The Passover Papyrus Orders a Religious Furlough for Judean Soldiers
Elephantine (Yeb) is a small island in Egypt near today’s Aswan Dam. Judeans began living there some time before 525 B.C.E., and they even built a temple to YHW, a short version of the biblical name for Israel’s God, YHWH. In the 5th century B.C.E., it was home to a Judean (or Jewish) garrison in the service of the Persian Empire that controlled Egypt. This small Judean community in Elephantine left an astonishing collection of documents: letters, marriage contracts (in which women can divorce spouses as easily as men can), loan documents and more.
No other source outside the Bible matches the richness of information that the Elephantine papyri provide about a period critical for Jewish survival: the reconstruction of Judean life after the Babylonian Exile. As Reinhard Kratz observes, in many respects these documents give us a more realistic picture of actual Judean lives during this formative period than does the Bible, including information on how Passover was observed in that community.
The Passover Papyrus: A General Description
A letter known as the Passover Papyrus (TAD A 4.1), dating to 419 B.C.E., preserves the earliest evidence outside the Bible of the Jewish festival of Matzot (the plural of matzah, “unleavened bread”). The letter describes practices to be observed between the 15th of Nisan and the 21st (the dates for the Feast of Matzot in the Bible). It further instructs proper treatment of food during this period.
Unfortunately, the Passover Papyrus is highly fragmented and short, and its purpose has been reconstructed differently by different scholars. One persuasive reconstruction comes from the Hebrew University scholar, Bezalel Porten, a pioneer in the study of the texts and religion of Elephantine.
The letter begins with a greeting to Jedaniah and the חילא יהודיא “Judean soldiers” or “Jewish garrison” from someone named Hananiah, informing them of what King Darius II, in his fifth year, sent as a command to Arsames, the governor of Egypt. From a first reading, it sounds as if Darius is commanding the Jewish garrison to keep Jewish law, and even explaining to them the details (the reconstructed text is in brackets). Three specific observances are described:
a) Count seven days (for food without leaven)
יא כעת אנתם כן מנו א[רבעת עשר יומן לניסן וב14 בין שמשיא פסחא עבד]ו ומן יום 15 עד יום 21 ל[ניסן חגא זי פטיריא עבדו שבעת יומן פטירן אכלו כעת] דכין הוו ואזדהרו
Now, do you count [fourteen days in Nisan and on the 14th at twilight observe the Passover] and from the 15th day until the 21st day of [Nisan the festival of Unleavened Bread observe. Seven days eat unleavened bread. Now,] be pure and take heed.
b) Do not work during the festival
עבידה א[ל תעבדו ביום 15 וביום 21
[Do] n[ot do] work [on the 15th day and on the 21st day.
c) Do not consume leaven or have it in your houses
וכל מנדעם זי שכר א]ל תשתו וכל מנדעם זי חמיר א[ל תאכלו ואל יתחזי בבתיכם מן יום 14 לניסן ב]מערב שמשא עד יום 21 לניס[ן במערב שמשא וכל חמיר זי איתי לכם בבתיכם ה]נעלו בתוניכם וחתמו בין יומי[א אלה] […].א
And] do [n]ot drink [anything of leaven. And do] n[ot eat] anything of leaven [nor let it be seen in your houses from the 14th day of Nisan at] sunset until the 21st day of Nisa[n at sunset. And b]ring into your chambers [any leaven which you have in your houses] and seal (it) up during [these] day[s]. […]
The letter mandates abstaining from leaven between Nisan 15 and 21, and also prohibits work, presumably on these two days. According to Porten’s reconstruction, it also mandates eating matzot. These dates and practices correspond to the biblical ones (see, e.g., Exod 12 and Deut 16).
But why would the king of Persia inform his governor in Egypt about how a Jewish garrison should keep the festival of Matzot properly? And why does Hananiah report the matter to the Judeans? The questions remain a matter of debate among scholars.
Model 1: Introducing the Festival for the First Time
Critical scholars have long noted that Pesach (Passover) and the festival of Matzot were originally two separate festivals, with Matzot immediately following Pesach. Some scholars argue that not all Israelites or Jews were aware of both festivals, and some may have celebrated only one of these festivals. Biblical passages such as Deuteronomy 16 are attempts to connect these festivals and ensure they are both considered authoritative.
Thus, Michael Satlow in his “Passover and the Festival of Matzot: Synthesizing Two Holidays,” (TheTorah 2014) argues that Elephantine may have been a community which celebrated Pesach on the 14th of Nisan, but not the festival of Matzot on the following seven days. As the 5th century is the period during which the completed Pentateuch became an authoritative document in Judea, this letter may reflect the influence of the Judean community requesting a government intervention to enforce “proper” Jewish law on the Judeans living in faraway Egyptian Elephantine.
While such a reading of the text is possible, it is based on a number of assumptions, both about the history of the festival of Matzot and the status of the Torah in 5th century Egypt. Such a dramatic suggestion, that the Jewish garrison in Egypt did not know of this festival, and that the king of Persia himself would get involved in such an abstruse inner-Jewish problem, needs more evidence to be persuasive.
Model 2: Declaring a Leap Year
Idan Dershowitz, in his “Darius II Delays the Festival of Matzot in 418 B.C.E.” (TheTorah 2017), suggested that the key to understanding the letter’s purpose lies in an alternative reconstruction to that of Porten. Dershowitz’s key point is that in the opening command of the letter, instead of telling the Jews to count 14 days of Nissan, Darius is telling them to “count [an additional] Adar” ([מנו אדר [יתר).
The Achaemenid calendar, like the Jewish calendar, utilized leap years; both calendars accomplished this by adding a thirteenth month known as Second Adar. According to Dershowitz, this letter, although addressed to the Jewish garrison, was really informing them of something that was occurring throughout the empire: The king was declaring a leap year, and thus everyone must set their calendars accordingly. The reference to the Matzot Festival laws was simply informing them that they should push the festival off to the following month, since what was scheduled to be Nissan is now going to be Second Adar.
This suggestion, according to which the letter is a “leap year alert” from the king to the Judean garrison presumes an interest of the king in the Judean calendar. This already is odd, since why would it matter to the king when the Jews celebrate Pesach? Moreover, the letter is too specific with regard to what the Jews actually do during this time period, going beyond the date of the festival to mention specific prohibitions concerning work and not eating leaven. A leap year alert would not need to mention these minute, ritual details.
Model 3: Furlough
In my view, Porten’s reconstruction of the text is likely correct. The key to understanding the letter is the fact that it was sent to a military garrison and is referring to soldiers. The letter, I suggest, is an early example of temporary exemption from military duty on the basis of religion.
The Judean soldiers are being informed here that the king is aware of the special requirements not to work and the special food arrangements, and authorizes the Judeans to follow them and take a furlough. He so instructs his governor under whom the Judeans serve to allow the Judeans these customs. The governor has to be informed because the soldiers are under his direct command. He must not interfere with their practices.
As Bezalel Porten already observed about the soldiers, “since the military duties might interfere with the proper observance of the seven-day festival, it would be well to secure royal approval.” This letter is such a mark of royal approval, conveyed to the Judeans by Hananiah who presumably petitioned the king on their behalf to secure this authorization. Thanks to this letter, Judean soldiers can take two days off from duty, the first and the last (days on which biblical texts prohibit work). They also can arrange for special foods in their quarters.
חילא יהודיא—Judean Soldiers, Not Just the Garrison
This interpretation helps clarify the purpose of the letter and its intended audience. As far as we know from other documents, Judeans served in military units with other nationalities, especially Arameans. By referring to חילא יהודיא, “Judean soldiers,” the letter applies to all Judean soldiers, whatever unit they belong to, not necessarily to a single, specific Judean unit composed of only Judeans.
The Long History of Religious Furloughs
The practice of the military granting exemptions for religious observances has a long and complicated history. Josephus writes that the Jews at the time of Alexander the Great volunteered to join his army as long as they could also be permitted to practice their tradition, and he gladly agreed (Antiquities XI, 339). In the 18th century, for example, when Jews attempted to gain citizenship rights in Europe, where these were linked to military service, their need to follow Torah laws was used to deny them entry.
The Passover Papyrus shows that foreign rulers 2600 years ago found ways to accommodate their Judean soldiers, and that Judean soldiers were therefore able to observe and celebrate this foundational feast.
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Prof. Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is The Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, LA. She received her Ph.D. at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology and her ordination from HUC-JIR. Eskenazi is co-author of the award-winning JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth and co-editor of the award-winning The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.
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