Every year, beginning on the 15th day of Nisan, we joyously commemorate our exodus from Egyptian bondage. We memorialize the Paschal sacrifice, eat matzah, abstain from chametz, and celebrate for seven days (or eight days outside of Israel). Most of us refer to this holiday as Pesach. Yet, a close reading of Shemot 12 suggests that the original Pesach was neither a seven day holiday, nor did it start on the 15th of Nissan. It was rather a one day event, quite distinct from the seven day holiday referred to in the verses as Chag HaMatzot.
What is the relationship between these two institutions of Pesach and Chag HaMatzot, and when did they merge and become a single entity?1 What historical factors may have been involved in this transformation?
The Biblical Evidence
An examination of all of the Biblical verses which mention either Pesach or Chag HaMatzot, indicates that they are two distinct entities:2
- Original command – Shemot 12:1-20, which contains the initial command to celebrate the holidays, refers explicitly to two separate commemorations, with different dates, characters, laws, and reasons:
- Pesach (12:2-13) - a one day event during which we sacrifice a lamb to commemorate our rescue from the Plague of the Firstborn.
- Chag HaMatzot (12:15-20) - a seven day holiday whose essence is the abstention from chametz and the eating of matzah as a reminder of the process of our redemption from Egypt.
- Transmission of the command – When Moshe transmits the laws of the two celebrations to the nation, he does so separately. The laws of the Paschal sacrifice are relayed immediately in Shemot 12:21-28 with no mention of the seven day holiday. The laws of Chag HaMatzot, on the other hand, are first relayed only after the Exodus, in Shemot 13:6-7.
- Pesach Sheni – When Bemidbar 9 describes the sacrificing of the Pesach in the second year in the wilderness and provides an opportunity for those who were unable to observe the Pesach in its proper time to do so a month later (פסח שני), mention of Chag HaMatzot and its accompanying laws is conspicuously absent.
- Additional texts – Other verses which speak of the two celebrations similarly distinguish between the two. See Vayikra 23:5-6, Bemidbar 28:16-17, Ezra 6:19-22, Divrei HaYamim II 30:15-21, 35:17.3
- Sacrifice or holiday – Chag HaMatzot is always referred to as a festival ("חַג"), while Pesach is generally referred to only as a sacrifice.4
Mid 2nd Temple Period
Early post-Biblical sources also distinguish between Pesach and Chag HaMatzot. However, they present both as holidays.5
- Jubilees presents each of the two festivals, noting how they commemorate different events.
- Philo, in enumerating ten Jewish festivals of the year, lists Pesach as the fourth and Chag HaMatzot as the sixth.6
Late 2nd Temple Through Today
In this stage, there is a blurring of the lines distinguishing the two holidays, and their names become interchangeable.
- Josephus – When paraphrasing and interpreting Biblical texts, Josephus speaks of the celebration of the Paschal sacrifice on the 14th of Nisan, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread which succeeds it, celebrated from the 15th of Nisan and continuing for seven days.7 On numerous occasions throughout his works, however, Josephus notes that the Jews of his time referred to Chag HaMatzot as Pascha.8
- Tannaitic and Amoraic literature – In both the Mishna9 and Babylonian Talmud,10 the seven day holiday beginning on the 15th of Nisan is referred to as "Pesach".11
- Overlap – The merging of the two holidays may have resulted from the overlap in their celebrations. Pesach is unique in that it begins during the day12 of the 14th of Nisan and extends into the night of the fifteenth, which is simultaneously the time at which Chag Hamatzot commences.
- Preference for the name Pesach – It is possible that the name Pesach became the favored name of the merged holiday already during the time of the Temple, when the Paschal Sacrifice was still the main focus. This situation has persisted until modern times, despite the absence of sacrificial worship.