What is the oldest holiday that people still celebrate today? Christmas? Easter? Halloween? Good guesses, but all incorrect. Dennis Prager has another answer, one you probably haven’t considered. The more you know about this holiday, the more you realize its incomparable significance.
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If you look up “world’s oldest holiday”—a holiday that is still observed—you will probably get “New Year’s.”
But that doesn’t really count. New Year’s was not one holiday—different groups celebrated it in different ways, often with different calendars. And aside from marking the new year, it doesn’t commemorate anything—not an event or a person.
So what is the world’s oldest holiday?
The answer is Passover.
It has been celebrated continuously, in the same way, by the same group, and commemorates a single event.
Jews have been doing this for more than three thousand years. That alone is almost incredible.
But Passover is not only the world’s oldest holiday, It is also the world’s most important holiday. I’ll explain why in a moment.
First, a word about the story of Passover.
It celebrates the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt in approximately 1200 BC, or BCE, as many academics now refer to it.
The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years until, as described in the Hebrew Bible, the Egyptians suffered what are known as The Ten Plagues. Their Pharaoh—the Egyptian ruler—finally relented and allowed the Jews to leave. That is the story of the Exodus, the most widely known national event in Western history.
And why is the Exodus so important?
For the first time in history, the primary religious book of a civilization went on record as identifying its god with liberating slaves. The gods of every other nation either said nothing about slavery or endorsed it. But the God of the Exodus liberated an enslaved nation. And He not only liberated Jews. The Book of Exodus records that a “multitude” of peoples left Egypt with the Jews.
But didn’t that book, specifically the Book of Exodus, allow some forms of slavery? Yes, it did. But with the exception of captives in wartime, it did not allow slavery as we understand the term. Biblical slavery was what is known as indentured servitude, an institution that was so common throughout history that a large percentage of the Europeans who came to America in its early days came as indentured servants. This institution was not slavery. People who couldn’t pay off their debts worked their way out of debt—for a fixed length of time. In the Bible, that was six years.
One powerful proof that the Exodus meant that God did not approve of slavery is that the Exodus inspired enslaved people in different parts of the world to hope for freedom. For example, black Americans thoroughly identified with the Exodus and with the Israelites. The best-known black spiritual (or religious folk song) was “Go Down Moses” with its famous refrain, “Let My People Go,” the very words that Moses, the leader of the Israelites, repeatedly said to Pharaoh:
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s Land.
Tell ol’ Pharaoh,
Let my people go.
The lyrics of the song refer to Harriet Tubman, the famous runaway slave who later helped fellow slaves escape to freedom. She became known as the “Black Moses,” and used “Go Down Moses” as a code to communicate with fleeing slaves.
The Exodus not only inspired slaves in America; it equally inspired free people in America. Two of America’s Founders, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, designed a great seal for the United States. And what did that seal depict? The Exodus.
Every year, for more than three thousand years, Jews have kept the memory of the Exodus alive by celebrating Passover. The first night of the holiday features the dinner known as the Passover Seder, the Hebrew word for “Order.” The Seder meal is conducted in a very specific order that ensures the story be told accurately and that anywhere a Jew goes in the world, he or she will be engaged in the same exact ritual.
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