Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Jay Rubenstein

Committee Members

Christine Shepardson, Thomas Heffernan, J P Dessel


The Passover Seder marks a semaphore in the history of Rabbinic Judaism. It created an unprecedented new holiday observance marking the beginning of the seven-day Passover holiday which had been observed for centuries past with various manners of fulfilling biblical requirements to abstain from leavened bread and eat bitter herbs along with the meat of the Passover offering. Throughout the period of the Second Temple, those who worshipped at the Temple understood that this required a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the only place where sacrifice was permitted. There are hints of new thinking about the observance of such festivals in the works of Philo who lived too far from the Temple to contemplate annual journeys. Several Greek authors including Plato, Xenophon and Plutarch describe festive meals in ritual settings which facilitated discussion of the issues of day in Hellenistic Greek and Mediterranean society. The Tanaitic rabbis, confronting the fact that they were physically unable to honor the biblical requirement of sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem designed other mechanisms for celebrating the holiday. One of those mechanisms was the ritual that would become known in later Jewish liturgy as the Passover Seder. This thesis demonstrates that the Passover Eve meal as celebrated by third century rabbis created new and noteworthy innovation, transforming the basis for the holiday into something different from what it meant in earlier periods. I will show that the rabbis not only invented ritual not known before the third century, but used that ritual to create a memory which allowed succeeding generations to imagine that in celebrating this ritual they were somehow fulfilling the requirements set forth in the much earlier periods of the people who accepted the Hebrew Bible as their basic text and guide to religious observance. In a very real sense, the Seder became the collective memory of a ritual that could not possibly have been authentic to the era it portrays but set the standard for the perception of the correct way to honor the festival for anyone claiming to practice rabbinic Judaism.

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