How we’ve always done it?


The words “Passover” and “tradition” go together like “noodle” and “kugel,” but during its first thousand years, the holiday changed in significant ways. Those changes can be found in the Torah as well as in the books of the Prophets and Writings.

Stephen Garfinkel of Jewish Theological Seminary: “Things change.”

Stephen Garfinkel, assistant professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary tracked the development of Passover rituals March 12 at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac. The session was the first of four holiday presentations from the Conservative seminary’s Context adult study program.

Here are questions that Garfinkel answered — ready for you to discuss at your Seder. But as you decide if you’re ready to give up that once-pristine table cloth that now tells the entire history of your family’s wine spills, keep in mind Garfinkel’s answer for why Pesach was a different holiday at different times: “Things change.”

How long do you have to eat matzah?

In today’s practice, the requirement is to eat matzah on the first two days of Pesach (one day for Reform Jews and in Israel). That doesn’t mean you can eat bread the rest of the time. Chametz, leavened food, is prohibited for the duration of the holiday, leaving us with macaroons and jelly slices.

But Leviticus 23:46 commands: “Seven days you shall eat matzot.” Clearly the strictures have become less strict. Many in Garfinkel’s audience expressed discomfort that only two days of matzah eating is required.
“If this bothers you,” he said, “go ahead and eat matzah for seven days.”

Only one kid?
The Pesach sacrifice, which gave the holiday its name, is now one among several symbols on the Seder plate. But in the Torah, animal sacrifice was the primary act of the holiday. So which animal made the cut?

In Exodus 12:3, God instructs: “Take a lamb for a household.” The “lamb” could have been a baby sheep or goat, said Garfinkel, but it definitely referred to a small flock animal. The sacrifice was a family ritual.

Later, Deuteronomy 16:2 says the sacrifice should come from the “flock and herd” – both small and large animals.

And during the time of King Josiah (641–609 BCE), the king gave the people lambs, kids and bullocks to sacrifice (2 Chronicles 35:7). What began in the book of Exodus as a family celebration had been transformed into a public, communal, government-sponsored spectacle.

How do you prepare your sacrifice?

If you were transported back into the Torah, the answer to that question would depend on which book you landed in.

In Exodus 12:9, God commands: “Do not eat it raw, nor boil it with water, but roast it with fire.” The Hebrew word bashel is translated in this verse as “boil.” The message is clear: Do not bashel the meat.

But in Deuteronomy 16:7, bashel is translated as “roast”: “You shall bashel it and
eat it …”

So do we roast the sacrifice or boil it?
Try visiting the second book of Chronicles, way at the end of the Bible, in the time of King Josiah. In chapter 35, verse 13, the Hebrew text implies that bashel means both roasting and boiling.

“Some scholars say this is a way to harmonize the contradiction – ‘You roast it by boiling it,’ ” said Garfinkel.

As cooking directions, it doesn’t make sense.

“This isn’t a recipe of how to prepare the meat,” he said. “It’s an attempt to bring the people of Israel together.”

The message is that it is more important that you identify with the community than whether you subscribe to a particular tradition, he said.

A single holiday?
It has been for more than 2,000 years. But Leviticus 23 hints that it wasn’t always the case.

Verse 5 states: “In the first month, on the 14th day of the month, is God’s Pesach.”

And verse 6 says: “And on the 15th day of the same month is the Feast of Matzot for God.”

Pesach and the Feast of Matzot. “It’s like two different holidays,” said Garfinkel, “because it probably was. Pesach seems to have been a one-day commemoration. And there seems to have been a seven-day festival called Chag Hamatzot.”

What if you’re unclean?
Everyone knows what happened on the first Pesach. But there was a second Pesach, too, and they had a new problem they hadn’t faced in year one.

Before the holiday, according to Numbers 9, a few Israelites approached Moses. They had just touched a dead body, which made them ritually impure. So they asked their leader, “What should we do? We’re unclean, so does that mean we can’t offer our sacrifices to God?”

Moses didn’t know the answer. The issue had never come up. Instead of replying that the Israelites had always celebrated Passover in a certain way so there was no reason to change it now, Moses asked God.

God told Moses that someone who is unclean or on a far journey and has to miss the Pesach sacrifice can celebrate the holiday exactly one month later (Numbers 9:10-11).

Today, this rain-check observance is called Pesach Sheni, the second Passover.

“This is how law develops,” said Garfinkel. Instead of banishing those people from the community and denying them the opportunity to sacrifice to God, “Jewish law treats people compassionately.”

Remember the caterpillar plague?
You don’t have caterpillars in your plague bag? Well consider this: The plagues we have in the Haggadah – blood, frogs, lice, beasts, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of firstborn – are not necessarily the ones listed in various places in the Torah.

Among its list of 12 plagues, Psalm 78 includes those furry crawlers, as well as frost, fiery bolts and messengers of evil before ending with the familiar death of the firstborn.

And Psalm 105 counts dead fish among its dozen plagues.

Is this history?
Like the instructions to roast meat by boiling it, the commandment to spread blood on the doorpost to ward off God’s angel of death has a certain illogic to it, said Garfinkel.

The blood is there so God will know who the Israelites are, but “doesn’t God already know this?” Instead, marking the doorpost was an act of self-identification, a step in the creation of the people of Israel. The mark was a statement that “we belong to the people who will be redeemed.”

The Passover story is not a history lesson, he said. “It’s about the fact that God redeemed his people.”

For information and registration for the series, go to

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Twitter: @DavidHolzel

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