Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Passover Puzzle: part 2 of 4

The Hasmonean dynasty began in the middle of the second century BC and ended in 37 BC when the Romans appointed Herod the Great, King of the Jews.  Two religious parties emerged from that dynasty, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  While the Pharisees were the larger, more dominant party, many of the Sadducees were wealthy and influential. The Sadducees ran the Temple and were responsible for performing sacrifices during festivals including Passover.  The governing council, called the Sanhedrin, contained members from both parties.  Now the two parties were bitter rivals.  That rivalry reached its boiling point in 88 BC after the country erupted into civil war.  Alexander Janneus, the Hasmonean, hereditary High Priest, was victorious.  He was supported by the Sadducees and opposed by the Pharisees.  During his victory celebration, he crucified 800 Pharisees while he feasted with his concubines.  Prior to their deaths, he cut the throats of their wives and children before their very eyes.

The origin of Rabbis can be traced to the Pharisees.  Before the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, they were known as teachers of the Written Law which was called the Torah.  They determined what the written laws meant and how they should be applied to everyday life.  The details of their determinations were committed to memory and established as oral traditions to be passed down to future generations.  The first written record, called the Talmud, wasn’t created until about 200 AD. 

The Pharisees and the Sadducees disagreed over the timing of the events related to the Lords Passover.  Their disagreement was based on the Hebrew phrase ben ha arbayim which is translated “at twilight” in most Bibles.  This was the time when the Passover lambs were sacrificed. 

Notably, unlike our contemporary day that runs from midnight to midnight, the Jewish day ran from sunset to sunset.  It started in the evening about 6 PM and ended at 6 PM the following evening.

Twilight can be defined as the light diffused over the sky from sunset to dark or, in less common usage, from dark to sunrise.  However, to someone who understands Hebrew, ben ha arbayim literally means “between the evenings.”  This should not be construed as the 24 hour period between sunsets.

The Sadducees believed the phrase, “between the evenings,” meant dusk or the time between sunset and complete darkness.  The first evening referred to the time when the sun sank below the horizon and the second evening referred to the time of total darkness.  That constituted a period from 6 PM to 7:20 PM, at the beginning of Nisan 14.

The Pharisees understood the phrase to mean from mid-afternoon to sunset.  The first evening referred to the time when the sun began to descend and the second evening referred to sunset.  That covered a period from 3 PM to 5 PM (some say 6 PM), at the end of Nisan 14.

The Pharisaic interpretation of the phrase, “between the evenings,” was based on the Torah and the Talmudic traditions.  Conversely, the Sadducees had rejected the oral traditions and based their interpretation solely on the Torah.

Hence, the Sadducees believed that the Passover events, including the slaying of lambs and the painting of Hebrew doors, the eating of the Passover meal, the angels pass over of Hebrew homes, the smiting of Egyptians, and the night journey out of Egypt, all took place on Nisan 14.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that only the slaying of lambs and the painting of Hebrew doors took place on Nisan 14 and the other events, beginning with the Passover meal, occurred the following day, on Nisan 15.


  1. For more on the Hasmoneans, click Syria and Rome on the sidebar.

  2. The Torah, also called the Pentateuch, refers to the first five books of the Old Testament.

  3. The Talmud is the Jewish book of religious and civil law made up of the Mishna (text) and the Gemara (commentary). Because not all Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, both the Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmud & the Babylonian Talmud were created. While the Mishna reads the same in both, the Gemara in each varies to some degree in that it doesn’t discuss all the same topics or discuss them in identical manners with identical considerations.

  4. The Hebrew “ben ha arbayim” is translated “at twilight” in most modern versions of the Bible including the NAS, NKJ, NIV, & NJB. The NAS calls “between the two evenings” the literal rendering of “ben ha arbayim.”

  5. Interpretations of “between the evenings.”
    “The Pharisees interpreted this as meaning between mid-afternoon, when the sun’s heat abated, and sunset, whereas the Sadducees took it to mean between sunset and dark." (Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary)
    “The Pharisees held to the traditional explanation that it was from the beginning of lengthening shadows to sunset, approximately 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., and with this the Talmud agrees." (Wycliffe Bible Commentary)
    “We have two evenings; the first, sunset, the second, the ceasing of the light which is reflected in the clouds; and the interval between them is about an hour and 20 minutes.” (Aben Ezra quoted by Marcus Kalisch) This is approximately 6 PM to 7:20 PM.

  6. “Then on the fourteenth day of the first month shall be the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of this month shall be a feast, unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days.” (Numbers 28:16-17)

  7. The Holy Scriptures of Judaism is called the Tanakh. English translations made by Orthodox Jews reflect the traditions of the Pharisees and Rabbis. However, the JPS Tanakh, published in 1917, was the result of collaboration between the Jewish Publication Society of America and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Seven American Jews with doctorate degrees translated the Masoretic Text into English over a seven year period. Like the Christian Old Testament, the JPS Tanakh specifies that the Passover lambs were sacrificed “at dusk” on Nisan 14 which was dubbed the “Lord’s Passover” because all the events, including the angel’s pass over of Hebrew homes, occurred on that day. Conversely, the Orthodox Jewish Tanakh states that the Passover lambs were sacrificed in the “afternoon” of Nisan 14 which was merely the day of the “Passover sacrifice.”

  8. JPS Tanakh: The Jewish Virtual Library uses the electronic edition which was published in 1998. In that edition, the name God has been written in the hyphenated style G-d and the name Lord has been written HaShem in accordance with the modern Orthodox Jewish publishing practice.