The biblical holiday Passover ceased to exist when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE. It disappeared entirely and Chag Hamatzot’s name was changed to Passover.


The biblical Passover

The biblical holiday Passover occurred on the fourteenth day of the first month, later called Nisan. It had only one ceremony. The Israelites were required to offer a Pascal sacrifice and eat it toward the evening of the fourteenth day. This holiday of Passover was followed on the fifteenth of the month by another holiday Chag Hamatzot, the festival of (eating) matzot (unleavened bread). The biblical Passover lasted one day. Chag Hamatzot was seven days. When the temple was destroyed and sacrifices stopped, Passover could no longer be observed and, although it is biblically mandated, was discontinued. However, to remember this holiday of 14 Nisan, Chag Hamatzot, which begins on 15 Nisan, was renamed Passover. The siddur and all prayers associated with Chag Hamatzot do not use the revised name Passover, but calls the holiday by its biblical name Chag Hamatzot.


The Origin of the Seder

One of the principle ceremonies of the current Passover holiday is the Seder. In his book The Origin of the Seder: The Passover Rite and early Rabbinic Judaism, Professor Baruch M. Bokser offers his view of the origin of the Passover Seder meal ritual. He suggests that when the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and the Pascal sacrifice could no longer be brought there, the rabbis instituted the Seder, a home ceremony rather than a temple oriented one, and organized a set of procedures that the Jewish family should do at home together. The rabbis minimized the importance of the sacrifice in the Seder so that the people wouldn’t dwell on its loss and feel that the Passover holiday was no longer significant and relevant.

Unlike the Pascal sacrifice, the Seder was not a pilgrimage rite from home to Jerusalem ending in the offering. The rabbis’ Seder is a celebratory meal at home commemorating the exodus from Egyptian slavery. Unlike the biblical sacrificial ritual, the Seder became both a family festivity and an intellectual endeavor; “the narration of the Exodus experience (became) a central part of the (home) ceremony”; the “child’s question (introduced as part of the Seder narration did) not depend on the procedures surrounding the sacrifice and its blood”; the family “uses wine instead of meat from the sacrifice to express one’s joy”; “the unleavened bread and bitter herbs were originally secondary but have been elevated in status equal to that of the Passover sacrifice”; while the Levites monopolized the singing in the temple, all Jews “sing psalms to God; and Jews not only focused on the nation’s past history, but were required to identify their own lives during the Seder “with the Exodus experience.”

Since the new emphasis is on the present and future rather than the past, “the lack of reference to Moses (in the narration, Bokser explained) is only natural. While Moses had a role in Egyptian liberation, he does not figure in any of the later instances of redemption.”

About a century and a half later, around the year 200 CE, the editor of the Mishnah, the first Jewish collection of laws and other things, described the newly-developed home ritual for the first time in writing. The Mishnah tries to cover the fact that it is offering an innovation, and leaves readers to believe that it is simply codifying “a well-tried and established road.” This Mishnaic ceremony was itself later changed in many ways. For example, the Mishnah has the youngster ask three questions at the Seder, one of which concerned the Pascal sacrifice. This was later amended to four questions, the Pascal sacrifice query was dropped, and two new ones inserted.


Where Did The Rabbis Get Their Idea About a Home Ceremony?

Bokser states that the rabbis derived their scheme to turn the Temple ritual into a family celebration from the depiction in Exodus 12 of the family celebration in Egypt just prior to the exodus from slavery during which families gathered in their homes and ate a roasted lamb with matzah and bitter herbs. The rabbis renewed this one-time Egyptian event and expanded it into the Seder.

Some scholars disagree. They insist that the Seder is a copy of the Greek symposium and not Exodus 12. The Greek symposium is described by Plato and Herodotus in books called The Symposium.

Bokser disagreed. He shows that the Seder is radically different. The symposium was an informal gathering of men where food was eaten and lots of wine drunk. Conversation was usually a part of the symposium, but the subjects discussed were not generally pre-set and formalized as in the Seder.

The Seder, in contrast, is a requirement, not an occasional event, with a set time, and women and children attend. Even a poor person must recline at the meal and all must drink at least four cups of wine. It is not a time of revelry like the symposium; a blessing is said over each of the four cups, the amount of wine in each cup is set, and the wine may not be too strong. Several ceremonies must be performed, such as dipping foods, and certain foods must be eaten, such as the matzah. The subject of conversation is set about the exodus, certain readings must be recited, and a minimum of prescribed questions asked. Unlike the symposium that ended in drunken frivolity, after-dinner frivolity at the Seder is prohibited.