Passover, one of the three great annual Jewish feasts, is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month Nisan. The Hebrew word Pesach means "to pass over" in the sense of "to spare from harm," and is reflected in the word Paschal, a Greek version of Pesach. Because the eating of unleavened bread was an integral part of the Passover ritual, the celebration was often called the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The origin of Passover dates to the time of Moses and the deliverance of the people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. When the angel of the Lord killed the first-born males of Egypt-the last of ten plagues-the Pharaoh permitted the Israelites to return to the land of Canaan. Nine earlier plagues had failed to persuade the Egyptian ruler to do so. This tenth plague was the most drastic. All first-born males-human and animal alike-of every household were to die in the middle of the night, except for those in the homes that were marked as God had told them.
The head of each Israelite household was responsible for the arrangements for his family. At sundown a young lamb or kid was to be slain. It was to be an animal without blemish, whose bones were not to be broken. The head of the household had to drain the animal's blood into a basin and then dip a twig from the hyssop plant into the blood and sprinkle it on the lintel and two side posts of the door of his house. Then he was to roast the lamb whole. The family, and any neighbors who had been invited, because they were unmarried or too few in number to have such a meal, had to eat the lamb along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. The meal was for Hebrews only; no uncircumcised male was allowed to participate. The people were to be dressed for travel, packed and supplied with food and water, ready to leave at a moment's notice. In the middle of the night, the angel of the Lord visited the land of Egypt, killing the first-born males in every home-from the palace of the Pharaoh to the meanest hovel. The angel, however, passed over those Israelite homes with blood sprinkled on the door posts and lintels, thus sparing the lives of the first-born males in those households. So great was the shock and anguish the next morning that the Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew people released, commanding that they should leave the country at once. The Israelite nation marked its birth from that moment, and God instituted an annual commemoration of the awesome event.
At the time of the Herodian temple, the Passover celebration was centered in the temple itself. The people gathered in The Court of the Gentiles in organized groups to slaughter their Passover sacrifices. The sacrifice was still a lamb or kid, with generally a male lamb that could be no older than two years. The priests stood in two long rows from The Court of the Gentiles to the Great Altar in front of the temple building. Each priest held a gold or silver basin. When a basin was filled with the blood of a sacrificed animal, it was passed from hand to hand along the row to the priest who stood next to the altar. He, in turn, threw the blood onto the altar in the prescribed ritualistic way and sent the empty basin back to be used again. While this ritual was being performed throughout the day, temple musicians sang the Hallel (Psalms 113 to 118).
After a man had made his sacrifice in the temple, he took the slaughtered animal to his home, if he lived in Jerusalem, or to his lodgings, if he were a visitor, and there ate his Passover meal with his family. A group of friends was also considered a "family" for the purpose of Passover celebration. After the temple was destroyed in A. D. 70, all animal sacrifices ceased. There was no longer a centralized focus for the worship of God, so the celebration of the Passover became once more the family ritual it had been at its inception. The term "Day of Preparation" refers to the day before Passover. Because Passover began at sundown, the Day of Preparation began with the 24-hour-period preceding that sundown. Arrangements were completed on the Day of Preparation for the proper celebration of the holy day. During the seven days following Passover, only unleavened bread could be eaten. This custom recalled the sense of urgency surrounding the flight from Egypt: No time could be taken to allow bread to rise.
As a devout Jew, Jesus kept the Passover. He also taught his disciples that he was the fulfillment of Passover. John the Baptist called him the "Lamb of God." Jesus instituted a "new covenant" at the Passover meal he shared with his disciples, the "Last Supper"; he based that covenant on his own shed blood and sacrificed body. He was crucified during the Passover season, after he predicted that by his death he would "give his life as a ransom for many."