The Proto-Passover

The first Passover celebration in the Bible is found in Genesis Chapter 18, where we read how Abraham and Sarah were visited by angels who informed them that they would bear a son one year later. Tradition records that the visit (and Isaac’s birth) was on Passover.1 This is not stated explicitly, but the astute reader will note that Abraham instructs Sarah to knead some cakes (ugot) for their guests. This same term is used regarding the Passover matzah that their descendants would eat every year on Passover. Thus the conclusion is reached that it must have been Passover.

Read more: Who Was Isaac?

The First Mandated Passover

Isaac’s descendants (by then known as the People of Israel) eventually wound up in Egypt, where they were enslaved. The time then came and G‑d decided to free them from their cruel taskmasters and take them back to the land that He had promised them so many years before.

He instructed Moses and Aaron to repeatedly ask Pharaoh to release the people of Israel; each time Pharaoh refused, another plague was brought upon the Egyptians: blood, frogs, lice etc.

Read More: The 10 Plagues

Finally, as G‑d was about to bring the final plague—the death of the firstborn son—He instructed Moses to tell the people of Israel to prepare by bringing a sheep into their homes. On the night that He was about to bring death upon the Egyptians, the Israelites slaughtered the lambs and ate them with unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs (maror).

They were also instructed to take the blood of the lamb and smear it on their doorposts, a sign to G‑d that this was an Israelite home, to be passed over, when death was visited upon the firstborns in all other homes. This is what gave the Passover sacrifice (and holiday) its name. In the original Hebrew, the word is Pesach.

At that same time, G‑d also instructed them to observe the Passover celebration every year on the anniversary of their Exodus: at the full moon of the first month of spring (Abib).

Read more: How Does the Equinox Relate to Passover?

This entire episode is known as the Exodus.

Read a retelling of the complete story here

Passover in the Desert: The Second Passover

A year after the Exodus, G‑d instructed the people of Israel to bring the Passover offering on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nissan, and to eat it that evening, roasted over the fire, together with matzah and bitter herbs, as they had done the previous year just before they left Egypt.

“There were, however, certain persons who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and could not, therefore, prepare the Passover offering on that day. They approached Moses and Aaron . . . and they said: ‘. . . Why should we be deprived, and not be able to present G‑d’s offering in its time, amongst the children of Israel?’” (Numbers 9:6–7).

In response to their plea, G‑d established the 14th of Iyar as a “Second Passover” (Pesach Sheni) for anyone who was unable to bring the offering at its appointed time in the previous month.

Read more about Pesach Sheni

The First Passover in the Promised Land

After 40 years in the desert, Moses passed away just prior to leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. His death was on the 7th of Adar, just five weeks before Passover. In The Book of Joshua, Chapter 5, we read the account of Joshua organizing the circumcision of the Israelite males, something they had not been able to do in the desert. This was followed by a celebration of Passover. “And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and they made the Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month at evening in the plains of Jericho.” (Joshua 5:10)

The Great Passover Revivals

The next mention2 of Passover is in II Chronicles 30, where we read how King Hezekiah, the righteous king remembered for his campaign to reintroduce the people of Israel to the Torah way of life, sent out messengers enjoining everyone to celebrate Passover with him.

Since they were not in a proper state to celebrate Passover on time, they celebrated one month later, on “Pesach Sheini”, the 14th of Iyar (in accordance with the laws of the Second Passover discussed above3.) Despite the fact that the members of some tribes refused to participate, “there was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the days of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel [there had] not [been] the like in Jerusalem” (II Chronicles 30:26).

Approximately 100 years later, a similar event happened in the days of King Josiah.

In the eighteenth year of his rule, Josiah announced his plan to have the Holy Temple renovated. In the course of the repairs, the High Priest Hilkiah found a scroll which turned out to be the Torah scroll written by Moses. The passage that was read before the king contained the warnings of heavy punishment for the Jewish people if they failed to follow in G‑d's ways. The king was determined that the words of the Torah and the warning of the prophets should spread through the length and breadth of the land. After the Temple was rededicated and the people returned en masse to G‑d, they celebrated Passover in grand scale, such as had not been seen since the days of Samuel the Prophet (II Chronicles 35:18).

Passover in the Second Temple

Solomon’s Temple was eventually destroyed, and the people were exiled. Decades later, Ezra and Nehemia led a group of Jews who returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple once again. We read in Ezra 6 how the returnees purified themselves and celebrated Passover “with joy, for the L‑rd made them joyful and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to strengthen their hands in the work of the House of G‑d, the G‑d of Israel.”

The Passover celebrations then continued in the Second Temple, until it was destroyed by the Romans more than 400 years later.

Passover Today

Following the destruction of the Second Temple and its altar in Jerusalem, we have been unable to celebrate Passover completely, without the sacrifice the Passover lamb. And yet, Jewish people gather every year to celebrate the other elements of this special evening. As we hope and pray for the Passover lamb to be reinstated, matzah and maror are eaten, four celebratory cups of wine are drunk, and Jewish parents tell their children (and themselves) the story of our nation’s miraculous exodus from Egypt.