PASSOVER IN HISTORY #2
From the book "Festivals of the Jewish Year" by Gaster (1952)
Continued from previous page:
Nor is it only in the accidental development of its form, or
in the externals of the traditional "book of words," that the
"continuous" character of the ceremony is evinced. Several of the
poems which have been added to the narrative portion of the
Haggadah revolve around the theme that Passover was the occasion
not only of the deliverance from Egypt but also of all the main
deliverances - and, indeed, of all the main events - in Jewish
history. This, of course, is pious fiction, but the fact that it
was invented shows that in the minds of successive generations of
Jews the Seder has always exemplified a continuous and durative
experience. Moreover, that experience is projected into the
future as well as retrojected into the past. Every detail of the
Exodus, it is maintained, foreshadows an element of Israel's
ultimate redemption. In the words of a medieval hymn: 2
They went from Egypt in the dead of night,
Yet was the glow of life their guiding light
That glow which yet shall pierce the darkest skies
When God cries out, "Thy dawn is come! Arise!" 3
When that He did the sea from them divide
The waters were a wall on either side, 4
So, when the new day breaks, the Lord shall keep His word,
and by still waters lead His sheep. 5
On the final night of deliverance - the "night of vigil," as
the Bible calls it (Exod.12:42)--God will come to Israel as a
lover serenading his beloved and eventually winning her as his
2 From the poem, "Pesah usheru be-or ha-hayyin le-or," by
Jekuthiel bar Joseph, chanted in some synagogues on the eve of
the eighth day of Passover.
3 Isa. 60:1.
4 Exod. 14:22.
5 Isa. 40:10-11, 49:10.
O night of vigil and O witching hour,
When God rode forth from Egypt in His power!
The night shall come when He shall ride once more
As once he rode in those far days of yore.
But we with song shall fill that eventide;
To us He comes a lover to his bride.
O night of vigil and O witching hour!
Tho' God with darkness all the world o'erpower,
Lo, in His hand is day as well as night,
And over us shall break His morning light;
For ne'er that other night shall be forgot
When Abraham led his men to rescue Lot. 6
O night of vigil and O witching hour!
As once when steers would His poor sheep devour,
The Shepherd fought with them and lay them low,
So, as He rescued us so long ago,
He yet shall come, and this long night be done.
Deliverance cometh with the rising sun.
O night of vigil and O witching hour!
Tho' dark the earth and tho' the heavens lower,
This is the hour when God His tryst shall keep
With His beloved, rouse her from her sleep,
And, like a bridegroom leading home his bride,
Lead her in peace to Zion at His side. 7
In another sense, too, the Passover story is a continuous
experience. For if it is true that the punctual event which it
celebrates possesses also a durative character, involving the
children of all generations, it is equally true that the
particular historical occasion of the Exodus represents a
situation which is in itself seemingly
6 Cf. Gen. 14:10-16.
7 From the poem "Lel shimmurim '6M6 El hatsah," chanted in some
synagogues on the first evening of Passover.
perpetual and which is by no means confined to a single moment of
time. In a larger sense, the villain of the piece is not a
particular Egyptian Pharaoh - Seti I or Ramses II - but all the
tyrants who have ever opposed Israel at any time; the Sea of
Reeds is not the particular Lake Timsah (or any other similar
expanse of water) which the Israelites had to cross on their way
to Sinai, but all the obstacles which Israel has ever encountered
throughout its career and which have yielded when the emblem of
God was lifted above them; the manna is not the peculiar gum of
'Tamarix gallica manni f era,' as learned botanists assure us,
but that divine sustenance on which Israel has been fed
continually while it has been roaming the world's desert to the
place of Revelation - that "bread of angels" which has to be
gathered afresh every morning and which (as the sages acutely
observed) tastes different to every man. And the journey through
the wilderness, in the wake of a cloud by day and a pillar of
fire by night, is the eternal progress of Israel toward the
Kingdom of God.
Nor is it only on the historical plane that this continuous
significance of the festival is brought home. On the seasonal
plane, Passover marks the time when, in Palestine, the heavy
rains of winter give place to the light showers, or "dews," of
spring; and for this reason special prayers for "dew" are
included in the morning service of the first day. But this dew is
not merely a blessing of nature; it is also a symbol of God's
beneficence toward Israel both in the past and in the future. It
is the dew which was mentioned in Isaac's blessing upon Jacob
(Gen. 27,28); to which Moses compared his final discourse (Deut.
32:2); which fell upon Gideon's fleece as a sign that Israel
would be saved from the Midianites (Judg. 6:37-38). It is also
the dew of rejuvenation and resurrection - the "dew of youth"
with which God annoints His Messiah (Ps.110:3), and the "dew of
lights" which, as the prophet says, will eventually fall on the
"land of the shades" (Is.26:19):
Behold, there is a word of God which saith.
"My dew shall fall upon the land of Death," 8
And they that slumber now the long night through
Shall yet awaken with the morning dew....
Lily and rose shall blossom, 9 and the corn
Gleam in the valleys with the dew of morn....
Lo, angels shall unlock the treasuries
Of hea'n and pour the dewdrops from the skies;
And pilgrims wending to the festival
Shall see My dew upon Mount Hermon fall; 10
And all the scattered shall come home again
Unto a land of corn and wine, where rain
Drops gently down from heaven, 11 and the Lord
No longer passes with a flaming sword. 12
The Passover festival then has two basic messages for modern
man. The first is that deliverance from the scourge of bondage
and the night of ignorance lies just as much in his own hands as
in God's. If it is true that God delivered Israel from Egypt "not
by the hand of an angel, nor by the hand of a seraph, nor by the
hand of any one man sent, but by His own glory and His own self,"
it is equally true that in the world of men it
8 Isa. 26:19.
9 Cf. Hos. 14:5.
10 Cf. Ps. 133:2.
11 Deut. 33:28.
12 From the poem, "Tahath elath "opher," by Eleazar Kalir (IX
cent.), recited in some synagogues as part of the Prayer for Dew.
is by the hands of men that His glory and His being can alone be
The second message of Passover is that deliverance is
continual. "The festival is celebrated," says the Haggadah, in
its answer to the "wise son," "because of that which the Lord did
for me, when I came forth out of Egypt." And the wise son
The seven weeks between Passover and Pentecost are known as
the Days of the 'Omer.' Omer is a Hebrew word meaning "sheaf,"
and the name derives from the Biblical commandment (Lev.23:I5)
that from the day when the first sheaf of barley was offered to
God in the sanctuary seven full weeks are to be counted until the
final celebration of the harvest-home and the presentation to Him
of the two loaves of new bread.
The counting, which cornmences on the second night of
(That was the Pharisee practice and teaching. It was INCORRECT -
in this case it was the Sadducees that had the correct counting;
they cut the sheaf shortly after sundown on the weekly Sabbath
during the Unleavened Bread feast, and started to count to
Pentecost from the first day of the week after the weekly Sabbath
that fell during the UB feast. See all of my in-depth studies
under "Pentecost" on this Website - Keith Hunt)
is performed in ceremonial fashion every evening at sunset. It is
prefaced by a blessing recalling the Biblical ordinance, and is
followed by the recitation of the Sixty-seventh Psalm ("The earth
hath yielded her produce; God, our own God, is blessing us."). A
prayer is also offered for the rebuilding of the Temple and the
restoration of its ancient services.
The Omer Days are observed as a kind of Lent. At least
during the earlier portion of them, it is not permitted to
solemnize marriages, cut the hair, wear new clothes, listen to
music or attend any form of public entertainment.
The traditional reason for the austerity is that it is a
sign of mourning, commemorating the fact that during this period
of the year many of the disciples of Rabbi Akiba, the illustrious
teacher of the first century C.E., were wiped out by the plague.
This, however, is simply a historical rationalization of a far
more ancient and primitive usage. The true explanation is to be
found in the universal custom of regarding the days or weeks
preceding the harvest and the opening of the agricultural year as
a time when the corporate life of the community is, so to speak,
in eclipse, one lease of it now drawing to a close and the next
being not yet assured. This state of suspended animation is
expressed by fasts and austerities and by a curtailment of all
normal activities. 13
(Once more this is adoptions from the pagan nations around the
world; hence the Jews have their "lent" to correspond with the
Roman Catholic "lent" - Keith Hunt)
Especially interesting in this connection is the ban on
marriages - originally a method of showing that, at the time when
the annual lease of life is running out, human increase also is
arrested. Among the ancient Romans, marriages during May were
considered unlucky. The poet Ovid declares flatly that such
marriages will not last, and adds: 14 "If proverbs mean a thing
to you, men say 'A wicked baggage is a bride in May.'" Moreover,
this belief survives to the present day in many European
countries. In Italy, for instance, it is regarded as inauspicious
to marry in May because that month is "dedicated to the Virgin";
while a North Country rhyme current in Britain asserts that "If
you marry in Lent,/You will live to repent." or, according to
another version, "Marry in May - rue for aye." Similarly, in
several parts of Germany, marriages in May are discountenanced,
and a work on Kentucky superstitions, published as late as
13 See below, pp. 53 ff.
14 Fasti, V, 487.
1920, bears evidence that the notion has percolated also to the
On the thirty-third day of the 'omer, known by the Hebrew
name of 'Lag b'Omer,' 15 the lenten restrictions are suddenly
relaxed, according to some authorities, for twenty-four hours
only; according to others, right up to the advent of Pentecost.
Lag b'Omer--which falls on the eighteenth of Iyaris not regarded
as a sacred occasion and is not distinguished by any special
service in the synagogue; it is simply a folk festival. Various
explanations of it are offered in Jewish tradition. It is said,
for instance, that it commemorates the date when the plague which
had been ravaging the disciples of Akiba suddenly ceased. This,
however, rests on nothing more substantial than a misreading and
misinterpretation of a passage in the Talmud. Alternatively, it
is claimed that it marks the day when the manna first began to
fall in the wilderness. But this flies in the face of Scripture
itself, for, according to Exodus 16:13, that event occurred on
the sixteenth, not the eighteenth of the month!
The true explanation, it may be suggested, is that Lag
b'Omer had originally nothing whatsoever to do with the Omer
period as a whole, but was simply a rustic festival which
happened to fall within it. It is the equivalent of the European
This conclusion is borne out not only by the close
correspondence of dates but also by the virtual identity of
15 'Lag' is an artificial word made up of the Hebrew letters L-G
which have the numerical value of 33.
It was customary on Lag b'Omer for children to go out into
the woods and shoot with bows and arrows. Although this usage has
fallen into desuetude in Western countries, it is still
maintained in the Land of Israel. A popular ditty sung on the
occasion runs as follows:
Up, and to the greenwood,
With arrow and with bow;
There the world is blossoming,
There the flowers blow.
There, on every branch and bough,
The little birds are seen;
And there, as far as eye can reach,
All things are bright and green.
Tradition gives various reasons for this custom. It is said,
for instance, that it symbolizes the readiness of the Jews to
take up arms against those who destroyed the Temple, or - even
more fancifully - that it symbolizes the fact that the great
second-century teacher, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, who died on the
day, was so pious and virtuous that throughout his lifetime no
rainbow ever appeared in the sky to portend disaster on earth!
The true explanation lies, however, in the common practice
of shooting arrows at demons and evil spirits on days when they
are believed to be especially rampant. May Day is preeminently
one of these occasions, for, according to popular tradition, the
preceding night - the socalled Walpurgis Nightie 16 is the time
of the witches' sabbath.
In Germany, it is common usage for country folk to go out
into the woods on May Morn and shoot arrows; any-
16 The name derives from Walpurgia, an English nun of the eighth
century, who founded religious houses in Germany, and to whom the
Church dedicated the day.
one who hears the noise from a distance is expected to cry out:
"Shoot my witch away!" The most interesting example of the custom
obtains, however, in the rural areas of England, where it takes
the form of contests in archery in imitation of the exploits of
Robin Hood. A fascinating description of these ceremonies as
observed in the time of Henry the Eighth, is furnished by John
Stow in his famous "Survey of London" (1603):
"In the month of May, namely on May-day in the morning, every
man, except impediment, would walk in the sweet meadows and green
woods, there to rejoice their spirits with the beauty and savour
of sweet flowers and with the harmony of birds praising God in
their kind; and for example hereof, Edward Hall hath noted that
King Henry the Eighth .... in the seventh year of his reign, with
Queen Catherine [of Aragon] his wife, accompanied with many lords
and ladies, rode a-maying from Greenwich to the high ground of
Shooters Hill, where, as they passed by the way, they espied a
company of tall yeomen clothed all in green, with green hoods,
and with bows and arrows, to the number of two hundred. One,
being the chieftain, was called Robin Hood, who required the king
and his company to stay and see his men shoot, whereunto the king
granting, Robin Hood whistled, and all the two hundred archers
shot off, loosing all at once; and when he whistled again, they
likewise shot again, their arrows whistled by craft of the head,
so that the noise was strange and loud, which greatly delighted
the king, queen and their company. Moreover, this Robin Hood
desired the king and queen, with their retinue, to enter the
greenwood, where, in arbors made of boughs and decked with
flowers, they were seated and served plentyfully with venison and
wine ... and had other pageants and pastimes."
Scholars have long pointed out that the familiar figure of
Robin Hood is simply a transmogrified form of "Robin o' the
Wood," chief of the hobgoblins and mischievous sprites. The
seasonal ceremonies associated with his name are therefore
nothing but distorted portrayals of the antics of these creatures
and of the measures used to drive them away, at the beginning of
In this connection, the use of the bow and arrow is of
particular interest, for it is motivated by the idea that evil
spirits should be given a taste of their own medicine, requited
with their own weapons, it being a fairly universal belief that
their principal means of attacking mortals is by hurling darts at
them. In the Ninety-first Psalm, for instance, the pious
Israelite expresses his confidence that Jehovah will deliver him
"from the arrow which flieth by day, the pestilence that stalketh
in darkness, the destruction that ravageth at noon" - all three
of them well-known demons of Semitic folklore. Similarly, the
anguished job complains (6:4) that "the arrows of the Almighty
are within me, the poison whereof my spirit drinketh up"; while
in the Iliad of Homer (I, 43-49), Apollo sends plague upon the
Achaeans by shooting his arrows at them. In the same way, too, a
man who was suffering from aches and pains was said in old
English to be "elf-shot," and to this day the Germans call a
"stitch" in the side a Hexenschuss, or "witches' shot."
Moreover, the method of forefending these demons with their
own weapons has several interesting parallels. At ancient Indian
weddings, for example, arrows were shot to protect the bridal
couple; and among the Bechuanas, the bridegroom discharges an
arrow into the bride's hut when she leaves it on marriage. 17
Of interest also is the fact that in the Lag b'Omer
ceremonies, the children go with their bows and arrows not only
to the greenwood but also to the cemetery. Here we have another
link with May Day customs, for the
17 A familiar equivalent is the custom of having bride and groom
walk under an archway of crossed swords at military weddings.
fact is that dances and convocations in cemeteries were a common
feature of the celebrations on that occasion. It is recorded, for
example, in a medieval Scottish chronicle that in 1282 the priest
of Inverkeithing himself "led the ring" in the village
churchyard, the dancers being his own parishioners; and John
Aubrey, the seventeenth-century English antiquary, informs us
that, in his day, village lads and lasses used to dance in the
churchyards not only on May Day, but also on all holy days and
eves of holy days. 18 This curious practice goes back, of
course, to the common primitive custom of communing with or
propitiating the dead at major seasonal festivals.
In Palestine, Lag b'Omer is distinguished also by another
celebration. On this day, it is said, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, the
father of Jewish mysticism, passed from the world, after first
revealing to his disciples the secrets of his mystic visions. In
tribute to his memory, a pilgrimage is made, on the previous
evening, to the traditional site of his grave in the village of
Meron, near Safed. Since, however, the illustrious teacher
departed this life in joy rather than in sadness, the anniversary
of his death is celebrated as a festival, not as a day of
mourning. Accordingly, the pilgrimage is followed immediately by
the kindling of bonfires and by all-night singing and dancing.
This latter celebration is known as "the 'hillula' of Rabbi
Simeon ben Yohai." 'Hilluld' is an Aramaic word (akin to the more
familiar 'hallelujah'), meaning "frolic" or "revel"; but, since
it is also the technical term for wedding festivities, it is
popularly interpreted, in this context, as referring to the
mystic "wedding," or union, of all planes of existence which
18 See Margaret Murray, "The God of the Witches" (New York,
took place when the soul of the sage ascended to heaven. Here
again, what we really have, under the guise of memorial exercise,
is the last lingering survival of a typical May Day ceremony. For
the fact is that it is custo mary in many parts of the world to
kindle bonfires at the end of April or the beginning of May as a
means of forefending demons and witches at the moment when the
cattle are first let out of the barn. In ancient Rome, for
example, such fires were lit at the rustic festival of the
Parilia, on the twenty-first of April; and in England, they are
kindled at crossroads on St.George's Day (April 23) 19
Similarly, the Celtic festival of Beltane, on May 1, was
marked by the kindling of fires, a custom still maintained in the
Scottish and Irish Highlands; in Bohemia and Moravia, it is
common practice, on the same day, to "burn out witches"; and in
Sweden, "huge bonfires are built in every hamlet, around which
the young people dance."
It is not, of course, to be assumed that the Jewish festival
was actually borrowed from Europe. We are dealing solely with
parallel phenomena. But the parallelism shows clearly that here
too, as in the case of so many other festivals, Judaism has
molded ancient clay into new shapes.
19 Shakespeare alludes to this in a memorable passage of "King
Henry VI" (I, I, i, 153-154), where the Duke of Bedford, resolved
to go to France and fight the Dauphin, exclaims: "Bonfires in
France forthwith I am to make,/To keep our great Saint George's
As the author said, "Judaism has molded ancient clay into new
shapes" - they, like the Roman Catholic church, took old pagan
ceremonies and customs, and figured if they sprinkle them with
holy water, they would be clean, and God would accept such in
worshipping Him. Nothing could be further from the truth, as
fully expounded on this Website.