Passover: What’s Commanded and What’s Tradition?

This post first appeared on Kineti and is authored by Judah Gabriel Himango, one of Tabernacle of David’s teachers.

A scene of Passover. How much of the above are actual commandments from the Bible, and how much is later tradition? Traditions are beautiful, but they should be negotiable to you and your family’s faith practice.

Quick, what does God require of us at Passover?

Does God command us to drink 4 cups at Passover? Does God command us to have a seder meal at Passover? Should the meal have karpas/parsley? How about cheroset? Should we sing the hallel?

Over the last 2000 years, Judaism has developed beautiful traditions around Passover. These are thoroughly ingrained into our faith practice today: A seder meal. 4 cups of Passover. The zeroa (shankbone). Karpas (parsley/veg). Maror (bitter herbs). Cheroset (sweet mixture). The haggadah. The Passover hallel. Mah nishtanah / the four questions.

These traditions have become so ingrained today, it’s not clear to many what is Biblically commanded and what is later tradition.

Traditions aren’t bad – we might think of them as “nice-to-haves” that can bring additional meaning. Indeed, in the Gospels, Yeshua himself observed what appears to be traditions around Passover: for example, eating a Passover meal, taking multiple cups of Passover, or singing the hallel psalms after the meal. 

And all of us practice various traditions: bowing heads, closing eyes, holding hands when praying, for example. Or meeting at a church or congregation on Saturday or Sunday. Singing songs after a sermon. All traditions and not strictly commanded by God.

Still, it is helpful to clarify what parts of Passover are commanded by God, and what’s are the nice-to-haves on top of that.

As I see it, for me and my family, I want the commandments to be front-and-center to me and my kids. Traditions are negotiable items in my celebration of Passover; if they don’t bring additional meaning (or worse, make the Passover celebration an excessively long drag for my kids), then there’s no shame in modifying or dropping them.

Maybe you’re in the same boat.

So! Let’s go over what’s Biblical and what’s tradition.

What’s actually commanded?

I discussed the Passover and Unleavened Bread commandments previously. But let’s list them there with minimal commentary. Note I include both commandments for Passover (the one-day Feast) and Unleavened Bread (the 7 day Feast following Passover), as they are melded together in modern minds and practiced essentially as a single feast.

  1. To eat matzah (unleavened bread) on Passover.

    During the first month in the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, you are to eat matzot.
    -Exodus 12:18

  2. To eat matzah for the 7 days of Unleavened Bread.

    Matzot is to be eaten throughout the seven days.
    -Exodus 13:3

  3. Remove chametz (leaven) from your home during Passover week.

    For seven days no chametz is to be found in your houses, for whoever eats hametz, that soul will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is an outsider or one who is born in the land.
    -Exodus 12:19

  4. Not to eat chametz during the week of Unleavened Bread.

    For seven days no hametz is to be found in your houses…You are to eat no chametz; in all your houses you are to eat matzot.”
    -Exodus 12:20

  5. Tell your kids about the events of Passover.

    You are to tell your son on that day saying, ‘It is because of what Adonai did for me when I came out of Egypt. So it will be like a sign on your hand and a reminder between your eyes, so that the Torah of Adonai may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand Adonai has brought you out of Egypt. You are to keep this ordinance as an appointed time from year to year.
    -Exodus 13:8-10

  6. To rest on the first day of Unleavened Bread week.

    On the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Matzot to Adonai. For seven days you are to eat matzah. On the first day you are to have a holy convocation and you should do no regular work.
    -Leviticus 23:6-7

  7. To rest on the last day of Unleavened Bread week

    On the seventh day is a holy convocation, when you are to do no regular work.
    -Leviticus 23:8

  8. If you’re unable to celebrate Passover, celebrate it a month later.

    If any man, whether you or your descendants, becomes unclean because of a dead body, or is away on a long journey, he may yet observe Adonai’s Passover. They are to celebrate it at twilight on the fourteenth day of the second month. With matzot and bitter herbs they are to eat it. They are not to leave any of it until morning, or break any bones. When they celebrate Passover they are to observe all its regulations.
    -Numbers 9:10-12

  9. Uncircumcised men should not eat the Passover.

    This is the ordinance of the Passover. No foreigner may eat it, but every man’s servant that is bought for money, after you have circumcised him, may eat it. Nor should a visitor or hired servant eat it…But if an outsider dwells with you, who would keep the Passover for Adonai, all his males must be circumcised. Then let him draw near and keep it. He will be like one who is native to the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat from it. The same Torah applies to the native as well as the outsider who dwells among you.”
    -Exodus 12:43, 48-49

  10. To slaughter the Passover sacrifice at the specified time.

    Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month, each man is to take a lamb for his family one lamb for the household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor are to take one according to the number of the people. According to each person eating, you are to make your count for the lamb. Your lamb is to be without blemish, a year old male. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You must watch over it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to slaughter it at twilight…
    -Exodus 12:3-6

  11. To eat the Passover sacrifice with matzah and maror (bitter herbs).

    They are to eat the meat that night, roasted over a fire. With matzot and bitter herbs they are to eat it.
    -Exodus 12:8

  12. To roast the Passover sacrifice whole.

    Do not eat any of it raw or boiled with water, but only roasted with fire—its head with its legs and its innards.
    -Exodus 12:9

  13. Not to leave any meat from the Passover sacrifice until morning.

    Let nothing of it remain until the morning. Whatever remains until the morning you are to burn with fire.
    -Exodus 12:10

  14. Not to bring the meat of the Passover sacrifice outside the home.

    It is to be eaten inside a single house. You are not to carry the meat out of the house.
    -Exodus 12:46a

  15. Not to break any of the bones of the Passover sacrifice.

    You are not to break any of its bones.
    -Exodus 12:46b

  16. Bring additional offerings during Unleavened Bread week.

    On the fifteenth day, there is to be a feast. For seven days, matzot will be eaten. You are to hold a sacred assembly on the first day. You are not to do any laborious work. You are to offer to Adonai burnt offering by fire, two young bulls, one ram and seven male lambs a year old. They are to be flawless. You are to offer their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah per bull, two tenths per ram, and one tenth per each of the seven lambs, plus one goat for a sin offering to atone for yourselves. In addition to the morning burnt offering and regular burnt offering, you are to offer these. Just like this you are to offer each day, for seven days, the food to be offered by fire for each day as a pleasing aroma to Adonai, beside the regular burnt offering with its drink offering.
    -Numbers 28:17-24

  17. Appear before God with an offering.

    Three times a year all men are to appear before the LORD your God in the place He chooses—at the Feast of Matzot, the Feast of Shavuot, and the Feast of Sukkot. No one should appear before the LORD empty-handed— the gift of each man’s hand according to the blessing the LORD your God has given you.
    -Deuteronomy 16:16

What are merely traditions?

The above 16 commandments sum up the Passover and Unleavened Bread week commandments. Some of them are not kept today: the last 8 commandments, #10-17 above, deal with the Passover sacrifices, which are not sacrificed today due to the Temple being destroyed.

So if we remove those last 8 commandments, we’re left with about 9 commandments that are relevant for us today, mostly around eating matzah, not eating leaven, resting during Passover, and teaching your kids about Passover.

Notice the absence of things we traditionally associate with Passover:

  • Seder (evening meal) is kinda-sorta there in the text, but mostly about eating the paschal sacrifice.
  • Haggadah (guidebook to retell the story of Passover) isn’t in the text, though one could argue it’s one way of keeping the Biblical command to tell your kids about Passover.
  • The four cups of Passover are not commanded in the text, but they allude to Biblical texts. The 4 cups of Passover are linked to the 4 “I will” statements of Exodus 6:6-7, in which God says “I will bring you out…I will deliver you…I will redeem you…I will take you as My people.”

    From the Gospels, it appears Yeshua ascribed meaning to the cups at Passover, signifying his blood to be poured out for the sins of the world. He also ascribes meaning to the last cup of Passover, saying he would not drink it again until the Kingdom of Heaven/Messianic Era was in its fullness. So, this is a rich tradition with much meaning for Jews and Christians.

  • Hallel – Psalms 113-118 are traditionally recited, chanted, or sung during Passover. Some of these psalms are overtly Passover-themed (e.g. Psalm 114) and help fulfill the Biblical command to tell the Passover story. In the New Testament, it appears Messiah may have observed this tradition, as Matthew 26 records after the Passover meal, Yeshua and his disciples, “sang the Hallel and went out to the Mount of Olives.
  • Zeroa (shankbone on seder plate) isn’t in the text. It likely is there to remind us of the now-defunct Passover sacrifice.
  • Dayenu The chant/response (and sometimes, song) saying “it would have been enough” isn’t a commandment, though it is a means of telling the Passover story.
  • Drops of blood for each plague In some traditions, we place a drop of wine on our plate for each of the 10 plagues God brought on Egypt during the Exodus. This is a nice tradition that helps fulfill the commandment regarding telling the Passover story to your children.
  • Karpas Parsley or lettuce is used during Passover meals, usually dipped in salt water, to remind congregants of Israel’s tears in Egyptian slavery, and other associated themes from the Passover.
  • Cheroset, usually a sweet mixture of apples, honey, grape juice, and cinnamon, is used as part of the Passover seder to explain the sweetness of the deliverance from slavery. It is a means of keeping the commandment regarding telling your children about the events of Passover.
  • Rachtzah/hand washing Ritual handwashing is done during the Passover seder but not commanded.
  • Afikoman and related rituals, where a piece of matzah is hidden, ransomed (sometimes to a child for money) and distributed among the people present, is a mysterious and beautiful tradition, perhaps connected to the Messiah, but not a commandment.
  • Elijah’s seat – one common tradition at Passover is to leave a seat open at the table for Elijah. This is not a Passover commandment, but a tradition built around the Biblical prophecy that Elijah will announce the coming of Messiah. Additionally, some traditions hold that Messiah will come during the month in which Passover occurs.
  • Mah nishtanah At Passover, we have kids (in some traditions, the youngest child) ask or sing four questions about why this night is different from all others. This is a nice tradition that helps fulfill the Biblical command to tell your children about Passover.
  • “Next year in Jerusalem” – at the end of the Passover, we together exclaim, “Next year in Jerusalem!” In some traditions, we also sing the song, L’shana haba’ah b’Yirushalayim. These words close the Passover with the hope of the end of the Jewish exile and the ultimate rebuilding of the eternal city of Jerusalem. Christians too look for this, as the last book of the Christian Bible speaks of God at the end of time creating a new heavens, new earth, and a new Jerusalem as its focal point. Of course, Jewish exile has ended – in 1948 when Israel was reborn. Jews in Israel often change this line to “L’shana haba’ah b’yirushalaim habnuyah” – next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem.


Passover has many beautiful traditions around it, many of them based around Biblical commands. They can be useful in keeping the actual Biblical commandments of Passover, of which there are about 9 unique Passover commandments applicable to us today.

Personally, I look at these traditions as beautiful but optional. If I’m celebrating Passover with just my family, I may omit some traditions to keep the Passover from becoming too long and monotonous. In a larger group of mostly adults, I may include more of them. I think the purpose in all of them is to recount the works of God and make it real and meaningful for the people present.

Traditions aren’t meant to be forever and eternally binding, but rather helpful habits and practices to help apply the Bible to your life and teach it to the next generation. That’s how I look at them, at least. Maybe it helps you too.

Shalom, fine Kineti readers, and may you have a joyful & meaningful Passover! חג פסח שמח

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