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How the Jews in Elephantine, Egypt Celebrated Passover in 419 BCE. DO YOU HAVE TO BURN YOUR HAMETZ? IS WINE CHAMETZ?

April 3, 2015

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The papyrus known as THE PASSOVER LETTER from the Jewish military colony  at Elephantine 1 (yeb), ancient Egypt, circa 419 BCE.

According to Dan Adler:

In 1907, a german professor by the name of Eduard Sachau discovered the Passover Papyrus at Elephantine. The papyrus is written in Aramaic using Hebrew letters, and has been scientifically dated back to 419 BCE. This is the oldest archeological document found to date (outside of the Bible) which proves that Jews celebrated Passover during the period which coincides with the Return to Zion of Ezra and Nehemiah (from the Babylonian exile), and provides independent historical evidence that:

  1. A small Jewish community existed in Egypt (as described in the book of Jeremiah)
  2. They worshipped a God named Yahu (יהו which is similar to יהוה)
  3. They considered Judah (the land of Israel) as their religious authority
  4. They wrote to Judah to ask how to celebrate Passover (maybe they had no Torah scroll, or maybe Torah scrolls didn’t exist yet)
  5. One of the other Elephantine papyri mentions Sanballat who is also mentioned in the Bible
  6. The Passover Papyrus is the response the Elephantine community received from Judah outlining the Passover rituals
  7. The timing of Passover in the papyrus and most of the rituals match what we would expect

Here are the contents of the letter:

In the month of Nisan, let there be a Passover for the Judahite garrison. Now accordingly count fourteen days of the month Nisan and keep the Passover, and from the 15th day to the 21st day of Nisan are seven days of Unleavend Bread. Be clean and take heed. Do not work on the 15th day and on the 21st day. ALSO DRINK NO INTOXICANTS; and anything in which there is leaven…

אל אחי
ידניה וכנותה חילא יהודיא אחוכם חנניה שלם אחי אלהיא ישאלו
וכעת שנתא זא שנת \\/\/ דריוהוש מלכא מן מלכא שליחעל ארשם לאמר
בירח ניסן יהוי פסח לחילא יהודיא כעת אנתם כן מנו ארבעתעשר
יומן לירח ניסן ופסחא עבדו ומן יום —||\|\ עד יום \ לניסן
שבעת יומן זי פתירן אנתם דכין הוו ואזדהרוע בירח אל תעבדו
ביום —\\\ \/ וביום / אף שכר אל תשתו וכל מנדעם זט חמיר איתי בה
אל תאכלו מן יום —\\\ \/ מן מערב שמשא עד יום / לניסן שבעת
יומן אל יתחזי בכם אל תהנעלו בתוניכם וחתמו בין יומיא אלה
כן יתעבד כזי אמר דריוהוש מלכא
אל אחי ידניה וכנותה חילא יהודיא אחוכם חנני

Translation and transliteration from here:

‘L ‘HY 1 To my brothers,
YDNYH WKNWTH HYL’ YHWDY’ ‘HWKM HNNYH ŠLM ‘HY ‘LHY’ YŠ’LW 2 Yedaniah and his colleagues of the Judahite garrison, (from) your brother Hananiah. May the gods seek the welfare of my brothers.
WKcT ŠNT’ Z’ ŠNT \\/\/ DRYWHWŠ MLK’ MN MLK’ ŠLYH cL ‘RŠM L’MR 3 Now this year, the 5th year of King Darius, word was sent from the king to Arsames, saying:
BYRH NYSN YHWY PSH LHYL’ YHWDY’ KcT ‘NTM KN MNW ‘RBcT c ŠR 4 In the month of Nisan, let there be a Passover for the Judahite garrison. Now accordingly count fourteen
YWMN LYRH NYSN WPSHc BDW WMN YWM —||\|\ cD YWM ¶\ LNYSN 5 days of the month Nisan and keep the Passover, and from the 15th day to the 21st day of Nisan
ŠBcT YWMN ZY PTYRN ‘NTM DKYN HWW W’ZDHRW cBYRH ‘LTcBDW 6 are seven days of Unleavend Bread. Be clean and take heed. Do not work
BYWM —\\\ \/ WBYWM ¶ / ‘P ŠKR ‘L TŠTW WKL MNDcM ZYHMYR ‘YTY BH 7 on the 15th day and on the 21st day. Also, drink no intoxicants; and anything in which there is leaven,
‘LT’KLW MN YWM —\\\ \/ MN Mc RB ŠMŠ’ cD YWM ¶/ LNYSN ŠBcT 8 do not eat, from the 15th day from sunset until the 21st day of Nisan, seven
YWMN ‘L YTHZY BKM ‘L THNcLW BTWNYKM WHTMW BYN YWMY’ ‘LH 9 days, let it not be seen among you; do not bring it into your houses, but seal it up during those days.
KN YTcBD KZY ‘MR DRYWHWŠ MLK’ 10 Let this be done as King Darius commanded.
‘L ‘HY YDNYH WKNWTH HYL’ YHWDY’ ‘HWKM HNNYH


Transliteration of special characters

  • ‘ = ‘Aleph
  • H = Heth
  • T = Teth
  • c = cAyin
  • S = Sadê
  • Š = Šin
11 To my brethren, Yedaniah and his colleagues of the Judahite garrison, (from) your brother Hananiah.

Some contemporary Karaites (like Hakham Avraham Qanai) maintain that this is clear proof ” documentary evidence that at the time of the last Nevi’im that alcoholic wine (שכר) ‘was considered Hames (חמיר in Aramaic).” He also adds: “This puts to rest the argument that the Karaite prohibition on alcoholic wine during Hagh HaMassot was an invention of the Middle Ages” (although in a different place Qanai maintains that: “The word Shekhar refers to all types of intoxicating beverages. Wine can also be Shekhar, but, since the commandment already mentioned wine and forbids the consumption of Shekhar as well as wine, it is obviously referring to other types of Shekhar. Also since it list wine vinegar separately from Shekhar vinegar, the reference to Shekhar is obviously not to wine. The word Shekhar is found in other Semitic languages as well and almost always refers to other intoxicating beverages. In Jewish Aramaic Shkikra means intoxicating drink; in Imperial Aramaic it means beer, ale, mead; in Akkadian it is beer, fermented alcoholic beverage; in Syriac it is intoxicating drink, as also in Christian Palestininan Aramaic; in Mandæan it is intoxicating drink; in Arabic Sakar [سكر] intoxicating drink, wine, which developed into the loan-word in Greek σικερα [Síkera] meaning intoxicating drink, beer, which would have been made primarily from barley in contrast to Sove’ [סבא] which is beer made from wheat”.

Some have also theorized that the custom of taking four cups of wine was instituted with the Sadducees (the alleged spiritual forbears of the Karaites) in mind. In Rabbinic parlance: להוציא מלבן של צדוקים

Scholars are of different opinions as to what exactly -s-k-r שכר refers to. Some contend that it refers only to alcoholic wine, others contend that all intoxicating beverages fall under this category. Today most Karaite Jews 2 refrain from consuming wine on Passover because they consider it as falling under the prohibition against fermented foods.

The second interesting aspect about this remarkable document is the attitude towards keeping hametz. Out of sight and out of mind (In keeping with the Biblical injunction of ‘it shall neither be seen nor found’) seemed to have been the order of the day. Neither burning nor selling is mentioned:

“let it not be seen among you; do not bring it into your houses, but seal it up during those days.”

Qanai maintains: the Aramaic word HTM does not only mean “seal” but also “cut off”/“end”. The Torah command WeLo’ Yera’eh Lekha Hames WeLo’ Yera’eh Kekh Se’or BeKhol Gevulekha, i.e., anywhere within the boundaries of the land of Israel, whether in your house or outside of it. The term Lo Yera’eh Lekha does not mean just “it shall not be seen” but “it shall not be found”/“it shall not be present” with you. See Shemot 34:3.

According to his understanding giving away your hamess to a gentile can only work outside the Land of Israel but not in the land since the verse says “in all your boundaries”.

However, others understand it to have meant that it is simply an injunction to keep them completely out of sight. The Papyrus seems to support the latter understanding of the verse, i.e. get the hamess out of your houses and seal them away somewhere so they won’t be seen for the duration of the holiday.

NOTES:

1. For more on the Elephantine Colony see here. The Hebrew Wikipedia erroneously attributes the destruction of the Yeb Temple by local Egyptians, due to their abhorrence of animal sacrifices. It cites the verse וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לֹא נָכוֹן לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן, כִּי תּוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם, נִזְבַּח לַה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ: הֵן נִזְבַּח אֶת-תּוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם, לְעֵינֵיהֶם–וְלֹא יִסְקְלֻנוּ” (שמות ח’ כב) in order to back up that contention. But it is patently wrong because Egyptians did engage in animal sacrifice during and after that period. see here and here and here

Herodotus however writes:

Now all who have a temple set up to the Theban Zeus or who are of the district of Thebes, these, I say, all sacrifice goats and abstain from sheep: for not all the Egyptians equally reverence the same gods, except only Isis and Osiris (who they say is Dionysos), these they all reverence alike: but they who have a temple of Mendes or belong to the Mendesian district, these abstain from goats and sacrifice sheep. Now the men of Thebes and those who after their example abstain from sheep, say that this custom was established among them

2. The Crimean Karaites do consume wine. The relaxation of a prohibition that was apparently uniform among Karaites is claimed (by Hakham Qanai and others) to stem from Hakham Elijah Bashyatzi, a Byzantine Karaite who instituted far-reaching reforms that were very controversial for his time (although nowhere in his magnum opus: Aderet Eliyahu does he explicitly permit the consumption of wine).

One Comment
  1. Adām Avishai (a pseudonym ) permalink

    Wtf these people are idol worshippers as clearly seen in the letter in the beginning “may the gods seek welfare of my brothers”

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