Exodus Chapter 12
"And God said to Moses and Aaron: This month shall be the head month for you; it shall be the first month of the year... and you shall eat the sacrificial meat during this night, roasted over fire. You shall eat it with matza and bitter herbs... This day must be one that you will remember. You must keep it as a festival to God for all generations; it is a law for all time that you shall celebrate it... Eat matza for seven days... You must keep this as a law, for you and your children forever. When you come to the Land that God will give you, as He promised you, you must also keep this service. Your children may then ask you, 'what is this service to you?' You must answer, 'It is the Passover service to God. He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians, and He spared us."
Lev. Chapter 23
"These are God's festivals that you shall celebrate as sacred holidays at their appropriate times: The afternoon of the 14th day of the first month is the time that you must bring God's Passover offering. Then, on the 15th day of that month, it is the Lord's Festival of Matzot. You shall eat matzot for seven days... You shall bring offerings to God for seven days."
The entire Jewish nation converged on Jerusalem from all corners of the ancient world tocelebrate Passover in the Holy City. Some lived nearby, and had a comparatively easy journey; some came from neighboring lands and others traveled great distances, even from as far away as Rome. The pilgrims came in caravans, numbering hundreds and sometimes even thousands of participants. Each group brought the obligatory "half-shekel" donation to the Temple treasury, on behalf of their respective constituency.
Jerusalem Prepares for the Massive Arrival
Preparations in Jerusalem for the influx of such large numbers began early. On the first
day of Adar, a full six weeks before the festival, special agents appointed by the Rabbinical court went about the countryside "to repair the roads, squares, and mikvaot, and to insure that the gravesites were properly marked" (to protect the pilgrims from exposure to ritual impurity - Mishna Shekalim 1:1). After the rainy winter, it was important to make sure that the roads were not washed out, and all the approaches to Jerusalem were traversable. Likewise the city squares and public areas along the way were cleared, so that they could function as way-stations where the pilgrims might spend the night and replenish their supplies along their arduous journey.
Special supervisors were appointed by the Temple to insure that an adequate number of
wells were prepared along the roads, and mikvaot were set up to enable the pilgrims to immerse themselves in accordance with Biblical law, and thereby arrive in the holy city in a state of purity.
Special Passover Ovens are Prepared in Jerusalem
With all of Israel in their multitudes converging at once to bring their Passover offering to
the Holy Temple, special accommodations had to be made which would insure order.
Ovens for roasting the Passover offerings were set up throughout the city, for after the
offering is brought in the Temple, it will be taken by each family and group, and roasted
in a special manner as prescribed by law, to be eaten in the evening at the seder.
Preparing these ovens was a huge project that took months of effort and coordination. A
well-known passage in the Mishna (Tractate Ta'anit 3:8) describes what transpired during one year of dearth: "They told Choni the circlemaker ( a righteous man of great renown): 'We beseech you, pray for rain!' He told them, 'Go and bring all the Passover ovens indoors, so they will not be ruined.' He then prayed for rain and the rains fell in such plenty that all of Jerusalem's population hurried to the Temple Mount to seek shelter under its awnings and balconies. This was towards the end of the winter, and many of the clay ovens had already been set in their places in anticipation of the upcoming festival.
The Great Pilgrimage
A vivid eye-witness description of the vast numbers of pilgrims making their way to
Jerusalem from the far-flung corners of the Jewish exile is recorded by Philo of
Alexandria (circa 20 b.c.e. - 50 c.e.), a leader of the great Jewish community of
Alexandria, Egypt towards the end of the Second Temple era. He writes: "Multitudes of
people from a multitude of cities flow in an endless stream to the Holy Temple for each
festival... from the east and west, from the north and south" (On Laws 1:96).
No effort was spared to make certain that all would be ready for the arrival of the festival
pilgrims in Jerusalem on time. The great rabbis and leaders of Israel sought at all costs to
avoid a situation wherein these travelers would find themselves stranded out on the open
roads on the 14th of Nisan, the day God commanded the Passover offering to be brought.
As the time of the festival drew closer, the great processions of pilgrims swelled in
numbers. While a number of roads furnished access to Jerusalem in those days, the main
route of the pilgrims from the Jordan valley passed through the city of Modi'in and then
continued past Beit Choron.
In the Mishna (Tractate Pesachim 9:1-2) a legal question is deliberated by the sages: What
should those travelers do, who, on the morning of the 14th day of Nisan (the very day in
which the Divine commandment to offer the Passover in Jerusalem is binding) still find
themselves out on the road, far from their destination?
From the discussion itself, we can surmise that this indeed was no small problem... that a
great many people were still far from Jerusalem, out on the roads leading up to the city, on
the morning of the 14th of Nisan. The Mishna considers the plight of these people, those
who are "far away," who had only now reached the outskirts of the city of Modi'in.
Modi'in is located at a distance of '15 mil'( a Biblical measurement equivalent to
approximately 18 kilometers) from Jerusalem. The sages considered this distance as being
far enough to prohibit these unfortunate pilgrims from arriving on time to offer the
Passover... and therefore they established the law as follows: "Whoever finds themselves
at Modi'in or beyond at dawn on the morning of the 14th of Nisan and is therefore
prevented from offering up the Passover on time, together with the rest of Israel may offer
it on the "Second Passover," one month later on the 14th of Iyar, as prescribed by the
Bible (Numbers 9).
The Talmud mentions several examples of situations whereby a man might find himself in
the vicinity of Modi'in or at some other locality whose distance is '15 mil'. For example, a
case is discussed pertaining to a man who was "outside of Modi'in, but could make it to
Jerusalem by horse what should he do?" And in another scenario: "He was already past
Modi'in (closer to Jerusalem), but could not make it any further because the caravans of
camels and wagons were blocking his way... what should he do?"
These examples give us some idea of the crowded conditions caused by the massive influx
of so many pilgrims making their way to the city. Those locals, who lived nearby and did
not make it to Jerusalem on time, had but to return to their homes, and to make the trip
again next month. But what of those who had already traveled from great distances and yet
were prevented for some reason from reaching their destination? They had to remain in the
area for a full month, until the 14th of Iyar, when they could bring the offering of the
"Second Passover" - only afterwards did they return to their homes. Of course, most of the
congregation did manage to arrive in Jerusalem in time... and these were warmly
welcomed with great honor by the citizens and elders of the city, who provided the weary
pilgrims with lodgings in their homes and courtyards. An atmosphere of great joy and
camaraderie prevailed all along the way to Jerusalem, imbuing both the travelers and their
brethren who waited for their arrival in the holy city itself with a deep feeling of unity.
The Passover Experience: Climax of the Jewish Year
The ceremony of the Passover offering was one of the most important events in the yearly
calendar of Jerusalem's Holy Temple. This was true to such an extent that long after the
destruction, its deep and indelible impression was still carried in the hearts of all who
were privileged to witness it. The Talmud contains many accounts of both the pilgrimage
and the sacrificial ceremony in Second Temple days. These descriptions include the sight
of the huge Temple gates opening, and the vast multitudes of joyous celebrants, divided
into three groups, streaming into the beautiful and majestic Holy Temple courtyard. Then,
blasts are sounded from the trumpets, and the Levite choir sings. After the sheep is
slaughtered, the Passover offeing itself is eaten by everyone together, with a deep feeling
of joyous religious freedom. Song and hallel prayers of thanksgiving resound within the
walls of Jerusalem.
Many descriptions are extent, which depict all that transpired in the Temple. For example,
the sages recorded such details as the great throngs which pressed into the Temple
complex; and the rows of officiating priests who passed amongst their ranks the special
silver and gold containment vessels for gathering the blood of the offering, to sprinkle it
upon the altar. These reports give us some idea of the large number of offerings that were
brought in the Temple of the One God on this holy day.
Vast Numbers of Pilgrims
While the entire nation of Israel made the pilgrimage to the Holy Temple on each of the
sacred festivals, the record for participants was set on Passover, with more people arriving
in Jerusalem for that festival than any other. One very basic reason for this is the simple
fact that the Passover offering is an eternal, holy obligation that by Biblical law is
incumbent upon both men and women alike. This differs from the other festival offerings,
which are only obligatory upon the men of the community. Furthermore, those who do not
participate in the Passover offering face a most severe penalty: the Biblical penalty of
karet, literally "to be cut off," a spiritual isolation in the future world. Clearly, all who
had the ability made certain to be among those who arrived in Jerusalem for Passover.
The Talmud offers an example that can serve to illustrate the incredible numbers, which
converged upon Jerusalem for this holy occasion. One year King Agripa wanted to
determine the exact number of the pilgrims who arrived to celebrate Passover, so he
instructed the High Priest who was officiating in the Temple: "Pay attention to the exact
amount of offerings that are brought." And so the Priest numbered the offerings and the
figure reached a staggering 1,200,000, which is twice the number of the Jews who
participated in the Exodus from Egypt. And this figure is still excluding those who were
impure, and those who had not arrived in time! Because of these great numbers, each year
they would refer to the holiday as "Passover of density" (see BT Pesachim 64:B).
Despite Their Great Numbers, The Multitudes of Israel Miraculously Enter the Temple Courts Simultaneously
In order to successfully absorb the sudden influx of such a huge number of people, it was
necessary to make many technical and logistical arrangements, for the preparation of the
city of Jerusalem in general and the Holy Temple complex in particular.
As we mentioned, one of the most important innovations on a municipal level was the
introduction of many Passover ovens in many locations, to enable everyone to promptly
roast the Passover offering after it was offered in the Temple, in preparation for
the seder later
Jerusalem is Transformed
The atmosphere of the Holy City was transformed during this most special season. The
famed "Chapters of the Fathers" (ch. 5) lists Jerusalem's transformed holiday state as one
of the ten miracles which occurred during the great era of the Holy Temple: "No man ever
had reason to complain, 'Jerusalem is too crowded for me to find lodgings overnight'." All
found a place within the confines of the ancient walled city - for indeed, the Biblical
commandment requires that all of Israel eat of the Passover offering within Jerusalem's
walls; it is forbidden to partake of the Passover outside. Another miracle was the
conditions within the Temple itself... for it is recorded (ibid.) that "while standing in the
courtyard of the Holy Temple, all would be pressed close together... but yet when it came
time to bow prostrate, all would have ample room." Jerusalem's very physicality itself was
transformed into the stuff of raw spiritual experience, catapulting all her inhabitants into
another, more rarified dimension. No man ever found Jerusalem to be crowded, even under
the circumstances we have described when those who descended upon her reached one
million and more, with all their very real needs of lodging and space for the city itself
transcended the physical and achieved an all-encompassing ethereal, universal theme.
The Passover offering differed from all others that were brought to the Temple throughout
the year, in that the ordinary Israelites who brought them participated in the preparation of
the animal. Although a delegation of Israelites stood in the Temple and accompanied every
service, generally only the Priests had an active role in the service itself. Thus the
Passover offering was particularly special in that it provided one of the few occasions
when the ordinary people could enter the Temple's inner court, where the altar stood.
It was necessary to conduct the service with great precision and zeal in order to insure that
all the festive offerings were accommodated within the prescribed time. In the Mishna, the
rabbis describe the speed and efficiency with which the offerings were carried out.
The Joyous Feeling in Jerusalem
The overwhelming sense of joy and elation in Jerusalem itself knew no bounds; it
permeated every street, every courtyard, every house... the homes were filled to capacity
with family and guests from far and wide. It was an unparalleled feeling of belonging and
brotherhood that encompassed all the participants and their great sentiment of freedom and
redemption was the unsurpassed height of true religious experience. Jerusalem veritably
rang out with song and the holy, intense celebration of life lived in religious freedom and
Divine purpose. Indeed, a popular expression in the Talmud coined by the rabbis recalls
that the very walls of Jerusalem shook and "the roofs were shattered" from the sounds of
joy as the Passover offering was eaten and songs of Hallel thanksgiving burst forth from
every house and courtyard at midnight.
Performing The Passover Offering
The Passover Bands
The Torah requires that the Passover be eaten in a "band," in a large communal meal, as
opposed to each man for himself. For by gathering as many people as possible to
participate in each group, the Torah thus brings about harmony and an immense feeling of
unity amongst Israel. This feeling amplifies the nation's joy. Such a consideration applies
even more to the poverty-stricken; the joy of the Passover celebration is simply not
complete unless these individuals are present as part of the community. And if such
sensitivity towards the poor should normally be the rule, then it is especially true on this
holy night, the night of the Exodus, when we celebrate the transition from slavery to
freedom. Thus Maimonides incorporates these considerations into law:
"When one brings festive offerings... he should not partake of them alone, joined only by
his wife and children; he would not be fulfilling his obligation properly in this manner.
Rather, he is commanded to bring joy to the poor and unfortunate as well, as it is written:
'And the Levi, and the stranger, and the orphan and the widow' should also be given food
and drink according to his means... Therefore, he must invite Levites to his table, to lift
their spirits" (Laws of Chagigah, 2:14).
The Passover Offering is Offered
Each group of pilgrims sent one or two representatives to the Temple to bring its pre-
designated sheep as the Passover offering. Once the congregation arrived in the Courtyard,
the gates were closed and the service was conducted to the sound of the levites' trumpet-
blasts. The entire assembly sang the Hallel prayers of thanksgiving together, led by the
Those standing in the Courtyard saw row upon row of priests who held the special silver
and gold vessels called mizrak, used for gathering the blood of the offering. One row
handled golden vessels exclusively, and one row silver. The priest standing closest to the
altar receives the vessel, and pours the contents on the foundation of the altar.
The Offering is Roasted
The Passover offering, after being offered in the Holy Temple, is roasted by each group
and family in one of the special ovens set up all over Jerusalem to accommodate the needs
of the festive pilgrims. The sheep or lamb is roasted whole, in keeping with the Biblical
requirement, on a dry pomegranate branch. The style of the ovens enabled the whole lamb
to be roasted quickly.
The Passover Seder
After the meal was prepared, each group reclined at their respective table to conduct the
festive Passover seder. They spoke of the miracles of the Exodus, ate matzot and bitter
herbs dipped in the haroset of the seder plate, and concluded by eating from the Passover
As midnight approaches, the entire household raise their cups for the singing of the hallel
prayers of thanks. All were affected by this special atmosphere, as the festive hallel burst
forth from every house.
The Opportunity to Fulfill Sixteen Commandments
Maimonides, in his introduction to the "Laws of the Passover Offering," enumerates no
less than sixteen positive and negative commandments that are to be fulfilled at the time
the Passover lamb is offered and eaten. Some examples: It must be slaughtered on time,
after noon on the fourteenth day; it must be eaten at night, together
with matza and marror; it must be eaten roasted and not cooked or boiled. It must be eaten
in a band, and may not be removed from the band; its bones may not be broken, and it is
forbidden to leave over from the meat of the offering until morning.
Songs of Hallel in the Temple and Jerusalem
While the recitation of hallel is a commandment which is applicable to all the festivals,
and in fact, the sages list 18 days during the year wherein the hallel is said; still, in the
course of the entire year, there is only one night in which it is recited... and that is "the
night of the holy holiday," Passover night.
On the day of the Passover offering, the 14th of Nisan, the hallel is sung more than on any
other day of the year... for as the Mishna taught us, the members of each band who offer
the Passover lamb read the hallel several times, while the Levites, too, accompany them
from atop the platform, adding the sounds of their harps, lyres and cymbals to the joyous
The Levites stand atop the platform and sing the entire hallel. Those Israelites present in
the court are also commanded to accompany their Passover service with song; these join in
with the Levites' song. Thus the sound of the festive hallel was practically constant in the
courtyards of the Holy Temple, and around Jerusalem, throughout the entire 14th of Nisan.
To the Jewish people, this day became the symbol of the ideal joy; in the words of the
prophet, "the night of the holy festival."