Pesach is undoubtedly the most ancient, the most important and the most mysterious of all Jewish holidays.  It purports to commemorate a real historical event, yet the story on which it is based is so filled with miracles and improbable happenings as to appear entirely fictional to most secular Jews.  Their tendency is to treat the story of Pesach as a myth but to celebrate it anyhow because they identify with the theme of liberation from slavery which it embodies.  But in my opinion it makes a big difference whether or not the Jewish people did in fact originate as a band of runaway slaves.

Treating the story of Pesach as nothing more than a myth serves in practice as a way of simultaneously trivializing and universalizing it.  How serious can you be about commemorating an event which you don’t believe actually took place?  In order to make the theme of liberation from slavery more meaningful, secular Jews therefore tend to universalize it and utilize the occasion of Pesach to declare their solidarity with any number of real or alleged victims of “oppression”.  The result is an assimilationist Pesach, one in which the Jewish struggle for freedom is merged or even submerged in a purely rhetorical vision of universal human liberation.

What is Pesach really all about?  When I was a boy I greatly enjoyed the seders which we celebrated each year together with the members of my mother’s family in our apartment in Manhattan’s Washington Heights .  I had no doubt at that time what Pesach was all about.  It was about avoiding the angel of death.  We used a Haggadah that was distributed for free by the Manischewitz Wine Company and it had a picture of the angel of death as one of the illustrations for the song Had Gadya.  I felt that this must be the same angel of death that struck down the first born children of the Egyptians because they didn’t know to smear lamb’s blood on their doorposts.  The message I internalized was that the world is a dangerous place and you had better step carefully if you want to remain in it.

The correctness of my childhood interpretation of the Haggadah is shown by the fact that the word “Pesach” comes from a Hebrew root that means to hop or skip over something.  The root meaning of “Passover” is therefore that the angel of death passed over the homes of the Hebrews and visited only the homes of the Egyptians.  Just how a message of universal human liberation can be derived from this scenario is far from obvious.  On the face of it Pesach is an intensely nationalistic holiday, one which celebrates not only the liberation of the Hebrews but also the destruction of their enemies.  The question is: was there a historical relationship between this nationalistic spirit and real life runaway slaves?


The Habiru


The answer is contained in the large body of archaeological evidence which has been unearthed in the Middle East during the past 100 years or so relating to a group of people called Habiru or Apiru.  This evidence consists of writings dating from the 2nd millenium BCE and found in many different parts of the Middle East.  Most of these writings are in the form of cuneiform hieroglyphics on clay tablets in the Accadian language, which was the language used by most scribes throughout the Middle East during this period.  They make reference to the Habiru in passing, describing them in different contexts as troops, bandits, day laborers or fugitives.  A number of such records specifically describe the Habiru as runaway slaves.  Since the Hebrews in the Torah are also described as runaway slaves, it would seem likely that the two groups are identical, particularly since their names are so similar.  But this conclusion has been disputed by many historians, giving rise to an on-going controversy in scholarly circles as to the precise relationship, if any, between the Hebrews and the Habiru.

The main reason for this controversy is that the image of the Habiru which emerges from the clay tablets clearly differs from the image of the Hebrews as described in the Torah.  In particular, the Habiru obviously constituted a social class, whereas the Torah depicts the Hebrews as a distinct people who were all descended from one man, Jacob, later called Israel.  Were it a question of any other ancient legend, historians would have long ago dismissed this story of the “children of Israel” as a patrilineal myth.  But in this particular case, powerful vested interests stand opposed to any attempt to question the literal truth of the Torah.  Rather than place themselves in opposition to these vested interests, many historians have preferred to question the relevance of the evidence concerning the Habiru instead.  By creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt around the whole subject of the Habiru, they have succeeded in preventing any awareness of the existence of the Habiru from breaking through to the general public.  This is unfortunate, for in reality the evidence of the identity of the Hebrews and Habiru is clear and overwhelming.

Historians of the early Hebrews are all the more susceptible to pressure from vested interests in that most of them come from religious backgrounds and regard themselves as “Biblical scholars”.  The modern usage of the word “Bible” is basically a Protestant invention; it refers to the combined editions of the so-called “Old Testament” and “New Testament” which the early Protestants put together in the vernacular languages of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.  What is now called “Biblical scholarship” originated in Protestant circles in Germany in the 19th century.  It represented an attempt by German Protestant writers to apply secular methods of historical interpretation to the Bible.  However, the secularism of the Biblical scholars did not extend so far as to call into question the fundamental principles of the Protestant religion.  The synthesis of scholarship and religion which they developed later proved attractive to many Catholics and Jews as well, and today the entire field of early Hebrew history is dominated by academics from all three faiths who collectively define themselves as Biblical scholars.

Over the course of the past 100 years these scholars have been faced with a growing body of written evidence making reference to the Habiru.  None of these writings come from the Habiru themselves or discuss them at any great length.  Typically the Habiru are briefly mentioned, often in a negative way.  There are complaints about being robbed by Habiru, warnings about Habiru camped outside of town, lists of mercenary troops which include Habiru, contracts in which Habiru agree to pick grapes.  Such writings were found at scattered locations throughout the region which is now occupied by the countries of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Egypt.  Given the wide distribution of references to the Habiru, it seems evident that they constituted a social class rather than a distinct tribe or ethnic group.

A major factor in compelling the Biblical scholars to address themselves to the issue of the Habiru was the publication of an article by Moshe Greenberg in 1955 entitled “The Hab/piru”.  It appeared in the American Oriental Series, Volume 39.  Greenberg reviewed the evidence concerning the Habiru which had accumulated by then and developed an image of them which is still widely accepted.  He showed that the group which was called “Habiru” or “Apiru” in Accadian was identical with a group called “Sagaz” in Sumerian.  Sumerian was the written language used prior to Accadian in the area which is now Iraq.  In some Accadian texts, the Sumerian term Sagaz was used interchangeably with the Accadian term Habiru.  Earlier Sumerian writings dating from the 3rd millenium BCE had referred to “Sagaz activity” in much the same negative, anxious tone as later references to the Habiru.  One text contained a warning not to leave town, as the Sagaz were waiting.

Based on this evidence, Greenberg concluded that the Habiru were “economically destitute” individuals who had formed themselves into organized bands which camped on the outskirts of the settled areas in the Middle East.  He stated, on page 64: “There does not appear to be any evidence for their desert origin or beduin status.”  Greenberg noted the existence of texts which described the “hospitality to fugitives” of the Habiru and concluded, still on page 64: “Such hospitality is most naturally explained by assuming that their own group was composed at least in part of similar elements.”  On page 65 he added: “Originating in widely scattered localities, bearing names of several linguistic backgrounds, little more than a common status can be said to unite them.”  This status was not an enviable one.  Although one text does make mention of “the gods of the Habiru”, it is evident that the Habiru were disliked and feared.  They were impoverished fugitives, including runaway slaves, who survived as best they could on the fringes of Middle Eastern society.

Were the Habiru the same as the Hebrews?  Greenberg thought not: the Habiru were a social class while the Hebrews were a tribe or nation.  Nonetheless Greenberg’s article made it difficult for Biblical scholars to continue to avoid the topic of the Habiru.  And in 1973 George Mendenhall published The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition.  Mendenhall argued that the distinctive trait of the Habiru is that they were “stateless persons” who were not part of any recognized political entity.  He felt that the early Hebrews also belonged to this category, and therefore they could be called Habiru by others, even though they were actually “villagers and shepherds”.  Mendenhall believed that these villagers and shepherds came to power in the land of Canaan, on page 162, by means of “a revolution that did away with the various tyrannies, in the smaller city-states at least, and unified the existing population in a new and effective religious community.”  According to Mendenhall, the opponents of this “revolution” deliberately denigrated the Hebrews by calling them “Habiru”, which Mendenhall viewed as a form of accusation similar to calling someone a “Communist” in more recent times.

Mendenhall’s 1973 book and earlier articles of his in a similar vein stirred up a major debate among Biblical scholars.  Mendenhall’s views were easy to criticize, for there was little or no evidence to support his claim that the early Hebrews were “villagers and shepherds”.  However, in 1979 Norman Gottwald published The Tribes of Yahweh.  In this massive scholarly work Gottwald developed a modified version of Mendenhall’s thesis.  He described his views as follows in an interview with Hershel Shanks published in the Bible Review in 1989:


I don’t agree with some scholars who feel that all of the Israelites were ‘apiru.  I think probably what happened is that a sizable part of Israel, as it formed, was made up of some members of these groups of ‘apiru.  But I think a majority of Israelites were peasant folk.  Israel was a composite, including peasant folk who hadn’t previously been organized: ‘apiru groups, artisans, perhaps Rechabites who were metalworkers, priests from other places, some religious leaders in the tradition of Moses.  It’s a composite.


Gottwald’s views carried weight and eventually earned him the position of president of the Society of Biblical Literature.  Like Mendenhall, he argued that the term Hebrew was derived from Habiru but that the Hebrews were not typical Habiru.  Even so, many Biblical scholars continued to assert that the Hebrews could not have been Habiru because the Hebrews were a tribe and not a social class.  Writing in 1983, Baruch Halpern declared on page 54 of The Emergence Of Israel In Canaan that the question of the relationship between the Hebrews and the Habiru “remains unresolved”.

The only reason why it still remains unresolved even today is because of the reluctance of the Biblical scholars to accept the idea that the Hebrews could have been typical Habiru.  Unwilling to credit the founding of the Biblical tradition to bandits and runaways, Mendenhall and Gottwald felt compelled to more or less invent “shepherds and villagers” or “peasant folk” to play the role of the Habiru.  Their critics, led by the Catholic Biblical scholar Roland de Vaux, felt that any association between the Hebrews and the Habiru was unacceptable.  Yet the evidence of this association is overwhelming.  There are descriptions of Habiru fighting Egyptian rule in Canaan in the 14th century BCE, Habiru taken prisoner by Egyptian troops in Canaan and brought back to Egypt as slaves, Habiru working as slaves on construction projects in Egypt.  Were the prestige and literal truth of the Bible not at issue, no one would have the slightest doubt that the Hebrews were Habiru.  Instead the small world of Biblical scholarship has been consumed with dubious theories and unnecessary polemics, while the general public has been kept in the dark regarding the very existence of the Habiru.

Any doubt that the Hebrews were Habiru should have been removed by the discovery, translation and publication of more than 300 ancient tablets unearthed at Tel el-Amarna in Egypt in 1887.  A German language translation of some of the tablets found at Tel el-Amarna was published just prior to World War 1, and a more complete English language translation appeared in 1939.  It was edited by Samuel Mercer and published in two volumes under the title, The Tell El-Amarna Tablets.  Almost all of the tablets consist of letters written in Accadian cuneiform hieroglyphics by Egyptian puppet rulers in Phoenicia and Canaan and sent to the Pharaoh in Egypt.  They date from the 14th century BCE, at which time the Egyptians were attempting to incorporate Phoenicia and Canaan into an expanded Egyptian empire.  Many of the letters were sent to the famous Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton, who lived a little more than 100 years before the Hebrew exodus from Egypt is thought to have taken place.

These letters contain literally dozens of references to the Habiru.  Sometimes the Accadian term “Habiru” is used; more often the Sumerian expression “Sagaz” appears.  In an “Excursus” on “The Habiru and the Sa.Gaz in the Tell El-Amarna Tablets” at the end of the book, F.H. Hallock notes on page 844 that “an identification between the terms Habiru and Sa.Gaz” is “commonly held”.  The letters speak of the Habiru and Sagaz in identical terms.  They are in rebellion against Pharaoh and threaten to take over the entire region of Phoenicia and Canaan.  One correspondent warns, on page 313, that if Pharaoh does not send reinforcements, then “all the lands of the king, even as far as Egypt, will unite with the Sa.Gaz-people”.  Another, on page 477, complains: “All cities, which the king has given into my hand, have united with the Sa.Gaz-people.”  And on page 709, Abdu-Hiba, the Egyptian puppet ruler of Jerusalem, writes: “No lands of the king remain.  The Habiru plunder all lands of the king.”

The letters present an image of the Habiru as a serious but disreputable military force.  One correspondent insults a rival by saying, on page 261: “But now he is like the Sa.Gaz.Za-people, a run-away dog…”.  Another bewails, on page 565, “a faithful city of the king, my lord, my god, my sun, the Sa.Gaz-people conquered and plundered it and burned it with fire.”  Abdu-Hiba, on page 717, exclaims: “Behold, Zimrida of Lakisi – servants, who have joined with the Habiru, have smitten him.”  This same passage appears on page 273 of Volume 1 of James Pritchard’s anthology, The Ancient Near East, and there it is translated: “Behold Zimreda, the townsmen of Lachish have smitten him, slaves who had become ‘Apiru.”  But runaways and ex-slaves though they might have been, the Habiru were greatly feared by Pharaoh’s agents.  One correspondent warned on page 583 that a rival “has taken chariots in Astarte and given them to the Sa.Gaz-people”.  Another states on page 723: “Let the king, my lord, know that the Sa.Gaz-people bear arms in the country which the god of the king, my lord, has given me, and that they have attacked it.”

Since the Hebrews in the Torah are depicted both as runaway slaves and as foes of Pharaoh, it would seem obvious that there must be some connection between them and the Habiru mentioned in the Tel el-Amarna tablets.  It was certainly obvious to F.H. Hallock, the author of the “Excursus” at the end of the book, who wrote on page 843:


But we must admit some association between Hebrews and Habiru; linguistic and historical considerations make this inevitable, even though in the light of present-day knowledge we cannot speak with too great certainty concerning that association.


Hallock also noted, on page 839, that Egyptian archives dating from the period 1300 to 1150 BCE make reference to a group called “Eperu”.  Citing an Egyptologist named Wilson, Hallock states: “In three cases the ‘Eperu appear as unskilled workers in the quarries, once as temple property, and the last named may be a stableman.”  And he concluded: “It is generally agreed that the phonetic equivalence of Habiru, ‘Eperu and Hebrew is complete.”

There is also no doubt as to how the “Eperu” came to be found in Egypt.  There are a number of Egyptian inscriptions which list Habiru among the prisoners carried off to Egypt from Canaan by the Egyptians.  One such account is reproduced on page 37 of The Canaanites by John Gray.  It states that the Egyptians deported from Canaan to Egypt 217 “chiefs”, 184 brothers of chiefs, 30,625 dependents of the chiefs and 3,600 “Apiru”.  Gray characterized the latter as “landless landlopers, who served mostly as mercenaries or serfs”.  Another Egyptian inscription, cited on page 42 of Haim Ben-Sasson’s A History of the Jewish People, states: “Distribute grain rations to the soldiers and to the ‘Apiru who transport stones to the great pylon of Ramses.”  The reference is to Ramses 2, who was Pharaoh of Egypt for the greater part of the 13th century.  Many historians believe that Moses was born during his reign and that the Hebrew exodus from Egypt took place after his death and the accession of his successor, Merneptah.  We thus have evidence of Habiru from Canaan working as slaves of the Egyptians in the time of Moses, yet 50 years and more after this evidence was available the Biblical scholars are still debating whether or not the Hebrews could have been Habiru.


The Hebrews


In the light of the archaeological evidence, it seems clear that the Torah contains an essentially mythical account of a real event, the escape of some thousands of Habiru slaves from Egypt and their flight to Canaan across the Sinai desert.  What remains to be explained is how and why this real event was transformed into the legend that appears in the Torah and is reflected in the Passover Haggadah.

The first step in this process seems to have been the decision of the Habiru held captive in Egypt to identify themselves as the “bnei Israel”, the “sons of Israel”.  That they had become known by this name even before they fled from Egypt is strongly suggested by a reference to “Israel” on the so-called “victory stele” of the Pharaoh Merneptah, a stone monument set up to commemorate his alleged victories over his enemies.  It states: “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not”.  This statement was clearly no more accurate than the later Hebrew story of Pharaoh’s army drowning in the Sea of Reeds, but at least it shows that there existed a group known as “Israel” to the Egyptians around the same time as the Exodus is thought to have taken place.

The expression, “bnei Israel”, is highly reminiscent of the way in which bedouin tribes in the Middle East traditionally identified themselves as the “sons” (“banu” in Arabic) of some patriarchal ancestor.  For the Habiru held captive in Egypt, becoming the “sons of Israel” was a way of escaping their status as Habiru, a status with which they were clearly not happy.  This is shown by the fact that in the Torah, the only time the term “Hebrew” (“ivri” in Hebrew) is ever used is when a non-Hebrew is speaking about a Hebrew.  Whenever the Torah refers to the Hebrews directly. it always uses the term “sons of Israel” instead.  The Habiru held in Egypt were evidently tired of being called by a term which had the connotation of “a runaway dog” and longed for the more respectable status of being one big bedouin tribe.

Strangely enough, the Hebrew word for “Hebrew”, “ivri”, comes from a root  – ayin, beth, resh – which can also have negative connotations.  Most of the words derived from this root have the meaning of moving from one place to another, leading many writers to assert that the word “Hebrew” originally  meant someone who has crossed over from slavery to freedom, or alternately, from one side of the river Jordan to the other.  However there are also a number of words derived from this same root, such as “avera” or “avaryan”, in which the concept of “crossing over” gives rise to the meaning of  “transgressing”.  An “avera” is an “infraction”, an “avaryan” is a “transgressor”.  Since Accadian is a Semitic language similar to Hebrew, it could well be that the Accadian word “Habiru” had a similar meaning, and that calling someone a “Habiru” was equivalent to calling them a “transgressor”, or more colloquially, an “outlaw”.  Outlaws the Habiru most certainly were, but the entire Torah is one big testimony to their desire to abandon this status for a more respectable one.

At some point the legend of the “sons of Israel” became a vehicle for the formation of a confederation of Habiru bands intent on gaining control of Canaan.  Within this confederation the Habiru who had escaped from Egypt became known as the tribe of Levi.  In the Torah, this is the tribe of Moses, and many of the members of this tribe who are identified by name in the Torah have Egyptian sounding names.  All of the other tribes mentioned in the Torah were assigned a specific territory in Canaan to rule over, but Levi had no territory of its own.  Its role was to officiate at the religious ceremonies based on the teachings which it had brought out of Egypt.  What seems to have happened is that the Habiru who escaped from Egypt organized the Habiru bands still active in the area of Canaan into a confederation.  All of these Habiru bands assumed the identity of the “sons of Israel” and claimed authority over that part of Canaan where they were already active.

It seems very likely that there was in fact a real person known as Moses who played a key role in the development of the religious and political ideology which the Habiru brought with them out of Egypt.  The name “Moses” means “son” in the Egyptian language and was most likely a nickname of this real person.  Since he is portrayed as an Egyptian of some importance in the Torah, the story of his Habiru birth and rescue from the Nile was undoubtedly fictional.  For one reason or another he was forced to flee from Egypt into the Sinai, and there became a Habiru in the same way as all the others, by becoming a fugitive.  The important point is that he seems to have derived from his Egyptian background a belief in a single omnipotent God whose authority provided the basis for a comprehensive system of law and morality.  Under his leadership the Habiru brought God and Law with them out of Egypt, and these teachings provided the ideological basis for the confederation of Habiru bands which subsequently conquered the greater part of Canaan.

The original territorial basis of this confederation is clearly evident in the Tel el-Amarna letters dating from perhaps 100 years before the time of Moses.  The letters depict the Habiru as a major force in Phoenician and Canaanite politics, one that was implacably opposed to Egyptian rule. Caught in the middle between Pharaoh and the Habiru were various local Canaanite rulers, most of whom functioned as puppets of the Egyptians.  However, not all of Pharaoh’s agents were equally hostile to the Habiru.  On page 707 of Mercer’s edition of the Tel el-Amarna tablets, Abdu-Hiba, the puppet ruler of Jerusalem, wrote to “king” Pharaoh that he had become embroiled in a dispute with some “deputy of the king”.  He said:


As long as the king, my lord, lives I will say to the deputy of the king, my lord: “Why do you love the Habiru, and hate the regents?”  But therefore am I slandered before the king, my lord.


Most of the puppet rulers were of Canaanite or Phoenician descent and were tempted to stake out independent fiefdoms of their own.  For this reason, a partial or temporary alliance with the Habiru was not completely out of the question.  Their letters are filled with accusations that some other “deputy of the king” was collaborating with the Habiru, and there are also a number of letters in which puppet rulers accused of collaboration with the Habiru denied the charges against them.

In Canaan, the puppet ruler who was most frequently accused of collaborating with the Habiru was an individual named Labayu.  And on page 200 of Shechem by G. Ernest Wright, there is reproduced the text of a letter from Abdu-Hiba to Pharaoh in which he accuses Labayu not only of collaborating with the Habiru but of actually giving them land.  Abdu-Hiba threatened: “Now shall we do as Lab’ayu, who gave the land of Shechem to the ‘Apiru?”  It is difficult to overemphasize the significance of this statement. for Shechem was clearly the main political and religious center of the early Hebrews.  In Chapter 24 of the Book of Joshua, after Joshua leads the successful Hebrew conquest of Canaan, he convokes a mass meeting at Shechem to renew the covenant with God: “And Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and called for the elders of Israel, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers; and they presented themselves before God.”  For the next 200 years, until David’s conquest of Jerusalem, convocations of the Hebrew tribes were normally held at Shechem.  Shechem also figures prominently in the story of Israel in the Torah; it is where he first arrives when he comes to Canaan, and he builds an altar to God there.  Excavations conducted by G. Ernest Wright at the site of Shechem revealed that there was in fact an ancient Hebrew temple situated there.

The Tel el-Amarna letters prove conclusively that the Habiru were already on the verge of establishing themselves as a ruling power in Canaan centered in Shechem some 100 years before they actually did so.  They were defeated at that time due to the strength of the Egyptian forces and perhaps also due to their own disunity.  In the time of the Pharaoh Merneptah the Egyptians were much weaker, and the ideology which the Habiru fugitives brought with them out of Egypt provided the basis for a much more unified Habiru confederation than any which had previously existed.  God now took the place of Labayu and nominated the Hebrews as the rulers not only of Shechem but of the entire land of Canaan.  The myth of the “sons of Israel” now took the place of the common status of the Habiru as “outlaws” and enabled them to think of themselves as one big family bound together by ties of blood and adherence to the laws of Moses.  And Pesach was instituted as the first and most important holiday of the Hebrews because it commemorated the flight from slavery in Egypt which had made the subsequent conquest of Canaan possible.

No one knows when the holiday of Pesach was first celebrated, but the earliest texts to make reference to it date from the 8th or 9th centuries BCE.  These are the strata of the Book of Exodus that the Biblical scholars have designated by the letters J and E.  When these texts were written the land of Israel was divided into two kingdoms known as Judah and Israel.  It is thought that J was written by someone in Judah and E by someone in Israel.  And since Judah and Israel were both monarchies, the account of the Hebrew flight from Egypt that appears in the Book of Exodus naturally reflected a monarchical point of view.  At the same time it also reflected a situation in which the Hebrews had been ruling over the land of Israel for many hundreds of years and could trace their ancestry back to the time of the conquest of Canaan by the Habiru in the 12th century BCE.  Under these conditions the notion that the original Hebrews had also constituted one big family must have seemed entirely reasonable.  What had begun as a myth had become a reality, and this made the myth appear all the more plausible.

Moreover, as the rulers of the land of Israel, the Hebrews of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel had little incentive to think of themseleves as the descendants of outlaws.  Whatever memory of the real status of the Habiru that still persisted was therefore rigorously excluded from the account given in the Book of Exodus.  Instead the “sons of Israel” were presented as a law abiding, peaceful tribe who had been forced into slavery by the Egyptians through no fault of their own.  And in line with the tendency of all monarchical societies to place great emphasis on the monarchical authority of one or another version of God, the escape from Egypt was presented as the work of God, acting through his agent Moses, and not as a rebellion of the Habiru, which in reality it must have been.  In short, the account of the escape from Egypt was shaped to conform to the needs and wishes of the people who wrote it, retaining only one essential feature of the actual event, namely that it had constituted an escape from slavery.  This feature had to be retained, because the fact that the Hebrews had once been slaves was too fundamental an element in their national identity to be entirely excised from the historical record.

But although the Habiru were replaced by the “sons of Israel” in historical memory, something of the spirit of the Habiru was preserved in the original concept of the festival of Pesach.  This concept is embodied in Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus.  According to the Book of Exodus, Pesach is supposed to be very specifically a reenactment of the events which took place in Egypt in the time of Moses on the 15th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar.  At the start of that day, “at dusk” (the Hebrew day began at sunset), each Hebrew family was told to take a lamb which had been obtained earlier and slaughter it:


And they shall take of the blood, and put it on the two sideposts and on the lintel, upon the houses wherein they shall eat it.  Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; its head with its legs and with the inwards thereof.  And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; but that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire.


Those who followed these instructions would be spared when the angel of death passed over them.  As for the future:


And ye shall observe this thing for an ordinance to thee and to thy sons forever.  And it shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land which the LORD will give you, according as He hath promised, that ye shall keep this service.  And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you: What mean ye by this service? that ye shall say: It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s passover, for that He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.


In the Book of Exodus, all of the other features of Passover which it enjoins – the eating of unleavened bread with bitter herbs and the removal of all leaven from the home – are subsidiary to the main ritual, the reenactment of the slaughter, burning and eating of the “passover lamb” and the smearing of its blood on the doorposts.  In this somewhat ferocious ritual was preserved a dim memory of the real world of the Habiru, a world in which fighting, “burning with fire”, killing and being killed were unavoidable aspects of the struggle for freedom from slavery.

There is every indication that this ritual was initially carried out in the home by each Hebrew family, but as time passed there developed a strong pressure to transfer the site of the ritual, first to local religious altars, and then to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Around 700 BCE, king Hezekiah of Judah decreed that henceforth all religious rituals that entailed animal sacrifice had to be carried out by the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem and at no other place.  This decree was reaffirmed by king Josiah towards the end of the 7th century BCE.  By the time that the Second Temple was built at the end of the 6th century BCE it was therefore regarded as a rule that each family should bring a lamb to Jerusalem at the start of Pesach and give it to the priests to be sacrificed.  This became standard practice during the Second Temple period, which had the effect, whether intended or unintended, of transferring from the head of the family to the priests the invisible legacy of the Habiru.  This change was consistent with the general tendency towards the demilitarization of Hebrew culture which was associated with the imposition of foreign rule over the land of Israel during the Second Temple period.

Moreover, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, even the priests could no longer carry out the sacrifice of the “paschal lamb”, which had been the main feature of the original conception of Pesach.  To be sure, the destruction of the Temple had the effect of restoring the celebration of Pesach to the home, but after the massacres and devastation inflicted on the Jewish people by the Romans during the so-called “Jewish Wars”, it was difficult to revive the military spirit which had always lurked in the background of the traditional sacrificial ritual.  A new conception of Pesach was needed, and starting in the 3rd century CE, there began to circulate in rabbinical circles in the land of Israel various versions of a text which was called a “Haggadah”.  “Haggadah” means “Telling”, and the purpose of the texts was to place the telling of the story of Passover at the center of a new way of celebrating Pesach.  This new way came to be called a “Seder”, meaning the “Order” in which the various elements of the story of Passover were to be presented.  The story remained much the same, but in many ways the Pesach of the rabbis was a new holiday, one in which the voice of the Habiru was even more muffled than before.




The trouble with making the telling of the story of Passover the main focus of the celebration of Pesach is that the story isn’t true.  No one knows or can know precisely how a small band of perhaps several thousand Habiru held as slaves in Egypt succeeded in escaping from the Egyptians and making their way across the Sinai back to Canaan, but one thing is for sure: they didn’t do it in the manner described in the Torah.  There was no slaying of the first born, no parting of the Sea of Reeds, no manna from heaven.  The more the celebration of Pesach focuses on alleged miracles, the more distant it inevitably becomes from the actual world of the Habiru.

Just how distant it has now become is illustrated by the recommendation, in Jewish Family Celebrations by Arlene Rossen Cardozo. to place a chicken or turkey neck bone on the seder plate in place of the traditional lamb bone, which was itself a replacement for the ceremony of killing a lamb and smearing its blood on the doorposts, which was in turn a substitute for whatever acts of violence the Habiru may have found necessary in order to escape from Egyptian bondage.  In the family seders in which I participated as a child, my mother put a lamb bone on the seder plate and served roast lamb as the main course, but the connection with the ancient ceremony of killing and eating a lamb was never made clear to me.  I’m not too sure if it was entirely clear to anyone else either, except perhaps my grandfather, who recited the entire Haggadah in Hebrew while my uncles told dirty jokes and we children played doctor under the table.

Exile turned what was originally a solemn ceremony into a festive occasion.  Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus recounts how the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were supposedly enjoined to eat the lamb which they had just killed:


And thus shall ye eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand – and ye shall eat it in haste – it is the LORD’s passover.  For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.


But in the traditional Haggadah, the participants are specifically enjoined to relax throughout the seder in a reclining position, preferably on couches like the Greeks and Romans of old.  Like most Jewish families, we didn’t have the requisite couches, or room at the table for them even if we did, so we made do with cushions on the chairs.  I find it much easier to eat sitting straight up in any case, but the couches were thought a symbol of luxury, and I suppose in ancient days some families actually used them.  Yet at the same time, the Haggadah also enjoins the participants in the seder to imagine themselves in the same position as the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, which would seem much easier to do with “your staff in your hand” rather than reclining on cushions.

In the original conception of Pesach, identification with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt was promoted by the injunction to eat bitter herbs with the Passover meal and unleavened bread for seven days starting with the Passover meal.  Bitter herbs and unleavened bread are the only foods, in addition to the sacrificial lamb, which are specifically enjoined for the Passover meal in the Book of Exodus.  Bitter herbs were supposed to symbolize the bitterness of slavery, and unleavened bread the haste in which the Hebrew slaves had to flee Egypt.  But in the traditional Haggadah, a number of other foods have been added to the symbolic menu, none of which has any connection with bitterness or haste.  There is the tasty “haroset”, said to symbolize the mortar used to weld bricks together by the slaves; and the parsley or lettuce, said to symbolize springtime; and the roasted egg, said by some to symbolize rebirth, but no one seems to know for sure.  The end result is a Pesach for all palates, both bitter and sweet, lending itself to lengthy disquisitions on the meaning of each item, but somewhat lacking in the solemnity of the original version.

Yet invisible as it may be, the spirit of the Habiru is still present at the Orthodox seder.  It may be found in the constant refrain, “we were slaves in Egypt”, and in the ten drops of wine that stand for the ten plagues, and in the cup for Elijah.  In Jewish tradition, Elijah was seen as the forerunner of the Messiah, and the Messiah was in turn a symbol for the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, which is what the Habiru actually achieved.  The spirit of the Habiru is a spirit of justice, and of might, and no one can deny that the Orthodox seder evokes this spirit after its fashion.  But the more the Haggadah is universalized and its pro-Jewish mythology replaced by a bland sympathy for the underdog, the less the seder can succeed in evoking either the memory or the spirit of the Hebrew revolutionaries who founded a state ruled by runaway slaves.

States founded by runaway slaves are rare in human history, and such states which survived for many centuries and perpetuated their memory in written form are rarer still.  It is evident that the key to Hebrew success lay in the fact that the Habiru who escaped from slavery in Egypt brought back with them to Canaan an ideology capable of uniting all the Habiru bands in the region into a powerful force.  Habiru unity came to be based on the one hand on the doctrine that all the Habiru were the “sons of Israel” and therefore blood brothers, and on the other hand on the assertion that the path to victory was to be found in acceptance of God’s laws as taught by Moses.  Within this framework, the main function of the story of Pesach was, from the start, to demonstrate the connection of Moses to God and show that the escape from Egypt had been divinely inspired.  But in assigning to God the spirit of justice and might which had animated the Habiru, Pesach also created a formidable obstacle to understanding the true source of this spirit.  In a secular seder worthy of the name, this source needs to be demystified and reassigned to the real life revolutionaries who actually created the spirit of Pesach.

It seems to me that a secular celebration of Pesach ought to contain the following three components:

(1) A discussion of what is known and what can be inferred about the Habiru.  The discussion might begin with a brief presentation on this subject by the group leader.  Each participant could then go on to share their thoughts about the Habiru with the group.  The basic idea would be to proceed from what is reliably known about the Habiru to speculation about what they were really like and what was the way in which some of them might have escaped from slavery in Egypt.

(2) A meal including but not necessarily confined to a lamb dish, matzos and bitter herbs.  When I was a child we ate slices of horseradish to represent the bitter herbs.  My mother made really good roast lamb, but I suppose that any lamb dish would keep up the original Jewish tradition.  Perhaps in some places lamb might be unvailable, so another meat dish would have to be substituted in its place.

(3) A wide ranging expression of Jewish nationalism.  Pesach is not about universal human liberation or saying nice things about people you claim to feel sorry for.  Pesach is about the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery and the birth of a Jewish state in the land of Israel.  It should be an occasion for the affirmation of Jewish nationalism in song and story.  Affirming Jewish nationalism should include, but not necessarily be confined to, affirmation of the modern Jewish state, the state of Israel..

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