History of Passover
This year, the sunset on the evening of April 8 marks the beginning of Passover. Exodus 12 in the Bible tells the story of Passover from the life of Moses. Ten plagues were visited upon the Egyptian pharaoh (starring Yul Brenner in “The Ten Commandments,” but he was much better in “The King and I”) to get his attention to release the Children of Israel from bondage. The final plague was the death of the first-born son visited upon the land by the angel of death. The Jews were to smear the blood of a sacrificed lamb upon their doorposts so that the angel of death would “Passover” them unharmed. Pharaoh relented and released the Israelites. The Israelite slaves took the “road out” of Egypt; the Greek word is Exodus.
In making their hasty exit, the Jews did not have time to let their bread rise, so in commemoration, they celebrate the Passover Seder (“order”) meal with unleavened bread (matzo), bitter herbs, and roast lamb to be eaten in traveling garb. The term Passover is often used interchangeably with the term Feast of Unleavened Bread at least in St. Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 22:1,) though the first century Pharisees marked the seven-day feast to begin on the day after Passover. Nevertheless, during the seven days celebration following Passover, only unleavened bread was eaten. In the present-day celebration, all yeast is to be removed from a Jewish house during this time.
This was a major holiday in the Jewish calendar when Jews from all over the world return to Jerusalem. During Easter Week, which was at Passover, the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time would have tripled from its population of about 50,000.
Could The Last Supper (popularized by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting now hanging in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazia in Milan, Italy) that Jesus had with his disciples in the Upper Room have been a Passover meal? It seems likely from the New Testament Gospels, and the Epistles make it explicit. The Gospel of Mark 14:12 says it was “on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread” when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb. Some churches commemorate this meal by using unleavened bread for their Communion “Lord’s Supper.”
The traditional Jewish greeting is Pesach Sameach.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian