Passover (Pesach) History
The first Pesach observance, mentioned in Numbers 9:5, took place at Sinai. The first observance in the "holy land" is mentioned in the book of Joshua (5:10-11). The children of Israel kept the Passover in Gilgal on the 14th of Nisan, and ate unleavened bread the next day. It is believed that the turmoil of the Judges period that followed Joshua was not conducive to observance of Pesach. Revival of the holiday probably occurred under Samuel in the 11th century BCE.
With the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, the observance of the festival changed. The Temple was the focal point for the "shalosh regalim," the Pilgrim Festivals, and it provided a place for carrying out the Pesach sacrifice. Observance of the festival waxed and waned in subsequent periods. Historians believe that after the return from Babylonian exile and the beginning of the second Temple period, at the end of the sixth century BCE, the festival was restored to prominence. The nature of the Pesach observance necessarily had to radically change after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, when animal sacrifices ceased.
A that time, Pesach was transformed from a mostly communal, public festival to one centered in the home. A Talmudic tractate devoted to the festival, Pesachim, suggests that home observance of Pesach began prior to the destruction of the Temple. Chanting of Hallel (psalms of praise), which accompanied the slaughtering of the paschal offering began to be practiced during family feasts when the paschal lamb was eaten in private homes throughout Jerusalem. The home seder as we know it today was meant to be a retelling of the Exodus story in response to questions posed by children. These exact wording of the questions changed over time, until they became the four questions beginning "Mah nishtanah" (what is different?) that we know today.
A book called the Haggadah (from the Hebrew root "to tell") that serves as the liturgy and guidebook for the seder is an amazing pedagogic instrument that developed over time. The first documented evidence of parts of the Haggadah is found in the Mishnah (edited ca. 200 CE). The arrangement of the table, the psalms, benedictions, and other recited matter of today coincide substantially with the program laid down in the Mishnah. Midrashim (commentaries) were added and most of the version we now have was completed by the end of the Talmudic period (500-600 CE). Evidence of the wide acceptance of the Haggadah was its inclusion in Rav Amram's siddur (prayerbook) in the eighth century CE.
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