How Passover was Celebrated During the Temple Era

Written by The Temple Institute Posted in Holidays

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 sacrifices were set up throughout the city, for after the sacrifice is offered, 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 saint 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 G–d commanded the Passover offering to be sacrificed.

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 sacrifice 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 sacrifice…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 sacrifice 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 co-religionists 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 offering the Passover sacrifice 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 sacrifice 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 sacrifice, to sprinkle it upon the altar. These reports give us some idea of the large number of sacrifices that were offered up in the Temple of the One G–d 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, it would seem that 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 sacrifice is a 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," which is interpreted by some to mean premature death, and by others to be an indication of a spiritual demotion 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. It seems that one year, King Agripa wanted to determine the exact number of the pilgrims who arrived to celebrate Passover, so he hit upon a unique idea for conducting a census. 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 set aside from the offerings and numbered them…until 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 sacrifice after it was offered in the Temple, in preparation for the seder later that evening.

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 sacrifice 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." It seems that 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 sacrifice 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 for sacrifice. Although a delegation of Israelites stood in the Temple and accompanied every service, generally only the Priests had an active role in the sacrificial 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 sacrifices 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 sacrifice was eaten and songs of Hallel thanksgiving burst forth from every house and courtyard at midnight


The Passover Bands

The Torah requires that the Passover sacrifice 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 band, 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 Sacrifice 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 levite choir.

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 Sacrifice is Roasted

The Passover sacrifice, 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 sacrifice 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 sacrifice.

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 Sacrifice," enumerates no less than sixteen positive and negative commandments that are to be fulfilled at the time the Passover sacrifice 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 sacrifice 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 onenight in which it is recited…and that is "the night of the holy holiday," Passover night.

On the day of the Passover sacrifice, 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 sacrifice 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 harmony.

The Levites stand atop the platform and sing the entire hallel. Those Israelites present in the court are also commanded to accompany their sacrificial 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."

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