gulped down in a few minutes.

The noun that Bible versions translate as "haste" or "hurriedly" (Heb. chippazon) also means "in trepidation," and is derived from a verb that means "to tremble, to be alarmed." This meaning is emphasized by the last clause of that verse "it is the Passover of ADONAI." In other words, this is not an ordinary meal, because it is eaten in honor of the Holy One revealed in the burning bush. The requirement of being girded, wearing sandals in the house, and a staff in the hand, were marks of readiness to obey, not indicators of leaving in the middle of the night. Indeed, in verse 10 any lamb that remained uneaten by morning was to be burned.

Partaking of a meal with special ingredients to commemorate the redemption of Israel from Egypt illustrates that from the Hebrew perspective "theology is not only taught, it is also eaten" (Kasdan 27). Since all leaven had to be removed from homes on Nisan 14 in preparation for the Passover meal (Ex 12:15; Deut 16:4) and only unleavened bread was served at the Passover meal, Passover began the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which lasted seven days to Nisan 21 (Num 28:17).

By the first century the term "Passover" had come to mean the entire eight-day festival (Wilson 239). In fact, Luke emphasizes this very point: "Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover" (Luke 21:1). This unity can be seen as early as the Passover celebrated in the time of King Josiah when Passover sacrifices included both lambs (killed on Nisan 14) and bulls (killed on Nisan 15-21) (2Chr 35:7-9).

Passover After Egypt

"This day is to be a memorial for you. You are to keep it as a feast to ADONAI. Throughout your generations you are to keep it as an eternal ordinance" (Ex 12:14)

ADONAI expressly commanded the Israelites to celebrate the feast of Passover annually in perpetuity (Ex 12:14). Failing to observe Passover would be a sin (Num 9:13). Josephus summarized the schedule and reason for the continued observance:

"In the month of Xanthicus, which is by us called Nisan, and is the beginning of our year, on the fourteenth day of the lunar month, when the sun is in Aries, (for in this month it was that we were delivered from bondage under the Egyptians,) the law ordained that we should every year slay that sacrifice which I before told you we slew when we came out of Egypt, and which was called the Passover." (Ant. III, 10:5)

Scripture records that the Passover was observed the second year after the departure from Egypt (Num 9:1-5) and then not again until the Israelites actually entered Canaan (Josh 5:10). After that time the public observance of Passover is only mentioned four times (2Chr 8:13; 30:15; 2Kgs 23:21; Ezra 6:19). A question arose in the second observance concerning what to do if someone could not participate due to some uncleanness or if on a long journey. The Lord granted an exception that the person could observe Passover 30 days later (Num 9:6-14). With the instructions for the first Passover direction was also given for future observance (Ex 12:24-27; 13:1-16; 23:15; Num 9:1-3, 13-14; Lev 23:5-8; Deut 16:1-8). The Israelites would eat the same meal as the first Passover (Num 9:5) and the only work allowed during this period was the preparation of food.

Fathers were given a particular responsibility to teach the meaning of the Passover (Ex 12:26-27; 13:8; cf. Deut 6:20-25). ADONAI anticipated that in the midst of the Passover meal a son would ask, "What does this service mean?" The father is instructed to reply, "It is the sacrifice of ADONAI's Passover, because He passed over the houses of Bnei-Yisrael in Egypt, when He struck down the Egyptians, but spared our households" (Ex 12:26-27).

For the first Passover the lamb was slaughtered, prepared and eaten by each household (Ex 12:3-4). Observance thereafter began to change. The feast was made obligatory for men and voluntary for women (Num 9:2; Deut 16:16). The later narratives of Passover indicate male participation without mention of households, although they may well have shared in the occasion (Num 9:4-10; Josh 5:10; 2Chr 30:21; 35:17). In addition, no instruction was provided to Israel at either Mt. Sinai or in Moab (nor anywhere else in Scripture) to reaffirm the rule for the first Passover of selecting lambs on Nisan 10 and keeping them in homes for four days.

Another change occurred in the instructions for slaughtering the lambs. God commanded that Passover lambs had to be slaughtered at the central sanctuary before being consumed by the family (cf. Lev 3:1-2; Deut 16:5-6). The Levites apparently had no prescribed priestly duties prior to the Torah being given at Sinai were assigned important tasks. The priest would make sure the lamb was unblemished (cf. Ex 12:5; Lev 17:5). After the owner killed the lamb by cutting the throat, the blood was drained into a bowl and poured by a priest onto the base of the altar (Lev 3:2). The priests would throw the parts of the carcass that were forbidden to eat into the altar fire. The carcass would be attached to a post for skinning. With the slaughter complete the owner would then take the meat to an oven for roasting.

The dispersion of Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians made observance of Passover problematic, although the calendar period could still have been observed with the required foods. With the Temple rebuilt under Ezra's leadership, pilgrimages to Jerusalem resumed in obedience to the Torah. Thus, in the Roman era the Passover observance meant that thousands of Jews traveled from the Diaspora to Jerusalem each year for this special feast. Josephus gives a census estimate of 2,700,200 during the reign of Caesar Nero based on the numbers of sheep sacrificed, one lamb for a company of at least ten but not more than twenty (Wars VI, 9:3).

Due to the impracticality of bringing lambs from the Diaspora, the priests established markets for pilgrims to purchase pre-approved lambs for the observance. It may be for this reason that the Mishnah contains no instructions about the selection of lambs for Passover. After the lamb was sacrificed at the Temple, the residents and pilgrims (mostly male) conducted the Passover in private homes.

The Passover Seder

By the first century new customs had come into being for the celebration of Passover. See the illustrated Shlomo's Passover Adventure for the details of festival participation by a Jewish family in the first century. (Click in the upper right corner to advance the slides.) See also the explanation of Passover observance in the first century by Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, Chap. 11).

The Passover evening meal came to be known by the Heb. term Seder ("say-dur"), which means order or arrangement and refers to the organization of the evening. While the Torah does not provide a chronological sequence of the evening activities, Rabbinic Judaism developed a 14-part Seder. NOTE: The Haggadah (lit. "telling") that sets forth the Seder service cannot be dated any earlier than the third century A.D. and not in a written form before the 10th century A.D.

Instructions for Passover were set forth in the Mishnah tractate Pesachim. The Mishnah generally reflects traditions followed in the first century, although to what degree cannot be determined with certainty. Pesachim reveals that among Jews the Passover became more than just a meal, but a sacred ceremony, which included ritual washings and the recitation of several prayers and Psalms.

Preparation for the Passover meal involved many details: the site, the furnishings, the meal preparation, serving the meal and cleaning up after the meal. An important task was the destruction of leaven, which could be accomplished in one of three ways: burning, crumbling it up into crumbs and tossing it into the wind, or dumping it into the sea. After the final disappearance of the sun (about 6 P.M.) and the first three stars had become visible, a threefold blast of the silver trumpets could be heard from the Temple-Mount ringing out to Jerusalem and far away, announcing the commencement of Passover (Edersheim 813).

The Passover meal could only be eaten after sundown of Nisan 14, or erev Nisan 15 (Ex 12:12; Deut 16:1, 6; M. Pes. 10:1), and absolutely not later than the middle of the night (M. Zeb. 5:7). Besides the three required foods various vegetables would be added to the menu for a complete meal. The Passover meal was obligatory on the first night of the festival and voluntary for the remaining days of the festival (M. Pes. 10:1; Pes. 91b; 120a).

New Customs

The Mishnah identifies seven important customs of the Passover Seder not specifically prescribed in the Torah.

• Blessings: Specific blessings are to be offered before the consumption of wine, bread or any other food (Berachot 6:1).

• Wine: The Seder includes the consumption of four cups of wine (Pes. 10:1). Festivals typically began and ended with a cup of wine, but the Sages believed that for the most joyous evening of the year two more should be drunk. The Mishnah says that even the poorest man in Israel should not drink less than four cups of wine on this occasion, even if they must be given him from the funds devoted to the charitable support of the very poor. The cups were not originally identified by name as in the modern Messianic Seder, but the cups symbolize the four promises of ADONAI to Israel:

"Therefore say to Bnei-Yisrael: I am ADONAI, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. 7 I will take you to Myself as a people, and I will be your God. You will know that I am ADONAI your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 So I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and give it to you as an inheritance. I am ADONAI." (Exodus 6:6-8)

• Bitter Herbs: Since the Torah does not define maror ("bitter herbs"), the Mishnah identifies different kinds of produce that satisfied the requirement of maror (Pes. 2:7): romaine or other dark lettuce, endive or chicory. Horseradish, which is commonly used today, wasn't adopted until medieval times. Maror symbolized the bitterness of slavery.

• Dipping Sauce: Sweetness was added to the Seder meal by the use of a dipping sauce called charoset, a mixture of fruit, nuts and wine, symbolizing the mortar used by the Israelites in the building projects (Pes. 2:9; 10:3).

• Posture: Participants reclined (Heb. shakab) while eating the meal. The first Passover was eaten while standing (Ex 12:11), but eventually reclining became obligatory for the Passover as a sign of freedom (Pes. 10:1). Rabbinic custom specified that reclining was not lying prone on the back or stomach, or on the right side, but only on the left side to facilitate eating with the right hand (Pes. 108a). However, bitter herbs were not to be eaten while reclining. Also, reclining was not done for the first two cups of wine, because the story of Exodus declares 'we were slaves.'

• Child's Question: The question of children [lit. "sons"] set forth in Exodus 12:26 was changed to "Why is this night different from all other nights?" (Pes. 10:4). The new question was to be asked by a son. The father is to respond by quoting Deuteronomy 26:5-9. If no child is present the question must still be asked and answered (Pes. 116a).

• Hymn: The Seder concluded with the recitation of the Hallel, which consisted of some portion or all of Psalm 113 to 118 (Pes. 5:5).

The Mishnah provides some instruction on setting the food before the host.

"Herbs and vegetables are then to be brought; the lettuce is then to be immersed, part thereof eaten, and the remainder left until after the meal arranged for the night is eaten; then unleavened cakes are to be placed before him as well as the lettuce, sauce (charoset), and two kinds of cooked food, although it is not strictly obligatory to use the same; R. Elazar ben Zadok, however, said, that it is obligatory. During the existence of the Holy Temple, the paschal sacrifice was then placed before him." (Pes. 10:3)

Pesachim also mentions a sandwich formed with the meat and bitter herbs stacked between two pieces of matzah (Pes. 115a). The sandwich was intended to fulfill the instruction of Numbers 9:11, "In the second month on the fourteenth day at twilight, they shall observe it; they shall eat it [the lamb] with unleavened bread and bitter herbs." Pesachim identifies the creator of the sandwich as Hillel the Elder (110 BC−AD 10). The Hillel Sandwich was not widely practiced due to the disapproval of other rabbinic authorities.

More Traditions

A custom associated with Passover, but not mentioned in Scripture or the Mishnah is the Fast of the Firstborn (Ta'anit Bechorim), which expresses gratitude for the saving of Israel's firstborn sons from the tenth plague. The fast, which dates from Talmudic times, is observed the day before Pesach, Nisan 14. The Mishnah does say that it was customary for men to refrain from eating on the eve of Passover from Minchah (afternoon prayer) to the meal-time so as to enter with an appetite (Pes. 10:1; 99b), but such is not a fast.

More practices of the Seder not found anywhere in the Talmud were added by Jews in later centuries:

• dipping karpas (usually parsley) in salt water or wine vinegar. Karpas symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.

• setting a fifth cup of wine during the Seder: the Cup of Elijah, which is not consumed in the meal. The cup honors the promise that Elijah will announce the arrival of the Messiah, who will bring all Jews to Israel for good. In the Talmud Elijah is the one who will clear up all doubts when he comes (Pes. 13a).

• eating a beitzah (roasted egg) as a symbol of mourning due to the destruction of the temple and loss of the chagigah sacrifices.

• singing Dayenu ("it would have been enough").

• hiding the afikoman (dessert piece of matzah) for the children.

• singing Chad Gadya ("one little goat") at the end of the meal. In addition, many Jews decline to eat lamb, since there is no Temple for sacrifice and instead place a lamb shank bone on the Passover plate to remind them of the days of the Temple.

NOTE ON AFIKOMAN: The Mishnah mentions Afikoman (Heb.אפּיקוֹמן, spelled "Apikoman"), but not with the meaning commonly associated with it. The Mishnah says, "One may not conclude after the paschal meal [by saying], 'Now to the entertainment [apikoman]!' (Pes. 10:7). Apikoman is a transliteration of Grk. epikōmon (Jastrow), the neuter form of epikōmos, "revelry" (LSJ). Afikoman had two functional meanings: (1) dessert or (2) entertainment that follows the meal.

Banquets among pagans typically ended with bouts of drinking, revelry and music, and thus the Seder participants were not to remove themselves to another group for such frivolity. The ban on afikoman was meant to preserve the sacred gratitude and reverent joy over the meaning of the meal (Pes. 86a; 119b). However, by Rabbinic rule the matzah is broken during the meal and a portion set aside for the end of the meal, since the Seder was to end with the taste of matzah on the tongue.

The Passover Question

"What do you mean by this service?" (Ex 12:26 ESV)

God informed the Israelites that in the future after they entered the promised land their children would ask an important question. The key word in the question is Heb. avodah (SH-5656), which some versions translate as "ceremony," "rite" or "ritual." These translations are misleading because the first Passover was not a religious ceremony. The Hebrew word literally means labor or service, and sometimes refers to the physical labor of work, but most frequently is used of religious observance and presentation of sacrificial offerings at the tabernacle or temple. Some versions provide the literal translation of "service" (ASV, ESV, HNV, KJV, JPS, NKJV, RSV).

The original question had nothing to do with seeking the rationale for consuming a special meal in a different manner than a normal meal and the Mishnah offers no explanation of why the question was changed. The anticipated question hints at the fact that Israel did not observe Passover for thirty-eight years in the wilderness. When Passover was observed in celebration after crossing the Jordan River and laying claim to the land (Josh 5:10), fathers would be called upon to explain the rebellion and disobedience of Israel during those years.

Relevant to understanding the significance of the service of Passover is that the combination of lamb and unleavened bread would be required as the daily burnt offering in the sanctuary, accompanied by a drink offering of wine (Ex 29:38-43). The burnt offering accomplished atonement and cleansed the sanctuary (cf. Ex 45:18-20). While the lambs slaughtered for the first Passover meal in Egypt did not in the strict sense provide atonement for sin, that service of Passover hinted at the future provision of sin offerings that would be made at Sinai. The blood of the first Passover lambs accomplished redemption from death, and yet death is the result of sin. Thus, the blood of the Passover lambs prevented suffering the consequences of sin, specifically the sin of Pharaoh.

In the sacrificial system instituted at Sinai the lambs killed for the first evening Passover meal function as peace offerings, because only peace offerings were consumed by the people. The peace offering (detailed in Leviticus 3) is a celebration of shalom between all the participants. Yet the observance of Passover required special sacrifices (Heb. chagigah) of bulls, lambs and rams on Nisan 15–21, including a sin offering each day (Num 28:16–25; cf. Deut 16:1–3; 2Chr 30:24; 35:8–9). The instructions for festival sacrifices are found in Tractate Hagigah.

The invention of a substitute question could have come about because of the need to explain why various customs not specified in the Torah had been added to the observance. The destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 meant that lambs could no longer be slaughtered at the temple and more emphasis fell on the other foods and customs. Moreover, the instruction of Moses does not give the son's question the force of a commandment. Fathers were simply expected to teach their children about the history of Israel.

A more likely reason for changing the son's question is an unwillingness to confront the implied theology of the question. The revised question might reflect a negative reaction to Messianic Jews (followers of Yeshua) who interpreted Passover observance as representing Messianic hope. They could point to the fact that the first mention of bread and wine in Scripture is in Genesis 14:18 where Melchizedek brought these items to celebrate Abraham's victory and Melchizedek represented the Messiah (Ps 110:4). Moses had served as a Messianic figure by his institution of Passover and leading the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Moreover, he later informed Israel that a prophet like him, a Messianic deliverer, would arise and he must be obeyed (Deut 18:15).

The first Messianic Jews viewed Passover through the lens of Isaiah 53, and thus the Passover Seder and festival became an acted out parable of the sufferings of the Messiah and the atonement for Israel (cf. Luke 22:19; 1Cor 11:26). They understood that Passover with its message of redemption had always foreshadowed the greater redemption to be accomplished by the Messiah. Like the matzah the Messiah would be pierced (Isa 53:5; cf. Ps 22:16). Like the lamb (Isa 53:7), Messiah's death would bring redemption from sin and eternal life. As a result of his own deliverance from death (Isa 53:10; cf. Ps 16:10; 21:4) the Messiah would become an intercessor for Israel and make many righteous (Isa 53:11-12). The service of Passover declares that the Messiah is the Passover lamb of shalom and the Passover sin offering. See the article The Messianic Meal.

Works Cited

Edersheim: Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah(1883). New Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1993. Also online.

Jastrow: Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1903, 1926. Online.

Kasdan: Barney Kasdan, God’s Appointed Times. Lederer Messianic Publications, 1993.

LSJ: Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. Rev. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. Clarendon Press, 1940. Online.

Wilson: Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989.

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