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A fairly accurate, but incomplete INDEX of Posts & good overview of this blog READ SOME REASONS TO REJECT ORTHODOX JUDAISM my April 2014 post or click link above. Highlighted words lead to other posts almost all in my blog. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family (1950's) and went to Orthodox Yeshiva from kindergarten thru High School plus some Beis Medrash.Became an agnostic in my 20's and an atheist later on. My blog will discuss the arguments for god and Orthodox Judaism and will provide counter arguments. I no longer take comments. My blog uses academic sources, the Torah, Talmud and commentators to justify my assertions. The posts get updated. INDEX OF POSTS SEE MAY 2017 or click link above.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Passover Origins; & short note on Human Sacrifice

UPDATED THRU 9/28/2014

The Torah sometimes provides the reasons for it's festivals or rituals to alleged historical events.  Circumcision and Sabbath are two examples. Similarly, the Torah has seemingly combined  2 distinct festivals into a single one now called Pesah/Passover and linked them to an alleged historical event - the ten plagues of Egypt and the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian servitude. ( It is possible there is a kernel of truth to an Exodus. Perhaps a few hundred or even a few thousand people escaped from Egyptian servitude over some temporal period(s)  in ancient history and eventually settled in Canaan. But nothing on the order of the claim of 600,000 plus or several million people who then wandered in a desert for 40 years, which almost certainly did not occur; justification is left for a different post. )

{ETA 9/28/2014 Page 75 of the Oxford Bible Commentary 2001 - "All three festivals [passover, massot, censecration of first born] are widely believed to be very old rites of various origins which at some stage have been given an interpretation related to Exodus}

Let me be clear on my very brief comments regarding of human sacrifice in association with Passover or Judaism. Judaism forbids human sacrifice. Any claims otherwise arise out of mental illness/lies/antisemitism/ ignorance. Furthermore,  I celebrated Passover as an orthodox jew for over 20 years and know thousands of jews - human sacrifice was non existent, not rumored, not contemplated at anytime. However, this post is discussing a very ancient period where it is possible human sacrifice was practiced by the ancient Israelites. It requires a separate  post.

Like Yom Kippur (here), Passover has similarities to several ancient near east festivals (ANE) or rituals, and seemingly combines features from several of them. There are important notes at the end of this post.



The sacrifice which the Israelites offered at the command of God during the night before the Exodus from Egypt, and which they ate with special ceremonies according to divine direction. The blood of this sacrifice sprinkled on the door-posts of the Israelites was to be a sign to the angel of death, when passing through the land to slay the first-born of the Egyptians that night, that he should pass by the houses of the Israelites (Ex. xii. 1-23). This is called  the "Egyptian Passover sacrifice" . It was ordained, furthermore (Ex. xii. 24-27), that this observance should be repeated annually for all time. This so-called "Pesah Dorot," the Passover of succeeding generations, differs in many respects from the Pesah Mizrayim. 



The festival commemorates the deliverance of Israel's first-born from the judgment wrought on those of the Egyptian, and the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage. As such, it is identical with the Mazzat festival, and was instituted for an everlasting statute. Lev. xxiii., however, seems to distinguish between Passover, which is set for the fourteenth day of the month, and the Festival of Unleavened Bread appointed for the fifteenth day. The festival occurred in Abib, where the New Moon is given as the memorial day of the Exodus. On one of the days new barley was brought to the Temple. 

On the tenth of the month—ever thereafter to be the first month of the year—the Hebrews were to take a lamb for each household, "without blemish, a male of the first year," "from the sheep or from the goats." Kept until the fourteenth day, this lamb was killed "at eve", the blood being sprinkled by means of a "bunch of hyssop"  on the two door-posts and on the lintels of the houses wherein the Hebrews assembled to eat the lamb during this night, denominated the  ("night of the vigils unto Yhwh"). Prepared for the impending journey, with loins girded, shoes on their feet, and staves in their hands, they were to eat "in haste." The lamb was to be roasted at the fire, not boiled in water, or left raw; its head, legs, and inwards were not to be removed, and it was to be eaten with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Nothing was to be left until the morning; anything that remained was to be burned.
The details of this rite as observed in Egypt are summarized in "the ordinance of the Passover". No bone was to be broken; the meal was to be eaten in one house; no alien could participate; circumcision was a prerequisite in the case of servants bought for money and of the stranger desiring to participate (Ex. xii. 44-48). According to Num. ix. 6, Levitical purity was another prerequisite. To enable such as happened to be in an unclean state through contact with the dead, or were away from home at the appointed season, to "offer the oblation of Yhwh," a second Passover was instituted on the fourteenth day of the second month (Num. ix. 9 et seq.). In Deut. xvi. 2, 5 the slaughtering and eating of the lamb appear to be restricted to the central sanctuary.

The sacrifices ordained for Passover are as follows: "an offering made by fire, a burnt offering; two young bullocks, and one ram, and seven he-lambs of the first year, without blemish, and their meal-offering, fine flour mingled with oil; . . . and one he-goat for a sin-offering, beside the burnt offering of the morning."  These were to be offered daily for seven days.

Comparison of the successive strata of the Pentateuchal laws bearing on the festival makes it plain that the institution, as developed, is really of a composite character. Two festivals, originally distinct, have become merged, their underlying ideas reappearing both in the legend associated with the holy day as its assumed historical setting and occasion, and in the ritual. The name  must be taken to be derived from that meaning of the root which designates the "skipping," "dancing" motions of a young lamb (Toy, in "Jour. Bib. Lit." 1897), only secondarily connoting "passing over" in the sense of "sparing." Pesah, thus explained, is connected with pastoral life; it is the festival celebrated in early spring by the shepherds before setting out for the new pastures. In the ordinance of Ex. xii. the primitive manner of preparing the lamb for the family feast is still apparent. Such a family feast, naturally, was in the nature of a sacrifice, the gods of the clan being supposed to partake of it as well as the human members. There is a strong presumption that the skipping motions of the lamb were imitated by the participants, who in this wise "danced" around the sacrificial offering, and that this explains the designation of both the feast and the lamb.

Feast of First-Born.
There is good ground for the theory of Dozy ("Die Israeliten zu Mekka," Leyden, 1869) that the rites of the Arabian haj recall those of this old Israelitish "hag," though the inference drawn from this resemblance, that the Meccan celebration had been imported from Israel by the tribe of Simeon, must be rejected. The lamb served, however, the purpose of propitiating the gods and securing the prosperity of the flock about to depart for the pasture. Wellhausen's surmise that the lamb was a firstling, though not borne out by the Biblical data, seems to throw light on the connection, apparently very primitive, between the festival and the escape of the first-born and their subsequent devotion to Yhwh (Ex. xii., xiii.). The first-born of the flock (and even of men) was offered that the lives of those born later might be safe.

Hence the ceremony came naturally to be associated with the intention of "saving," and then with the fact of having "spared," from which secondary meaning of the root  came the tradition that the Hebrews' first-born had been "spared" in Egypt, God "passing over" their houses. The sprinkling of the blood points in the same direction. This was a feature accompanying every propitiatory slaughtering (see Samuel Ives Curtis, "Ursemitische Religion," p. 259, Leipsic, 1903). It is suggested that when later the tendency became dominant to give old festivals historical associations—a tendency clearly traceable in the evolution of the Biblical holy days—this very primitive practice was explained by a reference to the occurrence in Egypt during the "night of watching"—another expression which plainly refers to the night preceding the day of the flock's departure, and which, as such, was marked by a proper ritual. It has been urged that the term "night of watching" points to a custom similar to that which prevails in Germany, where the night before Easter is set apart for seeing the sun "jump" or "dance," as it is called; it is more likely, however, that the phrase has reference to the moon's phases.

Connected with Mazzot.
This pastoral Pesah was originally distinct from the Mazzot festival, but it merged all the more readily with it because both occurred in the spring, about the time of the vernal equinox. The Mazzot feast is distinctly agricultural, the mazzot cakes being both the natural offering from the newly gathered barley to the gods that had allowed the crop to ripen, and then the staple food of the harvesters. Offering and food are nearly always identical in the concepts and practices of primitive races. The difficulty of finding an adequate historical explanation for the mazzot is apparent even in the account of Ex. xii., which would make them emblematic of the hurry of the deliverance from Egypt, though it was the supposition that the mazzot had been used at the Passover meal before the Exodus.

The agricultural character of the Passover (or Mazzot) festival is evidenced by the fact that it is one of the three pilgrim, or season, festivals. Of course, when the pastoral Pesah and the agricultural Mazzot came to be merged can not be determined definitely, but one is safe in saying that it must have been shortly after the occupation of Palestine, the tradition about the Pesah observed by Joshua at Gilgal (see Biblical Data) suggesting and confirming this assumption.

The relation of circumcision to Pesah is explained when the original pastoral and propitiatory character of the latter is remembered. The pastoral clan would naturally exclude all that were not of the clan from the meal at which it trysted with its protecting god (that being the original significance of every solemn meal) and disarmed his jealousy. Circumcision itself was a rite of propitiation, like the lamb at Pesah, possibly a substitute for human sacrifice. (See the legend of Cain and Abel for the bearing of the lamb, and that of Zipporah's sons for the bearing of circumcision, on human sacrifice.) A good case may be made out in favor of the theory that, for this reason, Pesah was at one time the festival of the circumcision, all that had attained the proper age during the year being circumcised on one and the same day, namely, at Pesah; the puzzling question why the lamb had to be set aside on the tenth finds in this its explanation. Three to four days were required to heal the wound of circumcision (see Josh. v. 8; Gen. xxxiv. 25), and the designation of mazzot as the "bread of affliction" (Deut. xvi. 3) may possibly carry some allusion to this custom.

The law of the second Pesah (Num. ix. 6) reflects the unsettled relations which the pastoral Pesah originally bore to the agricultural harvest festival, the two, apparently, not being at first simultaneous.

{UPDATE 2/17/2014 Page 169 Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible - Kenton Sparks 2005 - He discusses the Ugaritic Festival of First Wine and one of it's  features is the use of  UNLEAVENED Bread in sacrifices.}.

In the book Ancient Israel by Roland de Vaux 1965 edition

Page 489 Passover was a shepherd's rite of offerings of the seminomads or nomads who like the ancient arabs sacrificed in the spring time to secure flock fecundity and prosperity. Blood on the door was to drive away evil powers. It was "...the old arab feast which fell in the month of Rajab, the first month of spring". Unleavened bread is still the normal bread of bedouins and the bitter herbs the bedouins pick to season their food. "It was the Israelite version of the springtime feast which all Semitic nomads kept....."

Page 490 Feast of Unleavened bread - marks the beginning of the barley harvest. An agricultural feast. "It is quite possible, then, that the Israelites adapted this feast from the Canaanites".

(Side note Pages 493-494  Regarding the Feast of Weeks - The feast of First Fruit

Exodus 23:16 and others. A Wheat harvest festival. "The feast of weeks was a feast  for farmers...Israel adopted it only after its entry into Palestine, and must have taken it from the Canaanites". The custom of presenting the first fruit of harvests is "very widespread".)


Page 15 in the book Hebrew Myths and the Book of Genesis by Graves and Patai 1964 

There was a Canaanite feast of unleavened bread.

Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition Slaying the Dragon - Bernard Batto 1992

Page 136 -137 Gilgal was the site of a Canaanite Agricultural festival of unleavened bread.


Did God Have a Wife, William Dever

Page 108. Regarding Passover -

“This feast probably originated in the old Canaanite spring pastoral feast that featured the sacrifice of young lambs". It was combined with an old feast of unleavened bread, then historicized.


The Ancient Gods E.O.James 1960

Page 148 Regarding Passover "...commemorated at the spring festival,...,celebrated at the full moon nearest the vernal equinox when the firstlings of the lambing season were offered, no doubt originally to the fertility - god of the flocks in a lunar context". The moon god being a fertility deity. He continues, it was highly probable connected to the sacrifice of firstlings. sprinkling blood on door posts derived a protective device to repel demons. The feast of unleavened bread belongs to the tradition of first fruit offerings and in all probability taken over from the Canaanites. A sheaf of the new crop (omer) waved before Yahweh to promote fertility of crops in the forthcoming season. 


Beginning on page 114  of Israelite Religions by Richard S. Hess 2007

 "Emar's Zukru festival compares with the spring festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread, as well as other ritual festivals in west Semitic religion of  the second millennium BC." He proceeds to make at least six comparisons with Zukru:

1) Both have the concept of remember/invoke/speak with the semitic root zkr. (see my note 1 below)
2) Both require roasting lamb.
3) Both have twilight as a critical time.
4) Both use 7 days as an important part of ritual. [Here is yet another example of 7 being important in ancient near east religions and myths.]
5) Both involve community coming out to participate in food and drink besides just royalty and the priests. (See my note 2 below)
6) Zukru seems to have involved the chief god [as well as other gods]. 

There are other elements in the Zukru festival that parallel the Bible. For example the Sikkanu stones that parallel Hittite and Hebrew (masseba) standing stones. The Sikkanu stones are anointed with oil and blood. (Hess states this is unrelated to Passover).

 Zukru involves Dagan the Lord of the First born.[Yaweh demands the first born. See my note 3 below]

Another similarity is from Emar 446 the ritual calender  - there is a  spring ritual for the storm god, and Hess provides reasons why that god is also a warrior, and a provider of fertility of the land. Passover also occurs in springtime. and " the roles Israels God with a warrior.... and who has given the harvest and blessings of the land to Israel". Hess lists 10 other similarities of Emar 446 to the Torah ritual calendar. For example both have a festival occurring in autumn, both have an interest in the half year points, both have feasts that emphasize grains.


From Page 96 in Exodus by Carol Myers 2005, there are listed some more similarities from ancient near east (ANE) practices to Passover:

1) Sacrifice in the evening in the middle of the first month as in Emar
2) Eating sacrifice until it is gone as in Ugaritic documents
3) Sacrifice in ANE typically involve an unblemished animal
4) Special treatment of head, legs, and inner organs was apparently an Egyptian practice

The symbol for the ancient Egyptian fertility god named Min was lettuce - it was tall, erect and oozing milky white on being cut. Many Jews eat romaine lettuce as a bitter herb (Maror) or as Karpas for Passover. This use of romaine lettuce would relate closely to Passover fertility cult aspects and of the Egypt tie in to Passover. On page 105  of C. Myers book - Karpas represents the new growth of springtime and the jews dip it in salt water as if to taste the tears of the Hebrew slaves.  


From the Golden Bough - The Dying God (by George Frazer, published by MacMillan Company 1935)

Beginning on page 176 including footnote 1-  The sea Dyaks of Borneo perform animal sacrifice and put blood on house posts and hang up food on the walls all to drive away evil spirits thirsting for human lives. The spirits seeing the blood and be satisfied and move on.  In west Africa when pestilence or attack by enemies is expected sacrifice goat/sheep and smear blood on the village gateway. Frazer provides other examples as well.

Beginning on Page 178 Thus Frazer suggests the original Passover celebration ritual involving blood put on lintel was an attempt to outwit a dangerous spirit and that originally Passover may have involved human sacrifice of the first born, the latter a practice found among some ancient Semites and other cultures. The ancient Israelites maintained the sacrifice of  first born cattle but let the children be redeemed. Frazer goes on to list examples such as on page 180:  In India it was common to sacrifice the first born to the Ganges. The Mairs their first born son to the small-pox goddess. The Boraws sacrifice their children and cattle to Wak. Circumcision appears to be an atoning to redeem some of the children from the spirit to which they belong. Frazier suggest similar to Exodus iv:24-26. [See note 3 below].


[Note 1 - Passover is an invocation/remembrance of Yaweh who (allegedly) freed the Israelite slaves in Egypt. And from page 124 Time at Emar by  Daniel Fleming 2000 -  "The Emar rite would have celebrated a spoken approach to Dagan, a prayer that renewed the link between the people and the god who was ultimately responsible for its survival as a community".  Page 86 Fleming cites George Frazer author of the Golden Bough that "Pre Islamic religion made the rubbing of blood on sacred stones a central feature of worship".]

[Note 2 - Wine and (unleavened) bread plays an important part in the Orthodox Jewish celebration of Passover. Similarly Zukru also uses wine and bread in it's festival].


[Note 3 - Dagan worship sometimes may have involved human sacrifice, at least among some people, but I have seen conflicting statements and need to research further.
(In  the book Ancient Israelite Religion by Susan Niditch 1997 page 77 "The Bible asserts that first born of human and animals is the Lord's a most valuable offering, a precious commodity (Ex 13:12-13, 34:19-20, Num 3:41,45). Usually there is a rejoinder to ransom the firstborn [human] but Exodus 22:29 does not. Seems to support the notion child sacrifice was indeed a thread in Ancient Israelite religion". And on page 115 [Many scholars suggest], that human sacrifice was a feature of the state religion in Israel until the 7th century B.C.E. reforms of King Josiah. To their credit, the Bible condemns the practice but the concept of the efficacy of human sacrifice and the notion of god's appreciation continue in the tradition in various forms".)
I have read other scholars who disagree and believe human sacrifice was not a feature of ancient Israelite religion. Regardless, sacrifice, remembrance of the death of human first borns, Yaweh's ownership of human  first borns, circumcision as a requirement for Passover participants (Ex. 12:48 And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land; but no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof.),  and vestiges of fertility cults are integrated into Passover. A gods ownership of first borns and  first fruits is common in the ancient near east. And from  "Blood belonged to Yhwh; no man might eat it (I Sam. xiv. 32-34; Lev. xvii. 3 et seq.). The blood was the soul. When animals were substituted for human victims, blood still remained the portion of the Deity. No subtle theological construction of a philosophy of expiation is required to explain this prominent trait (see S. I. Curtiss, "Primitive Semitic Religion," passim). The blood on the lintel (the threshold covenant) at the Passover was proof that which the Destroyer was seeking—viz., life—had not been withheld. The rite of Circumcision (Ex. iii. 24) appears to have been originally instituted for the same purpose."]

{ETA I have written 3 posts relating to circumcision: Proof of God from Circumcision, Dangers of Circumcision as found in the Talmud ,  Circumcision and Maimonides  } {ETA also related is this post Human Sacrifice in the Bible }