The Korban Pesach (Passover Offering) and the Chag Hamatsot (pilgrimage festival of unleavened bread) is among the most important holidays in the Torah. The Chagim (pilgrimage festivals) are second only to Shabbat in the order of essential holiday observances. Much of the religious calendar centres on this holiday. This article will describe proper observance of the holiday from a traditional Karaite viewpoint as well as a more modern view.
The story that underlies the holiday begins with the Book of Shemot (Exodus) which tells the story of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt and how Hashem (G-d) saved Moshe from death at the hands of the Egyptians and later sent the brothers Moshe and Aharon as emissaries to Pharoah. Through the ten plagues the Egyptians are punished and Hashem demonstrates His power over nature and the universe and that the Egyptians and their false deities are powerless to stop Him. The eighth plague is fire and ice that falls on the Egyptians (a phenomenon called volcanic hail) which arrived in Egypt at the ripening of the barley harvest. It is based upon this ripening that the New Year is established. When the barley is ripe before the new moon at the end of the Twelfth Biblical Month, the New Year begins at the next new moon. If the barley is not ripe, then a Thirteenth Month is added to the calendar so as to correct the lunar calendar for the solar year. Either way the First Month (also called Aviv) begins and it is on the fifteenth day of the First Month (which commences at sunset as the fourteenth day ends) that the Pesach Offering is made. This coincides with the night that Hashem killed the firstborn of Egypt. The Israelites painted lamb blood on their doorposts so their firstborn would be spared.
Shemot chapters 11–12 describe the events that this holiday are based upon and set forth the rules of the holiday. On the tenth day of the First Month each Israelite household is required to procure a yearling lamb, or in combination with other household, and have it ready for the Pesach Offering. The slaughter takes place at dusk just before sunset. Josephus reported that Israelites in Jerusalem gathered ten men to a slaughter. The meat is then cooked and eaten. Nothing is permitted to remain until sunrise, so all organs, entrails, and bones not eaten must be burned. This burning takes place regardless of whether the holiday coincides with Shabbat.
The Torah goes on to prohibit the consumption of leavened bread and any and all hamets. Hamets includes leavened bread, cheese, alcoholic beverages, pickles, sour cream, soy sauce, and any other fermented, pickled, or leavened food. This must all be put out of sight for the seven days of the Chag (the fifteenth through the twenty-first of the First Month – Aviv). All se’ors, that is leavening agents, must be destroyed. Se’ors include yeasts for leavening bread, vinegar, cheese rennets, and anything that can cause an effect like these. Baking soda, for example, does not leaven bread like yeast does. Yeast is a microscopic fungus that lives in the air and when cultivated, can cause though the biological process of consumption and waste, bread to rise when baked. Baking soda accomplishes the same effect through a chemical process. Thus, baking sodas should, at the very least, be put out of sight and not used during the Chag. Karaite tradition goes so far as to include carbonated drinks, sodas, as they can likewise raise bread through a chemical process. Although, some believe this interpretation goes it a bit too far.
Then there is the question of grains and flour that can become hamets. If you have flour in your home and it becomes wet, it will cultivate yeast and begin to leaven. As a safeguard against having unintentional hamets in one’s home all grains and flours should be avoided and kept out of the home and out of sight. It is also traditional to avoid consuming foods with grains or flour in them which might become hamets. It is true that this is merely a safeguard, fences around fences as we say in Judaism, but better to go a little farther than the minimum commanded by Torah than to unintentionally violate a commandment. Click here for more information on Karaite practices and customs concerning the Chag Hamatsot.
In addition to the prohibition against eating hamets, Israelites are commended to eat unleavened bread (matsa) every day of the seven days. Thus, at least some unleavened bread must be consumed each day. Click here to learn about Karaite matsa recipes. The first day of the Chag is a day like Shabbat, a day of rest, except for the work necessary to prepare food; unless this holiday coincides with Shabbat. Obviously, the work required to prepare the slaughter for consumption and to burn its unconsumed remains, are permitted. The seventh day of the Chag (Shevi’iy Atseret), the twenty-first day of the First Month, is also a Moed (date or holiday) which is likewise a day of rest except for the work necessary to prepare food, unless this day coincides with Shabbat. The commanded prohibitions conclude at sunset on the seventh day, the twenty-first day of the First Month. In Karaite tradition, we wait until it is completely dark before eating hamets so as to be certain the holiday has passed.
Finally, it is considered important to be ritually clean during the Chag. Details of ritual cleanliness is discussed in greater depth in this article. Indeed, Bemidbar (Numbers) 9:9-13 describes men who were unclean from the dead during the Chag Hamatsot such that Moshe received further instructions from Hashem that a second Chag can be observed from the fifteenth day of the second month for those who were unclean from the dead at the time of the proper observance. In Karaite tradition a connection is drawn between ritual cleanliness and holiness. The Torah requires that one be both ritually clean and holy before entering the Temple, for example. Thus, it is necessary to attempt to remain clean during the seven days of the holiday.
This practice, along with the abstention from alcohol, are of ancient origin. These prohibitions are included in the Elephantine Papyrus a letter from a Hananiyah to a Jewish garrison in Egypt containing orders for that garrison to observe the Chag and how to do so. Ritual cleanliness and the abstention from leavened bread and alcohol are referenced in this letter.
During the Chag there is a Shabbat and it is following that Shabbat that we observe the counting of the Omer. The first Omer (a measurement) of grain is brought to the priests on that day. Thereafter, we count seven weeks, 49 days, each week punctuated by a Shabbat until on the 50th day (always a Sunday) we observe the second Chag of the year: the Chag HaShavuot (pilgrimage festival of weeks). The third and final Chag of the year is the Chag HaSukkot (the pilgrimage festival of booths – small wooden structures) which commences on the fifteenth day of the Seventh Month. A pilgrimage festival originally meant a pilgrimage to Jerusalem wherein all Israelite males were required to appear at the Temple “before Hashem.” In the absence of the Temple, this pilgrimage no longer takes place, but we still include the phrase “next year in Jerusalem” in our liturgy for the holiday. Learn more about the Jewish Calendar here.
The Pesach Seder is a tradition based upon the events of the exodus from Egypt. The meal is consumed with shoes on, in preparation for the coming departure. It is customary to stay up late and also to go out for a walk to reenact the events described in the book of Shemot (Exodus). The Karaite Haggadah (liturgy for the Seder) is taken almost directly from the scripture. Click here to buy a Karaite Haggadah, a book that provides the service and the blessings for the seder. Lamb is consumed at the seder in remembrance of the Korban Pesach (Passover Offering) even though it is our tradition that no offerings may be made in the absence of the Temple. If the offering could be made the blood from the offering would be painted onto the doorposts of homes in remembrance of the night Egypt’s firstborn died. A maror (bitter herbs) is made with a salad and a bitter dressing to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. Karaites do not consume wine during the seder, as alcoholic drinks are prohibited, but we do drink an iced crushed grape drink instead. It is a night for celebration, songs, and happiness as we commemorate the day Hashem liberated our ancestors and proved that He was supreme over the natural world and over the imagined powers created by mankind. In Karaite custom a seat is left open for the Prophet Eliyahu whose return is anticipated in the future, although not everyone believes he will return.
The Rabbinical Seder is based upon the Greek Symposium, an ordered dinner dedicated to the worship of Dionysus. This was incorporated into Jewish custom during the Byzantine Era, along with the fall new year. This ordered dinner complete with the four sons and their questions and the seat left open for the reincarnation of Dionysius has nothing to do with Jewish tradition and should not be observed this way. The Greek would typically hold an orgy after their symposium, so this is definitely not behavior to emulate. Reclining to the left on a couch is likewise a Roman custom with no Jewish origin.
In Rabbinical custom a plate is prepared with several items on it, one of which is a lamb bone. This plate is likewise a tradition that is not part of Karaite custom. Some Rabbinical groups, especially Askenazim (European Jews) also have other restrictions, they do not eat lentils even though lentils do not leaven. Horseradish is often used as a bitter herb. Outside of Israel Rabbinical custom ads an eighth day to the holiday as well. While there is no reason one could not abstain from bread for an eighth day, there is no authority under Torah that is permitted to require the extension of holidays or to alter their nature and purpose.
The Talmudic tradition also holds that the Omer is counted from the second day of the Chag Hamatsot regardless of on what day it lands. Thus, they incorrectly observe Shavuot on any day of the week other than Shabbat according to the incorrect calculation. Learn more about the Jewish Calendar.