Pesach—Stages of Development

Several Phases of Development

Seder Plate

Traditional Seder Plate

In our last visit, we talked about the fact that Pesach was commanded to be a perpetual memorial. Yet, there is one scenario that can prevent its proper practice—the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem. Without the Temple, it is impossible to perform any of the Levitical functions, including sacrifices for any of the mandated purposes, like the Holy Days. We have found ourselves in this situation ever since the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70CE. At that point, a number of decisions had to be made regarding the continuation of Judaism as a bloodless religion. The scholars who gathered at the academy of Yavneh ended up leading the way, and all of modern Judaism is descended from them and their teachings.

Babylonian Captivity

70CE, however, was not the first time in history the Jewish people had to make do without a Temple. The same situation had occurred in 586 BCE. At that time, Jerusalem had fallen, the Temple was destroyed, and the majority of the Hebrew people was relocated to foreign lands. All hope seemed to be lost for any restoration of Jewish religion. In hind sight, we now know that the Jews were able to reclaim and rebuild Jerusalem within only 150 years. But at the time, the captives had no way to know their grandchildren would have the opportunity to return to the Land of Israel.

So, thinking themselves to be cut off from Israel and the Temple of Hashem, how did the Hebrews deal with the inability to follow God’s regulations regarding sacrifice and the laws of clean and unclean?

While in Babylonian captivity, the leaders of the Jewish community spent a great deal of time pondering a world without a Temple. What would such a world be like? After all, the entire Levitical system of sacrifices depended upon having a standing center of worship in Jerusalem! Jeremiah 33 had clearly stated the assurance that the Levitical priesthood would endure forever. Had the prophet lied, or been in error? It seemed so, since the Temple was now gone, and the Hebrew people no longer dwelt in the Land given to them by Hashem. Now, decisions had to be made about how the community should engage in corporate worship.

The leaders in Babylon found it necessary to work from certain premises in order to accomplish their mission of preserving the people of God while apart from their national Land and historic capitol. Among other things, they developed certain core principles and practices, including:

  1. Despite the grievous loss of the Temple, they remained confident that there would be an eventual restoration that would allow God’s people to worship according to the commandments given in the Torah;
  2. The commandments must be kept alive through study. This idea was expressed in the teaching that, “One who studies a commandment is as praiseworthy as one who performs it himself.” The point of this teaching is not to minimize the actual performance of the commandments, but to encourage people to keep alive the commandments of the Almighty;
  3. Regulations were created that described an idealized set of community institutions, including the Levitical sacrifices.

As a result of these principles, the leaders in Babylonia ended up developing community meeting places that we call “synagogues”, and encouraging people to study the Torah with a view towards correcting the problems of disobedience that had led to the diaspora. Liturgy was developed that would guide the people in public worship. An interpretive oral tradition was also developed to serve as guidance for those who would eventually participate once again in Temple-based religious practices.

Return from Captivity

Throughout all the decades of captivity, the Israeli leaders kept alive the expectation that God would not forsake his people, Israel—that the dispersion amongst the nation would ultimately come to an end. Eventually, this expectation was realized. We know from the Biblical record of Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther that the nation of Israel was eventually restored to the Promised Land, and a Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem. For the time being, at least, it appeared that Israel was being restored to something resembling political sovereignty.

This led to a strange situation—the Israeli people were brought back from captivity, rebuilt a Temple in Jerusalem, kick-started something resembling the Levitical priesthood… but all the while continuing the tradition of Torah interpretation and application that had been started while in Babylonian captivity. Thus, we find the Gospels recording some events like the collection of the half-shekel tax mandated in the Torah, and also arguments over Babylonian interpretations of Torah and Prophetic texts.

This brings us to the Gospel accounts regarding Yeshua’s last days. The Gospels mention some things that continued from the original Torah commandments—sacrifice of a lamb, meeting together for the seder. But they also include elements that were introduced by the proto-rabbis of the previous centuries—blessings, cups of wine with specific names and meanings, and the “Hillel sandwich” (which we will discuss further in coming articles). We will eventually treat Yeshua’s own Passover seder in detail. But that will come later in our series.

The More Things Change,
The More They Stay the Same

For now, we will focus on the fact that we are living in diaspora, with no Temple for performing a Pesach sacrifice. Today, we find ourselves in a situation similar to that of the Babylonian captivity. We keep alive the Perpetual Memorial, but in a context where we are forced to once again remember the deliverance of Israel from captivity without the ability to slay a Paschal Lamb.

In case all this sounds confusing, here is a simplified list of time frames:

  1. First Pesach
    Approximately 1,500 BCE
  2. Pesach celebrated in Israel during the Judges
    Approximately 1,400 BCE to 1,000 BCE
  3. Pesach celebrated in Solomon’s Temple
    Approximately 1,000 BCE to 586 BCE
  4. Babylonian Captivity—Pesach remembered in diaspora
    Approximately 586 BCE to mid-400’s BCE
    This is the time the oral tradition was begun—what eventually become known as the mishneh
  5. Pesach continued in Israel after return from dispersion in 445 BCE until 70 CE
    There was both a Temple and the early stages of the oral tradition
  6. Finally, our present era of celebrating Pesach with no Temple
    This period has gone on since 70 CE until modern times

Pesach Today

Thus, we turn our attention from the historical background, and to the modern seder practices. The purpose of this series is actually to help those who are new to the Passover seder. Many people are drawn to the Messianic Movement through the doorway of the festivals, especially the Passover celebration. But many of us grew up in Gentile homes, or in non-practicing Jewish homes, and never learned the meaning of the elements, or how to lead our own family seders. Therefore, the Mishkan David wants to offer our readers a chance to learn the Pesach elements a little bit at a time, so even those who are new to the Pesach will be able to understand the significance of the practices.

The Pesach memorial has survived through the ages. But since the destruction of the Temple, the customary practices bear more resemblance to the developments described in the Talmud than what is written in the Bible. That makes it difficult for some of us to relate to the modern practices. What once was a very simple memorial, with few defined elements, has turned into an extensive affair, with numerous requirements, and a confusing array of practices. We want to help you make the most of your seder, to communicate to the best of your ability the wonderful graciousness of Hashem. We will learn to appreciate both the old instructions and the new.

So, keep reading, as we finally start into our Pesach outline!

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