The history of the Passover seder

ragozinOriginally published in the Loudoun Times-Mirror, March 10, 2010

Beginning Monday evening, March 29, the Jewish people will celebrate Passover. This holiday commemorates Israel’s Exodus from Egypt.

Families and friends will gather for the seder, a ritualized meal in which we retell the story of God’s liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage accompanied by blessings, wine, hors d’oeuvres, symbolic foods and song. Though the seder is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish rituals today, 2,000 years ago the celebration of Passover was markedly different.

As long as the Temple existed, the essential rite of Passover was the Passover sacrifice. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, sacrifices could no longer be offered. While the loss of the Temple was a catastrophe for Judaism as a whole, the problem of the Temple’s destruction for Passover was acute. Could the holiday be celebrated without its essential rite?

Indeed the second-century Christian, Justin Martyr, recognized the sacrifice’s essential place within the Passover celebration and attacked Judaism for its absence due to the loss of the Temple. By contrast, he argued that Christians can partake of the passover offering through the body of Christ.

Despite the challenging circumstances, the rabbis of the second and third century were able to maintain the Jewish observance of Passover. To accomplish this, they drew from the biblical and post-biblical aspects of Passover that could be observed without the Temple, such as remembering the Exodus from Egypt, unleavened bread (matzah) and drinking of wine. They changed the status of these rituals, making them important in their own right, not dependent upon the Passover sacrifice. In short, they sought continuity and change.

The effort to reconstruct Passover mirrors the overall project of maintaining Judaism after the Temple’s destruction. While the Temple stood, Judaism was a sacrificial, temple-based religion in which the highest forms of serving God, experiencing God and piety were dependent upon the Temple. After the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism became the individual, home-based religion we practice today.

Rabbi Michael Ragozin is the congregational rabbi at Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg.

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