Every year Jews celebrate the Passover as a commemoration of their liberation from enslavement in Egypt and, more precisely, the night when the Angel of the Lord “passed over” the dwellings of the Israelites and slaughtered the firstborn children of Egypt. Ordinarily this eight-day celebration would involve the family gathering for a traditional meal known as a seder on at least the first night of the festival.
This year a combination of food distribution issues and social distancing protocols related to coronavirus threaten to upend one of the year’s most significant religious holidays. Many religious Jews are faced with a choice between celebrating the Passover and protecting their family members and broader communities. Media outlets are calling coronavirus an unprecedented event, but the origins of this holiday lie in staying home and shielding one’s family from danger.
Historically speaking, however, it’s not at all clear that staying home is at odds with Passover traditions. The idea of Jews confined to their homes is something that would likely be far more recognizable to an ancient Israelite than the elaborate seders and large family gatherings that have become the norm in modern times.
The story of the first Passover, recorded in the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, comes on the heels of a series of plagues carried out by God against the Egyptians. The tenth and final plague presents a particular danger to the Israelites. According to this story, God decreed the death of every first-born male in Egypt, both humans and animals. In the case of this plague, colloquially known as the plague of the first-born, God says that he cannot distinguish between Egyptian and Israelite in the darkness, even though he is somehow able to single out first-borns. Because the plague is meant to be punishment for the Egyptians, God commands the Israelites to mark their houses with a sign and to be sure not to step outside until morning. Moses explains to the Israelites that this is so that “when the Lord goes through to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the lintel and two doorposts and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the destroyer enter and strike down your home.”
Of course, avoiding an avenging angel is hardly an exact parallel to avoiding the risk of a viral infection; but the principle is the same. For the ancient Israelites, staying inside one’s home is designed to protect them from being killed by the plague that is sweeping through the country just outside their door. However, simply staying inside is not enough in this story. The plague, carried by an entity called the Destroyer, can enter homes and kill its inhabitants. This is why God tells the Israelites to mark their doorways with blood, to set apart their homes as different from those of the Egyptians. Scholars understand the blood-marking ritual to function apotropaically, which is to say that the ritual serves to ward off evil spirits and demons. Call it chlorox for the ancient dwelling: in order for the Israelites to protect themselves from the plague sweeping Egypt, they had to mark their homes to ward off this Destroyer and they had to be sure to stay inside in order to be protected by that marking.
What did the Israelites do as they waited out the plague? Like many of us today they cooked. In the story of the first Passover in Egypt, we are told that these Israelite households each roasted a lamb—or divided a lamb with their neighbors if they couldn’t eat a whole one. While locked inside their homes they cooked and ate the meal and waited out the passing of the plague. After the passing of the plague, the Israelites were told to pack up in haste and leave Egypt. In the story of their departure, we are told that they had no time to let their bread rise, so they ate unleavened bread. This story provides the origins for the seven-day period during which Jews cannot eat leavened bread. Instead, as is widely known, they eat unleavened products like matzah.
It’s the combination of the Passover meal and seven days of unleavened bread that adds up to the eight-day Passover celebration that most modern Jews are familiar with today. But when we look at the ancient celebration of Passover, we imagine a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple to slaughter the Passover lamb and observe the holiday. By the Second Temple period (6th century BCE onwards) Passover was considered one of three festivals in which ancient Jews were supposed to travel to Jerusalem and visit the Temple (it’s the reason that the city was flooded with people both when the itinerant teacher Jesus of Nazareth was executed and, tragically, when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem at the end of the First Jewish-Roman War in 70 CE). Pilgrimage practice has biblical basis: the book of Deuteronomy, for example, explicitly forbids slaughtering the Passover lamb at home and mandates that everyone travel to the temple. In this set of laws the original context of the first Passover event in Egypt gets overwritten by its later adaptation into a temple-based ritual.
Yet there are other passages in the Bible that suggest that not everyone in ancient Israel agreed that the Passover should be celebrated in public at the temple. In the book of Leviticus, for example, there is a clear separation between the Passover offering and the feast of unleavened bread, much like the distinction made in the story of the first Passover in Egypt. In Leviticus, God decrees that on the night of the fourteenth of Aviv, there will be a Passover to the Lord. Importantly, the word “sacrifice” is never used, and the absence of this label suggests that the Passover commemoration need not happen at the temple, but rather can happen in individual homes.
The text goes on to describe the festival of unleavened bread and is quite explicit about the requirement for the celebration of the first and last days of that festival to take place at the temple. Indeed, this separation of Passover from unleavened bread is also reflected in another early biblical law code in the book of Exodus. This law code speaks only of the requirement to observe three festivals at a temple, among which is the festival of unleavened bread. It makes no mention whatsoever of the Passover. It is only in later traditions within the Hebrew Bible, and later interpretations of the biblical text itself that the commemoration of the Passover was combined with the festival of unleavened bread, and the original home-based context of the Passover seems to have been lost.
For an ancient Israelite, the idea that the commemoration of their departure from Egypt should take place at home would have been familiar. That was, after all, what the first Passover was all about: people stayed in their homes and smeared blood on their doorways to ward off the evil that carried the plague and death. With the threat of plague gone, the need to mark homes with blood disappeared and what remains is a festive meal commemorating the fact that Yahweh saved the Israelites from the plague. Cautiously commemorating Passover at home and with the knowledge that death lingers outside one’s door is what the first Passover was all about. So even apart from the fact that Judaism condones breaking any religious law in order to save life, and many rabbis are bending rules to help others, acting like the ancient Israelites means sheltering in place.