When is Passover?
The question “When is Passover?” seems as simple as the humorous question, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” Everyone with the slightest bit of Jewish education would answer that it begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan and ends seven days later in Israel or eight days later in the Diaspora.
This is true today, but it was not always so. Indeed the holiday of Passover that is mentioned in the Bible occurs on the fourteenth of Nissan and last only a single day.
Passover and Chag Hamatzot
The spring holiday of Passover, as it is practiced today, commemorates the leadership from the hardship of Egyptian slavery and their exodus from Egypt. It also celebrates the later spring barley harvest in Israel. The name comes from the tenth plague, when God the Israelite dwellings when he slew the firstborn of Egypt.
The holiday is called Chag Hamatzot, the festival of the unleavened bread, and not Passover, in the Bible. Passover and Chag Hamatzot were two very distinct holidays in the Bible; although the Bible explains that both commemorate the exodus from Egypt.
The Passover celebration, as indicated in Leviticus 23:5 and Numbers 28:16, occurred on the fourteenth day of the first month (called Nissan in post-biblical literature). The Israelites were required to offer a sacrifice, called the Passover or Pascal lamb, on the fourteenth and eat it in family groups that night
The holiday of Chag Hamatzot began on the fifteenth of Nissan.
The end of the Pascal sacrifice
The biblical Passover was entirely associated with the Pascal sacrifice. When the first and second Temples were constructed, it was brought in the Temple, for no sacrifice could be offered outside of the Temple. The historian Josephus relates in his book Wars that over three million Jews gathered in Jerusalem to perform the sacrifice in 65 C.E. The Babylonian Talmud, Pessachim 64b, tells that King Agrippa took a census of the people about this time by counting the kidneys of the sacrificed lambs. There were over a million kidneys, meaning that over a million Jewish families participated in the sacrifice.
When the Temple was destroyed by invading Roman forces in the year 70 of the Common Era, Jews felt that they could not make an exception and continue the Pascal sacrifice outside the destroyed Temple. Thus the practice of the biblical Passover ceased and nothing replaced the holiday on the fourteenth of Nissan. Some Jews may have continued the sacrifices in some modified form for a short period, but they did not persist in doing so for long.
Shocked at the cessation of the biblically mandated Pascal sacrifice by the Jews, the Samaritans, a quasi-Jewish sect, insisted that the sacrifice must not stop, and so they still bring the Pascal sacrifice today on Mount Gerizim near Shechem in Israel.
Unwilling to cede the Romans a victory over their religious practices, the Jews, who discontinued the sacrifice, began to call the holiday Chag Hamatzot by the name Passover. Nevertheless, they were careful to retain the original name Chag Hamatzot in the prayer book and other rabbinical texts.
This history was recognized by most Bible commentators. Numbers 33:3 recalls the exodus and states: “They [the Israelites] traveled from Ramses during the first month [Nissan], on the fifteenth day of the first month, on the day following the Passover….”
Ibn Ezra (1089 –1164) comments on this verse and writes that he explained that Passover occurred on the fourteenth of Nissan in his commentary to Leviticus 23:11. Chizkunee, in his comment on this verse and on Leviticus 23:8, states that the fourteenth was named Passover because the Pascal sacrifice was brought on that day. He proves this by referring to what Scripture states in Leviticus 23:5 and 8 and Numbers 28:16 and 17. These verses state clearly that the fourteenth of Nissan is Passover and the fifteenth begins the seven days of Chag Hamatzot.
As surprising as it may appear and as opposite as it is to the common conception of the Passover holiday, the recognition of the distinction between Passover and Chag Hamatzot is the “traditional interpretation” of the biblical text. The first was a Temple-oriented holiday that occurred on the fourteenth of Nissan; the second began on the fifteenth and continued for seven days.
When the Pascal lamb sacrifice, the central practice of Passover ceased with the destruction of the second Temple, the Jews labeled Chag Hamatzot by the name Passover. However, the holiday is still called by its ancient biblical name in the prayer book.
In my book “Mysteries of Judaism,” which was just published in Israel, I point out that every holiday that is mentioned in the Torah, without exception, was changed by the rabbis. Passover is one example. Jews today are not Torah Jews but Rabbinical Jews. And Christianity is not an outgrowth of Torah Judaism, but of Rabbinical Judaism.