Passover—An Evolving Holiday


If any holiday has changed dramatically over the course of Jewish history, it is Passover. Perhaps this is why it is today one of the most important Jewish holidays for secular and Humanistic Jews. Passover has its roots in the earliest Jewish experiences of farming and shepherding—shepherds sacrificed a lamb (the “pesakh”) in hopes of fertility, while farmers removed all old and leavened bread from their houses, eating only the more ancient form of unleavened bread (matzo). As described in Leviticus 23, the shepherd holiday was on the 14th of “the first month” while the farmer holiday began on the 15th and ran for 7 days. Note that even the calendar has changed: Nisan is the 7th month in our Jewish calendar today, and our first month of the new year is in the fall.

The Priestly editors of the Bible creatively connected what Jews already did to their new founding myth of the Exodus. The pesakh was connected to the killing of the Egyptian first-born and the ‘passing-over’ of Jewish households that marked their doorposts with lamb’s blood (Exodus 12:27). Matzo was connected to the Exodus: unleavened bread is eaten because Israel left Egypt in haste (Deut. 16:3). From around 450 BCE to the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, Passover was a central pilgrimage-and-sacrifice holiday, when Jews traveled to Jerusalem, sacrificed a lamb at the Temple, ate it with matzo and maror (bitter herbs; all three mentioned in Exodus 12:8), and retold the story of Yahweh (the God character in the story) delivering them from Egypt. An early version of the Four Questions asks about eating the lamb in one night in place of reclining, indicating both a rudimentary seder while the Temple stood, and also further evolution of the holiday after its destruction—our Four Questions are slightly different.

After 70 CE, it was impossible to perform sacrifices, so the meal and the telling of the story (in Hebrew, haggadah) became all-important. The Rabbis’ definition of the holiday in the Mishnah (transcribed oral law) included telling the Exodus story, eating specific foods, and saying certain phrases. Over time, the haggadah expanded to include new poems and prayers, like the Aramaic pieces Ha-Lakhma (this is the bread of affliction) and Had Gadya (one goat). The traditional haggadah narrative is essentially the Exodus, though Moses does not appear. Traditional foods ceremonially eaten during the seder are: karpas (greens), matzo, betzah (boiled egg), maror (bitter herbs), and charoset (made of apples and nuts for Ashkenazim, dates for Sephardim). In some Sephardic families, a lamb shank is also eaten. Most of these foods appear on a traditional Seder plate.

In the last 150 years, Jews have made changes to Passover traditions, for many reasons:

·      Historical doubt that the Exodus ever occurred remotely like the Bible’s description.

·      Theological and philosophical doubts about the anthropomorphic, active, and ethnocentric God Yahweh.

·      Today we celebrate human actions that improve our lives rather than the traditional haggadah’s celebration of the passive deliverance of the Hebrews by Yahweh.

·      Secular and Humanistic Jews do not rejoice in the suffering of others and do not gloat over the suffering of the Egyptians—who were mere pawns in the demonstration of Yahweh’s power in the traditional haggadah.

·      Secular and Humanistic Jews celebrate gender equality, unlike the near-total absence of women in the haggadah.

·      Secular and Humanistic Jews celebrate the continuing narrative of Jewish history, unlike the haggadah’s omission of any Jewish history later than the Exodus, as if everything since has been less important.

In some ways, the haggadah has become a primary vehicle for expressing modern Jewish identity: feminist haggadot celebrate Miriam, socialist haggadot trumpet a workers’ rebellion, Arthur Waskow’s 1969 “freedom haggadah” espouses contemporary radical politics, Rabbi Sherwin Wine’s “Humanist haggadah” celebrates human agency and free will (to name a few). Early kibbutzim also transformed the haggadah by injecting their ideologies and reality—“next year in Jerusalem” is very different when already living in Israel. Many family haggadot today are personalized compilations from sources ranging from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to the gospel song “Go Down, Moses.”

Even the table setting has transformed—Miriam’s cup appears beside Elijah’s, and some put an orange on the seder plate because of a widely circulated but unverifiable story. An Orthodox Rabbi, asked about woman rabbis (others say, the place of gays and lesbians in Judaism), supposedly responded, “A woman belongs on a bima (or gays belong in Judaism) like an orange belongs on a seder plate.” Thus many liberal Jews make the corresponding “so there!” gesture and include an orange on their seder plate.

Other suggested additions include a potato peel (Holocaust memory), a pomegranate (diversity/welcoming intermarried families), and so on; I would suggest, however, that at some point enough has to be enough.

Secular, cultural, and Humanistic Jews continue the tradition of telling stories, but they understand that the Exodus is only a story, not history, and they explore what history has to say about Jewish origins. They emphasize new themes like the courage of slaves to escape, the power of human beings to change their destiny, and the power of hope. For these Jews, all periods of Jewish history are important, so describing the real Exodus of millions of Jews from Eastern Europe to America or remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on the first night of Passover in 1943 are important pieces of their celebration.

The evolution, flexibility, and openness of Passover provide many opportunities for meaningful connection. Once we were slaves; now we are free—free to choose the readings, symbols, and ceremonies for our celebration.