2,400-year-old ‘Passover Letter’ Shows Evolution of Jewish Ritual

A letter from a high official in Jerusalem to the Jewish garrison on Elephantine in fifth century B.C.E. Egypt is the oldest known ex-biblical account of the Pesach ritual

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The remnants of the "Passover Letter" written in the fifth century B.C.E.
The remnants of the "Passover Letter" written in the fifth century B.C.E. Credit: Egyptian Museum of Berlin
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In 419 B.C.E., as the land of ancient Egypt groaned under the Persian boot, a Yahwistic Jewish community living on an island in the middle of the Nile River celebrated Passover. And in their solitude far away from the center of Yahwism, they may have sought counsel from Jerusalem, from whence they received a letter ahead of the holiday – the “Passover Letter” of Elephantine.

It is the oldest known ex-biblical account of Passover ritual, said Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, in a Zoom lecture on Sunday.

A tattered remnant of the “Passover Letter” from Hananyah (aka Hananiah), a high official in Jerusalem, to his “brother” and the Judeans soldiers on Elephantine, was found over a century ago among a wealth of papyri and ostraca (pottery fragments with writing) left by various communities living on the island.

The documents date to various periods. Among them was an archive of documents from the Jewish community dating to the fifth century B.C.E., including many legal records as well as correspondence with high officials in Jerusalem, which lay a month away by boat and land.

These papyri predated the Dead Sea Scrolls by at least four centuries, as Bezalel Porten, professor emeritus of the Hebrew University, observes in his 1968 book “Archives from Elephantine.” The letter and the other precious documents, written in Aramaic (the lingua franca of the time), shed light on their lives, customs and religious observance of the community, and on the life in the Jewish garrison on Elephantine.

The famous “Passover Letter” never actually mentions the word Pesach. However, other finds on Elephantine do mention it. Also, what content we can glean from the fragmented papyrus more than 2,400 years after the event strongly suggests that interpretation, many scholars agree. It also indicates that the rituals associated with Passover in later times hadn’t been formalized yet.

The island of Elephantine on the Nile, Upper Egypt.Credit: Przemyslaw Blueshade Idzkiewi

The Elephantine letter

The “Passover Letter” was addressed to Yadaniyah (aka Jedoniah), the Jewish leader of Elephantine. The letter is incomplete: What has survived is a segment about 4.5 inches long (11.4 centimeters) and just over 9 inches (23 centimeters) wide.

Dated to the fifth year of King Darius II, it was discovered among other papyri in the early 20th century by the German archaeologists Otto Rubensohn and Friedrich Zucker. The author Haggai Misgav noted in Jewish history magazine Segula in 2013 that the letter explicitly cites the permission of the Persian ruler to celebrate the holiday, which would have been necessary for the Persian solders.

“Some suggested that Hananyah is the brother of Nehemiah mentioned in Nehemiah 1:2, but not all agree on this,” Maeir remarks.

The surviving bit does not actually mention the word Pesach. But it does hand down instructions that smack of the holiday of unleavened bread:

“Count 14 [days in Nisan] and at [twilight?] on the 14th [from twilight observe Pesach?] from the 15th day to the 21st day of [Nisan] observe the festival of unleavened bread, eat unleavened bread for seven days. Do not work on the 15th and 21st days of Nisan … do not drink. ... And everything that is leaven take into your rooms and seal up between these days.”

Yedoniyah's letter requesting the rebuilding of the temple at Elephantine, dating from 407 B.C.E.Credit: Abhandlungen der Königlich Preussischen Geologischen Landesanstalt

In 1912, William R. Arnold of the Andover Theological Seminary wrote in the Journal of Biblical Literature: “It is perfectly clear that we have here a letter of instruction to the Jewish community at Elephantine, with directions for the punctilious observance of a feast … from the 15th to the 21st day of Nisan … which requires abstinence from labor,” combining the Passover and feast of unleavened bread – matza.

Hiding it from sight in the house was apparently what the biblical-era Jews did with chametz instead of selling it to amiable qualifying infidels.

The ban on quaffing is baffling, but Arnold postulates (based on the Mishna) that it refers to the ubiquitous Egyptian beer, which was made of fermented grain – i.e., leavened, an interpretation that Porten deems plausible.

Rites of spring and the Deutoronomic reform

What might it mean to observe Pesach on the 14th? The letter could be instructing the Jews of Elephantine to sacrifice to YHWH, Misgav suggests. That would seemingly fly in the face of the assumption that ritual was centralized in Jerusalem by that time.

Just over 100 years before the “Passover Letter” crawled from Jerusalem to Elephantine, in 525 B.C.E. Persian forces led by King Cambyses II invaded and subjugated Egypt, which became part of a vast Persian empire stretching from western India to Sudan.

Temple of Khnum at Esna, Egypt.Credit: Claude Valette

It seems Jews were already on Elephantine Island when the Persians rolled over Egypt, Porten (aka “Elephantine Man”) tells Haaretz. At least, they claimed to be so in a letter they wrote later to the governor of Jerusalem on the occasion of the destruction of their temple, some years after the “Passover Letter.”

“They described how they got there, and one thing they say is: ‘We were here before the Persians entered Egypt,’” Porten explains.

As the Jewish community had lived under the Egyptians, so they lived under the Persians, he says. Hananyah’s letter is addressed to Yadaniyah, the head of the Jewish community and commander of the Jewish garrison on Elephantine. Its role was to protect the southern Egyptian border. But how or why did the letter come to pass?

The origins of Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, are shrouded in mystery. Many scholars believe that the holiday as we know it subsumed two different spring rituals in antiquity, going back over 3,000 years: A Pesach animal sacrifice, marked by semi-nomadic Israelite herders; and Hag Hamatzot (the holiday of unleavened bread), a grain celebration by farmers, the settled segment of Israelite society. When the two holidays merged is unknown.

“There is also mention [in 2 Chronicles, which might be a later invention] of King Hezekiah celebrating Passover – in fact, celebrating ‘Pesach Sheni,’ supposedly right before his reformation of the cult,” Maeir observes.

According to the biblical account, King Josiah instated a “Deutoronomic reform” in 622 B.C.E., based on a book of law claimed to have been found in the Temple in Jerusalem – which scholars believe became the Book of Deuteronomy. Among other things, according to the biblical account, the king centralized the Passover ritual in the Temple – the First Temple, ostensibly built by King Solomon in the 10th century B.C.E.

The god Khnum, with ram's headCredit: Jean-Francois Champollion / Brooklyn Museum

Then, come the seventh century B.C.E., as the second book of Kings says: “And the king [Josiah] commanded all the people, saying, Keep the passover unto the Lord thy God, as it is written in the book of this covenant” (2 Kings 23:21) – which stipulates that the Passover sacrifice could no longer be made locally (“within any of thy gates”) but only at the Temple (Deuteronomy 16:5).

The First Temple was destroyed after Josiah’s time, in 586 B.C.E. by invading Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar II; the Second Temple was completed in about 515 B.C.E. It bears adding that back in the 10th century B.C.E. when Solomon or whoever built the First Temple, whatever the status of Jerusalem may have been, worship was evidently not centralized. Just one example is a temple found in Motza that dates to about the same period as the First Temple, which also had a sacrificial altar. “The notion of temples outside Jerusalem existed,” Maeir says.

And almost 200 years after Josiah and a century after the Second Temple was built in Jerusalem by returning exiles from Babylon, animals were being sacrificed in the Elephantine temple, according to other papyri and ostraca found on Elephantine, Porten says. i.e., it was a full-blown temple.

Nor was it the only Jewish temple in ancient Egypt where sacrifices postdated Josiah’s reform. At another temple in the Egyptian province of Onias (in northern Egypt), sacrifices were offered as well, Porten explains. (The Jewish-Roman historian Josephus dwells at some length on the Onias temple in his book “The Jewish War.”)

Were Jews over the ages ignoring the Josiah reform? Did it only exist in the minds of the king’s pet scribes? Was the biblical text about it written later in time, with only hazy memory of the Persian period?

Porten has a different question: “Why was this temple established on Elephantine to begin with?” Possibly the rationale for both temples in Egypt lies in the book of Isaiah 19:19, he suggests: “In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord.”

The god Khnum with consortCredit: Roland Unger

“This verse served as warranty for the establishment of the Onias temple. So I assume that the same verse could have served as warranty for the establishment of the Elephantine temple because it was on the border,” Porten posits.

Asked when the book of Isaiah was written, he answers that we don’t know but Isaiah supposedly lived in the eighth century B.C.E., before the boy-king Josiah arose. The temples in ancient Egypt could have been “exempted” from Josiah’s centralization of Judaism.

Or, as Maeir suggests, the Jews of Elephantine may have arrived there from Israel or wherever before the concept of centralized worship; or from communities that didn’t accept the concept of centralization.

“It could well be that they had a tradition under which temples could be built outside Jerusalem,” he says. “Nehemiah prohibited mixed marriage, but we have certificates [in Elephantine] documenting intermarriages. They had different customs.”

As some documents from Elephantine show, one of these customs may have been that the Judean community there fiercely devoted themselves to YHWH in the temple, but at home did not cavil at having a household idol or two (like in Dan, in northern Israel).

Or, the biblical accounts of Jerusalem’s central role during the Persian period may indeed have been written later; maybe the Elephantine documents (written in “real time”) suggest that, in contrast to canon, sacrifice and ritual were not limited to Jerusalem in the fifth century B.C.E.

As Gard Granerød postulated in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 2019: perhaps the Elephantine documents better reflect the substance of Judean life at the time than biblical texts. “The documents from Elephantine … have not been subject to editorial processes such as is the case with texts of the Hebrew Bible,” he writes.

The Temple Of Satet in Aswan, Egypt.Credit: Olaf Tausch

However it came to pass, Jews living some two centuries after Josiah on the tiny Island of Elephantine, near the present-day Aswan Dam, either solicited or were handed down instructions regarding the observance of Passover, which as said, indicates that the rituals hadn’t been formalized yet.

Misgav notes that instead of being solicited, the letter may have been notice from Jerusalem to hold the holiday from the 15th to 21st of Nisan.

Death of a lamb

But although the Persian king was great and the empire waxed strong, in 410 B.C.E., the Egyptians on Elephantine rebelled against Arsames, the satrap of Egypt. They took this opportunity to destroy the temple to YHW (“Yahu”), as the Elephantinians spelled the god’s name.

Why the Egyptians destroyed the temple is speculative. Maybe it was because they adored Khnum, the ram-god who, together with his consort Satis and daughter Anuket, were responsible for the waters of the Nile, on which Egypt was utterly dependent then, as now. They may have been repelled by the lamb sacrifices in the temple.

Thee years later, in late 407 B.C.E., the addressee of the “Passover Letter” – the same Elephantine Jewish leader Yadaniyah – wrote to the governor of Judea (still under the Persians) seeking permission to rebuild the community’s temple – which, he wrote, had predated the Persians and had been erected under Egyptian rule. Two years later, in 405 B.C.E., the temple on Elephantine was rebuilt.

The following year, the Egyptians managed to finally beat back the Persian forces and would remain in control of their own country for about half a century, during which time the Jews of Elephantine sank into obscurity.

“Among the Elephantine papyri are contracts dating from 495 to 399 B.C.E.,” Porten tells Haaretz, adding: “399 is the last dated document.” That’s all we know about that.

“I think there were other types of Judaism during the Persian period,” Maeir sums up. “In Babylon, in Jerusalem and on Elephantine Island, and in other places, we would have seen various weird and wonderful variations compared with the biblical text, which represents a specific worldview.” Plausibly, as Granerød suggests – based on theophoric names in Elephantine, even if the evidence smacks of a Judean pantheon there – “The lived religion was a form of Yahwism,” and they might have appreciated directives from Jerusalem.

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