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History - Pharaseeism - Passover #1

Adaptions and Adoptions

                       FESTIVALS OF THE JEWISH YEAR

                          A Modern Interpretation

by Theodor H. Gaster

(Written 1952/53)

You will see by the writing of the author he is a modern historic
secular believer. He does not believe the Bible is the "inspired"
word of God. But he does bring out some interesting facts of
history, that most may not know - Keith Hunt


The Festival of Freedom

     The festival of Passover is known in Jewish tradition as the
"Season of Our Freedom." Its central theme is Release. On the
seasonal plane, it marks the release of the earth from the grip
of winter. On the historical plane, it commemorates the exodus of
the Children of Israel from Egypt. On the broad human plane, it
celebrates the emergence from bondage and idolatry.
     In each case, the release is accompanied by a positive
achievement; it is not simply an escape. It is also a cooperative
act between God and man. On the seasonal plane, Passover
inaugurates the reaping of the new grain; man sows the seed, but
God - or the cosmic power provides the rainfall and sunshine
which quickens it. On the historical plane, it commemorates the
birth of the Jewish nation: Israel was prepared to face the
hazards of the wilderness, so God, in His providence, brought it
to Sinai, gave it the Law, and concluded the Covenant. On the
broad human plane, it celebrates the attainment of freedom and of
the vision of God: man casts aside his idols and repudiates his
ignorance and obscurantism, and in that very act God reveals His
presence and imparts knowledge.

     The three aspects of the festival run parallel to one
another: the dark and dreary winter corresponds at once to the
dark era of bondage and to the black night of ignorance, while
the burst of new life in spring corresponds, in turn, to the
flowering of Israel and the burgeoning of freedom.
     Yet the freedom which is celebrated in the Passover festival
is freedom of a special kind. Our own modern concept of freedom
has developed through diverse channels and is today a fusion -
or, perhaps, a confusion - of several originally distinct
categories of thought. It is mixed up, for instance, with ideas
of sovereign independence, personal liberty and democratic
government; yet none of these ideas - however fervently Jews may
today adhere to them - enters significantly into the Passover
ideal. In Jewish tradition, freedom, in the modern sense, is
scarcely a virtue; at best, it is an opportunity. What matters is
volitional dedication, and it is this and this alone that forms
the theme of the Passover story. If Israel had gone forth out of
Egypt, but not accepted the Covenant at Sinai, it would have
achieved liberation - that is, mere release from bondage - but it
would not have achieved freedom, in the Jewish sense of the term.
For the only freedom, says Judaism, is the yoke of the Torah; the
only true independence is the apprehension of God.

     The complex of ideas which today make up the Passover
festival is the result of a long process of development and, more
especially, of Judaism's inspired transformation of a primitive
seasonal ceremony.
     The nature of that ceremony is described in detail in the
twelfth chapter of the Biblical Book of Exodus. At full moon in
the first month of spring, we read, it was customary for every
family to slaughter a lamb or goat at twilight and then, in the
middle of the night, to eat it in common, along with unleavened
bread and bitter herbs. The eating had to be done "in haste," and
whatever portion of the meat remained unconsumed had to be burned
ere break of dawn. Moreover, as soon as the slaughtering had been
effected, a bunch of hyssop was dipped into the victim's blood,
and a few drops were sprinkled with it on the doorposts and
lintels of each house. The ceremony was known as "pesah," and was
followed immediately by a six-day festival, called the Feast of
Un-leavened Bread, during which no fermented food was allowed to
be eaten, and the first and last days of which were regarded as
especially sacred and marked by a total abstention from work.

(The author, like many Jews, has it wrong: the Passover was one
day, the feast of Unleavened Bread was 7 days in duration - Keith
     Shorn of its later interpretations, this ceremony falls into
a common pattern of seasonal festivals in many parts of the
     The essence of such festivals is to recement the bonds of
kindred and community at the beginning of a new agricultural
cycle. This is done by partaking of a meal in common--"breaking
bread together"--for thereby a common substance is absorbed. The
practice is well attested in antiquity. When, for example,
persons or tribes entered into compacts with one another, as in
the case of Abraham and Abimelech, or of Moses and Jethro, in the
Bible, the agreement was usually sealed by eating together - a
custom which underlies our own word companion (properly, "one who
eats bread with another") and which survives also in the familiar
usage of "having a drink on it."
     On such occasions, however, it is not only how one eats but
also what one eats that is important, for the food consumed is
believed itself to impart new life and vigor. Accordingly,
special precautions have to be taken to ensure that it is pure
and free of putrescence, and in a Near Eastern country this means
that it has to be eaten at once and "in haste," and not lie
around in the sun. It means also that no fermented food may be
absorbed with it, since fermentation is the result of
putrefaction, and that bitter herbs must be eaten at the same
time as an effective cathartic against any impurity that may
inadvertently have been consumed.
     Once the meal is finished, it becomes necessary to mark by
some outward sign those who have participated in it and thereby
entered into renewed ties with one another. The usual method of
doing this is to sprinkle some of the animal's blood on the
foreheads of all present or on the flaps of their tents or
doorposts of their houses. This, for example, is the practice
among the Amur Arabs of Palestine and at New Year ceremonies in
Madagascar. Moreover, this sprinkling of blood serves a further
purpose. In primitive societies, the family consists not only of
its human members but also of its god. He, too, therefore is
regarded as being present at the communal meal and as being bound
by the bond which it cements. Accordingly, the mark of blood on
the forehead or the doorpost affords a means whereby he may
readily recognize those individuals or households with whom he
has entered into a pact of friendship and protection. It thus
becomes, in effect, a device for averting supernatural hurt.

     The Israelites took over this primitive rite and gave it a
meaning all their own, thereby relating it to their own historic
experience and justifying its continued observance.

(Do you see now how the author goes into secularism to determine
how the Israelites adopted this Spring feast - Keith Hunt)

     The Exodus from Egypt, they said, had coincided with the
traditional pesah ceremony, and because their ancestors had so
meticulously carried out the prescribed regulations and dashed
the blood upon the doorposts of their houses, Jehovah had been
able instantly to recognize His own proteges when He came to
smite the firstborn in the land. All of the elements of the
traditional ceremony were then fancifully explained as memorials
of that momentous event. The unleavened bread recalled the fact
that, in their hurried departure from bondage, there had been no
time to wait for the dough to rise and the bread had therefore
been baked without yeast, while the eating "in haste"
commemorated the haste with which the departure had been made.
Indeed, the very name of the festival (the original significance
of which is obscure) was now connected ingeniously with the
Hebrew word 'pasah,' "skip," and taken to imply that, on seeing
the sign of blood, God had "skipped" or passed over the houses of
the Israelites and spared them from the plague.
     Much of this explanation is, to be sure, historically frail.
Modern scholarship has made it virtually certain that the
Biblical narrative of the Exodus represents a foreshortened and
anachronistic account of what really took place. In the light of
historical and archaeological research, it has become
increasingly improbable that all of the tribes of Israel, as they
later existed, ever went down to Egypt or came out of it. It is
now generally conceded that the confederation was of later origin
and grew up gradually in the Holy Land after the Conquest, so
that the story of a common ancestor who went down to Egypt with
all his sons is as anachronistic as it would be to speak of
"Uncle Sam" and his forty-eight children at the time of the
Revolutionary War. Only a certain portion of what subsequently
became the Children of Israel--according to some scholars, only
the Joseph-tribes--ever went down to Goshen, and the conquest of
Canaan was the result not of a single coordinated invasion but of
the successive expeditions and gradual infiltration of various
Hebrew tribes, which had begun before the Exodus and continued
for some time after the arrival of the "redeemed" Holy Land.
     Then, too, it must be borne in mind that the Biblical
narrative is a saga, not a factual report and therefore
embellishes the record of events with all kinds of fantastic and
legendary details drawn from the storehouse of popular lore.
Moses' staff, for example, has parallels in the magical wands and
weapons borne by heroes and deliverers in the folk tales of many
nations; the miraculous parting of the Red Sea finds counterparts
in the ancient Indian myth of Krishna's flight from the
tyrannical King Kamsa and in the statement of various Greek
writers that the Pamphylian Sea drew back and gave passage to the
troops of Alexander the Great when they were marching against the
Persian hosts of Darius III.

(Well it is now very evident the author does not believe in the
inspiration of the Holy Bible - Keith Hunt)

     Nevertheless, even though the story of the Exodus cannot yet
be confirmed from any extra-Biblical source, and although we may
readily detect in it several obviously legendary traits, in broad
substance it is indeed consistent with everything that we now
know about political conditions in the Near East at the period in
question. Historical records have confirmed that there indeed
existed at that period, in virtually all parts of the Near East,
a special class of persons (not, however, an ethnic unit) known
as Hebrews, who did not enjoy full civic rights and who lived
largely as mercenaries and freebooters, and who on several
occasions made marauding raids upon Palestinian and
Syrian cities. History also confirms that the land of Goshen
(modern Wadi Tumilat), on the eastern confines of Egypt proper,
had long been recognized as a free grazing ground or reservation
for neighboring nomads, and it establishes that in the fourteenth
century B.C.E. there was indeed a change of regime in Egypt which
was unfavorable to aliens, for at that date the Hyksos, or
Foreign Princes, who had been in control of the country for some
two hundred years, were finally expelled and replaced by a native
Egyptian monarch. Furthermore, we know that the new Pharaoh's
successor, Ramses II (1298-32 B.c.E.) did indeed renovate - for
himself the abandoned Hyksos capital in the Delta and call it
after his own name, and that he also built a storecity named
Pithom, just as is described in the Bible. Lastly, an inscription
of Pharaoh Merneptah (1232-2 B.C.E.), discovered in his mortuary
chapel at Thebes, mentions the presence of the Israelites in the
Holy Land in 1227 B.C.E.

(Yes, the author has to admit certain truths, for extra-Biblical
writings have been found to substantiate what the Bible records
- Keith Hunt)

     Against this general background, it would seem not at all
improbable that a particular group of Hebrews--what the Bible
describes as the "family of Jacob" should have migrated from the
Holy Land to Goshen, to settle under the more favorable regime of
the Hyksos; that it should at first have thrived and prospered
but subsequently, after the fall of that regime, have been viewed
with suspicion and enslaved; and that it should eventually have
sought freedom by linking up with other Hebrews in a concerted
attack on the Holy Land. And that, when the legendary trimmings
are stripped away, is substantially the story related in the
Bible. Nor, indeed, is it in any way remarkable that these events
do not find mention in Egyptian records, for it must be
remembered that to the Egyptians of the period, the Children of
Israel were in no sense a formidable or important power, but
merely a motley crowd of gypsies on a relatively distant
     In Judaism, however, the story of the Exodus has long since
been lifted out of a purely historical context. The Jewish
attitude toward it stems from the premise that events transcend
the moments of their occurrence - that anything which happens in
history happens not only at a particular point in time but also
as part of a continuous process and therefore involves as its
participants not only a single generation but also - and more
important - all who went before and all who follow after.
     Take, for example, the American Civil War. What was secured
by this conflict was not simply the Union of that particular day
and age, but the Union per se, so that, in a wider perspective,
both the Founding Fathers on the one hand and we ourselves on the
other were also actively involved in it and personally shared in
the victory which ensued. In exactly the same way, the Exodus of
the Children of Israel from Egypt involved also both the
patriarchs of the past and their children's children of the
future, for it validated the mission of the former and determined
the destiny of the latter.
     It is this ideal Exodus - this Exodus detached from a
mooring in time - that is really celebrated in the traditional
Seder service on the first two evenings of the Passover festival.
The Seder - the word means simply "order of service" or "formal
procedure" - is at once a substitute for the ancient paschal
sacrifice and a fulfillment of the Biblical injunction (Exod.
13:8) to retell the story of the Exodus to one's children.

     The principal feature of the ritual is the eating of various
foods traditionally associated with the departure from Egypt.
These are: matzah, or unleavened bread; bitter herbs (e.g.
horse-radish), taken to commemorate the bitterness of servitude;
and haroseth, a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, raisins and
cinnamon, which symbolizes the mortar in which the Israelites
labored while they built the store-cities of Pithom and Raamses
(Exod. 1:11). Moreover, the meal is introduced by the
consumption of parsley dipped in salted water. During the course
of it, a minimum of four cups of wine must be drunk, recalling
the four expressions used in Exodus 6:6-7 to describe God's
deliverance of Israel, viz., "I will bring you out from under the
burden of the Egyptians, and I will rid you of their bondage, and
I will redeem you ... and I will take you to Me for a people."
In addition, besides the food actually consumed, the shankbone of
a lamb and a roasted egg have to be placed on the table. The
former symbolizes the paschal offering, while the latter is, in
all probability, a later importation from pagan custom and, like
the corresponding Christian Easter egg, exemplifies the beginning
of life in spring.

(Ah, we begin to see the added Pharasaical adoptions for the
"seder" - Keith Hunt)
     There is a strict religious protocol about the manner in
which the ritual foods are to be eaten. The matzah, for example,
consists of three cakes placed one above the other and popularly
known as "the priest, the Levite, and the Israelite." At the
beginning of the service, the celebrant breaks the middle cake in
half and sets one of the halves aside, wrapping it in a napkin.
This, known as 'afikomin,' is subsequently distributed among the
company and constitutes the last thing eaten at the ceremony. The
bitter herbs, in addition to being eaten separately, are also
served in a "sandwich," between pieces of matzah, thereby
carrying out to the letter the Biblical commandment (Exod.12:8)
which enjoins that unleavened bread and bitter herbs be eaten
together as an accompaniment of the paschal meal. At the
conclusion of the supper, an extra cup of wine is filled for the
prophet Elijah who, it is believed, will come on Passover night
to herald the final redemption of Israel. The main door of the
house or apartment is flung open for a few moments to permit his
     Those present at the Seder ceremony are expected to adopt a
casual, reclining posture, symbolizing that of freemen at ancient
banquets. In some parts of the world, however, everyone appears
in hat and coat, with satchel on back and staff in hand, thus
re-enacting the Departure from Egypt.

     The narrative portion of the ceremony is known as the
'Haggadah,' or 'Recital,' and consists in a repetition of the
Scriptural story of the Exodus, embellished by rabbinic comments
and elaborations and rounded out by the chanting of psalms, hymns
and secular songs.
     The narrative is introduced by a series of questions (Mah
Nishtanah), asked by the youngest member of the company: "Why is
this night different from all other nights?" All that follows is
regarded as the answer.
     High points of the Haggadah are: the "Section of the Four
Sons," the "Litany of Wonders," and the chanting of "Hallel."
The first of these is based on the fact that the Bible speaks
four times of "thy son's" inquiring about the meaning of
Passover, and each time poses his question in different terms.
Once (Deut.6:20), he is represented as asking, "What mean these
testimonies and statutes and judgments which the Lord our God
hath commanded us?" Another time (Exod.12:26), he demands
brusquely, "What means this service of yours?" A third time
(Exod.13:14), he asks simply, "What is this?" And a fourth time
(Exod.13:8), the question is not even framed, but merely implied.
This variation, said the sages, is purposeful; in each case the
form of the question typifies the character and attitude of the
inquirer, who is respectively wise, wicked, simple and too young
to ask. Each must be answered differently, in appropriate

     The "Litany of Wonders" is a cumulative poem reciting the
benefits conferred by God on Israel at the time of the Exodus.
Not only did He lead them out of Egypt, but He also punished the
Egyptians; not only did He part the Red Sea, but He caused them
to pass through it dryshod; not only did He lead them to Mount
Sinai, but He gave them the Law; not only did He give them the
Law, but He brought them to the Promised Land; not only did He
bring them to the Promised Land, but He built the temple in Zion.
As each of these benefits is recited, the company responds loudly
with the word 'Dayyenu,' "Alone 'twould have sufficed us" In all,
fifteen benefits are enumerated, alluding, so the rabbis said, to
the numerical value of the Hebrew word Yah, one of the names of
God (cf. Exod.15:2; Ps.68:4).

     The Hallel ("Praise") is the group of psalms, 113-118, which
is recited at all new moons and at all festivals and which is
introduced by the word 'Hallelujah,' "Praise ye the Lord." In the
present instance, they are deemed especially appropriate, because
one of the psalms (Ps.114) in fact describes events connected
with the Exodus. (These psalms, it may be added, were very
probably the hymns intoned by Jesus and his disciples at the Last
Supper.) 1

(There is no such proof of that statement in the NT - Keith Hunt)

     Properly understood, the Seder ceremony is no mere act of
pious recollection, but a unique and inspired device for blending
the past, the present and the future into a single comprehensive
and transcendental experience. The actors in the story are not
merely the particular Israelites who happen to have been led out
of bondage by Moses but all the generations of Israel throughout
all of time. In an ideal sense, all Israel went forth out of
Egypt, and all Israel stood before Sinai; and all Israel moved
through darkness to the Presence of God, in the wake of a pillar
of fire.
     Whenever the trumpets sound in history, they sound for all
ages; and when the bell tolls, the echo lives on forever.

     This is not a rarefied piece of modern rationalization. The
conception of the Seder as an experience rather than a recitation
runs like a silver thread through the whole of Jewish tradition
and finds expression on every page of the Haggadah. "Every man in
every generation," says a familiar passage (quoting the Mishnah),
"must look upon himself as if he personally had come forth out of
Egypt. It was not our fathers alone that the Holy One redeemed,
but ourselves also did He redeem with them." Similarly, in the
Litany of Wonders, it is not "they" but we who are said to have
wandered for forty years and to have been fed upon manna in the
wilderness, and finally to have reached the Promised Land.
     Everywhere the emphasis is placed squarely on the durative
and ideal sig

1 'Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26. The English Bible renders, "When they
had sung a hymn," but the Greek original would also permit the
rendering, "When they had sung hymns."

nificance of the Exodus rather than on its punctual and historic
reality. The Haggadah is the script of a living drama, not the
record of a dead event, and when the Jew recites it he is
performing an act not of remembrance but of personal
identification in the here and now.

     The Seder ceremony, said the sages, is valid only when the
"bread of affliction" and the bitter herbs are actually before
you. In a sense larger than they intended, these words epitomize
its essential significance. Wer nie sein Brot mit Traenen ass ...
     It may be said, in fact, that the central theme of the Seder
is not - as commonly supposed - the Exodus from Egypt. That is
merely its highlight. The central theme is the entire process of
which that particular event happens to have been the catalyst. In
Jewish tradition, the deliverance from Egypt is important only
because it paved the way to Sinai - that is, to Israel's
voluntary acceptance of its special and distinctive mission; and
what the Seder narrative relates is the whole story of how Israel
moved progressively from darkness to light, from the ignorance
and shame of idolatry to the consciousness and glory of its high
     All through the ages, the very structure of the narrative
has evinced its purport. In ancient times it began, on a note of
shamefaced humility, with the words, "At first our fathers were
worshipers of idols," (or, in an alternative version: "A
wandering Aramean was my father") and ended with the triumphant
chanting of the Psalms of Praise. Today, even though later
accretions have somewhat obscured this dramatic sequence, it
still opens (in most parts of the world) with a reference to the
"bread of affliction" and closes in a breathless and inspired
climax with the defeat of the Angel of Death. Moreover, the very
sentence which begins with the words, "At first our fathers were
worshipers of idols," ends significantly with the proud
affirmation: "But now the Presence of God has drawn us to His

     The several features of the ritual and the several elements
of the narrative in turn reinforce this sense of continuousness.
For neither ritual nor narrative is the product of a single age
or environment--a mere heirloom or museum piece passed down
intact and piously conserved. On the contrary, some parts of each
go back to the days of the Second Temple, while others are no
earlier than the fifteenth century. Ritual and narrative alike
are therefore dynamic, not static creations - virtual
kaleidoscopes of Jewish history - reflecting in their growth and
development the various phases of Israel's career.

(Yes, over time things were added and adopted to make up the
present "seder" service for the religious Jews - Keith Hunt)

     The form of the meal, for example, with the reclining on
cushions, the preliminary dipping of parsley in salted water, and
the customary consumption of eggs as an 'hors d'oeuvre,'
reproduces the typical pattern of a Roman banquet, and one may
even suppose that the recital of the narrative and the conclusion
of the repast with the chanting of psalms may have been modeled
after the Roman practice of having literary works read aloud at
meals and regaling oneself afterward with choral entertainment.
Indeed, it is not at all impossible that the initial invitation
to the hungry and needy, and the prescription that at least four
(originally, three) cups of wine must be drunk, are likewise of
Roman origin. For the fact is that it was common Roman practice
for "clients" to wait upon their patrons during the day in order
to pay their respects to them; and for this attention they were
often rewarded by a formal invitation to join the company at
supper (coena recta). Similarly, 'pace' the traditional
explanations of the three or four glasses of wine, it is not
without interest that a normal Roman dinner actually entailed a
minimum of three cups--one for the preliminary libation to the
gods, a second for the mutual toasting of the guests, and a third
in honor of the hosts or, under the Caesars, of the emperor. (To
be sure, this minimum was usually exceeded; but so, too, are the
minimum three or four cups of the Seder!).

     On the other hand, the 'afikomin' is distinctly Greek,
although the term now bears a meaning quite different from that
which attached to it in Hellenic speech. The Talmud says that
"men must not leave the paschal meal epikomin." This last word
was really the Greek 'epi komon,' a popular expression for
"gadding around on revels" - the common nightly pastime of the
"gay blades" of Hellas.
     The term, however, was subsequently misunderstood, and the
sentence wrongly rendered: "Men must not leave out the afikomin
after the paschal meal." The curious, unintelligible expression
was then taken to refer to some special condiment or "dessert"
which had to be served at the conclusion of the repast, and
thence arose the custom of distributing small pieces of
unleavened bread and calling them 'afikomin!'
     Similarly, when the door is opened "for Elijah," we are
plunged at once into the Middle Ages, for the real purpose of
this act seems to have been to provide an effective rebuttal of
the terrible 'Blood Libel' which asserted that Jews employ the
blood of Christian children in the preparation of 'matzah.' The
door was flung open so that all might have a chance of beholding
the complete innocence of the proceedings.
     Lastly, the secular songs and ditties with which the service
now concludes and which constitute its most recent - though most
familiar - feature take us straight into Renaissance Europe. One
of these songs, the famous 'Shad mi yodea' ("Who knows one?"),
for example, has been traced by students of comparative
literature to a popular and widespread "counting-out rhyme," the
earliest specimen of which appears in Germany in the fifteenth
century. (In that earlier version, incidentally, the successive
numbers refer to God, Moses, and Aaron, the three Patriarchs, the
four Evangelists, and the five wounds of Jesus!) Similarly, the
'Had Gadya' ("Only One Kid") finds its earliest prototype in a
fifteenth-century German folk song, 'Der Herr der schickt das
Jockli hinaus,' though here again, the wide popularity of the
song is shown by the fact that early versions of it have turned
up in most European countries.
     It should be observed also that, in Oriental lands, quite a
different set of popular chants is appended to the 'Haggadah.'
The 'Sephardim,' for instance, have many such chants written in
the Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, dialect current especially in the
Levant, while elsewhere, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian songs are
in use. The inclusion in it of those "native" compositions
likewise bespeaks the true character of the Seder as an
expression of the total, continuous experience of the Jewish

(It adopted and adapted what it needed to do in various parts of
the world, and with some outlandish albeit 're-made' sections for
a tradition less vulgar and distasteful - Keith Hunt)

     Even the illustrations which adorn the older editions of the
Haggadah conspire to create a picture of the entire stretch of
Jewish history. The "wicked son" (who balances on one leg from
one Seder to the next) is simply a Roman centurion; the one who
is "too young to ask," and who holds up his hands like a
questioning child, is taken directly from an earlier print of a
slave in supplication before Hannibal; while the store-cities of
Pithom and Raamses, which the Israelites were compelled to build
for Pharaoh, are the walled towns of fifteenth-century Europe!
All the centuries seem, as it were to blend and blur.

(Yes, false Christianity of Rome, that adopted and adapted, the
customs and ideas of paganism, baptizing them with so-called holy
water, making them supposedly clean and pure before God, has also
been done by the Pharasaical Rabbis of Judaism through the
centuries - even at the time of Christ it was so in Judah, hence
the words of Christ in Mark 7, denouncing them for following
traditions that made void the commandments of God - Keith Hunt)


To be continued

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