passover101 History

Why do we call the holiday ‘Passover’? 

Passover is a translation of the Hebrew word Pesach. It refers to the traditional sacrifice of a lamb which was done in Biblical times. And to the last of the 10 plagues inflicted upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians, the slaying of the firstborn Egyptian males. During this plague, we are told, the Israelites painted their doorposts with the blood of the sacrificial lamb so the Angel of Death would be able to recognize these homes and pass over them.

Why were the Jews slaves in Egypt?

In the Book of Exodus, we learn that Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) and his family moved to Egypt from Canaan (later to become the Land of Israel) during a harsh drought. There they are welcomed by Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, who has become Pharaoh’s right-hand man through his ingenuity in saving the country from the same drought. By virtue of his position of power, he is able to offer his family sustenance and protection in his adopted country. (For a fun telling of this part of the story, watch Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat!) However, when a new Pharaoh rises to power, he does not know or recognize Joseph nor does he afford him any merit for having saved Egypt, and the protection extended to the People of Israel is abruptly rescinded. As foreigners, they are stripped of their rights and enslaved, forced into harsh labor building the pyramids. 

How did the Jews get out of Egypt?

God reveals himself to a Hebrew man named Moses, who in time becomes Judaism’s most important prophet.  Moses sees God in the desert in the form of a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames, and God orders him to demand that Pharoah free the Israelites from slavery. When Pharoah refuses, God inflicts ten plagues upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian people: 1) the rivers turn to blood; infestations of 2) frogs, 3) lice, and 4) flies wreak havoc on the land: 5) a pestilence decimates the country’s livestock; 6) boils plague the Egyptians’ bodies; 7) fiery hail rains down upon the land; 8) locust swarms devour the country’s crops; 9) an impenetrable darkness envelops the land for three days straight; and, finally, 10) all firstborn Egyptian males are slain by the Angel of Death, including the Pharaoh’s own son. With this final blow, the Pharaoh finally succumbs and orders for the Israelites to be freed, shortly thereafter changing his mind, however, and chasing after them with his army as they make their way into the Sinai desert. The denouement of this great exodus comes when Moses parts the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through, and it subsequently swallows up the Egyptian army as they follow in hot pursuit.

Who are the main characters of the Passover Story?

Pharaoh, Moses, and God are at the crux of the Passover Story. Other important figures include Miriam—Moses’s sister, who saves him as a baby. The Pharaoh, upon hearing a prophecy that a Jewish male was to rise and free his people, decrees that all Jewish male children born are to be put to death. Moses, as an infant, is saved from this fate when his mother hides him in an ark on the Nile River, where he is discovered and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. Miriam watches over Moses from behind the rushes on the river bank, and when the Pharaoh’s daughter discovers him, Miriam offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the baby. The request is granted, and Moses is thus able to grow up in the care of his Hebrew mother, though he grows up living a life of privilege as part of the royal family. Aaron, another important figure, is Moses’s brother who eventually becomes the High Priest of the Temple. Moses is described in the Book of Exodus as “heavy of tongue,” and Aaron serves as his mouthpiece when confronting the Pharaoh, as well as assisting him in invoking a number of the plagues. Once in the desert, Aaron and his descendants are designated by God as the priests to serve in the Temple God commands the Israelites to construct. 

How did Moses help free the Jews?

Moses, though hesitant to accept his role at first, is chosen by God as His messenger to free the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Moses tries diplomacy at first, but the Bible tells us that God repeatedly hardens the Pharaoh’s heart, such that he refuses to free the Israelites. Moses, on God’s orders, then proceeds to invoke ten plagues on the Egyptian people, until the Pharaoh finally gives in.