In the beginning there were two festivals: Pesach, a shepherds’ holiday celebrating the lambing season, and Chag Hamatzot, a farmers’ holiday celebrating the year’s first grain harvest. And still the names are preserved: Passover, the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
In the second half of the thirteenth century BCE Israel left Egypt, and thereafter the two celebrations became a single festival with new meanings. Pesach came to be understood as referring to the last of the Ten Plagues, when God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites, and the unleavened bread came to recall the haste of Israel’s departure, when there was no time for bread to rise. This single festival became Z’man Cheruteinu, “The Season of Our Freedom”.
Passover, then, has four aspects. It is seasonal, a rejoicing in the annual re-awakening of nature at springtime. It is historical, marking the birthday of the Jewish people. It is a festival of freedom. And it is a ritual of preparation for an ultimate redemption, of which our first redemption was but a hint and a promise.
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