Leavened bread, which is bread containing yeast, is forbidden during Passover because God gave Moses instructions to avoid yeast during the first Passover in Egypt and remove all yeast while celebrating Passover in the future.
This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD — a lasting ordinance. For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel (Exodus 12:14-15).
What Was the First Passover?
The first Passover occurred the night before the Israelites left Egypt during the Exodus. Pharaoh resisted letting the people of Israel leave Egypt. So, God sent a final devastating plague, the angel of death was to “pass over” the land and the first-born sons of every family in Egypt would die, unless blood from a lamb was on the doorposts of the house (Exodus 12:12).
Before the Passover, each family was to kill a lamb to provide blood for their doorposts and food. Along with the lamb, they ate unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). The Israelites were to eat this meal with haste.
This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover (Exodus 12:11).
God gave Moses instructions for the people of Israel to prepare to leave Egypt. When Pharaoh finally permitted the Israelites to leave Egypt, God did not want anyone to be held back because they had to wait for their bread to rise.
Unleavened bread is a symbol of the Israelites’ haste when they left Egypt. “The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. ‘For otherwise,’ they said, ‘we will all die!’ So, the people took their dough before the yeast was added, and carried it on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing” (Exodus 12:33-34).
Why Do People Still Celebrate Passover?
The annual Passover celebration is a symbolic reenactment of the Israelites’ last night as slaves in Egypt. The Passover is a time of remembrance for God’s people. God gave Moses specific instructions regarding the annual celebration of God’s deliverance from their slavery in Egypt.
After the Israelites escaped Egypt, “Moses said to the people, ‘Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the Lord brought you out of it with a mighty hand. Eat nothing containing yeast’” (Exodus 13:3).
God commanded that his people celebrate the Passover to memorialize their deliverance from bondage.
Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And anyone, whether foreigner or native-born, who eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel. Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread (Exodus 12:17-20).
The Passover was designed by God to be an interactive celebration for all family members, particularly children. During the traditional Jewish Passover meal, four questions are asked by the youngest person at the table.
The second question is, “On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, and on this night only matzah?” Asking questions about the special meal of unleavened bread provides a means of teaching history and a tangible way to experience God’s provision.
The annual celebration of Passover is a reminder of God's deliverance and a means of teaching future generations about God's power.
Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, “What does this ceremony mean to you?” then tell them, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.” (Exodus 12:24-27).
What Is Unleavened Bread?
Unleavened bread is bread made without yeast. The Hebrew word “matstsah” מַצָּה means unleavened bread. We get the English word “matzah” from the Hebrew. Traditionally, matzah is hard thin square wheat crackers or a softer thicker matzo bread made by hand from a watery wheat batter.
Other grains used to make matzah include barley, spelt, rye, and oats. Matzah bakers roll and pierce it with many small holes to limit the dough from rising. Jewish rabbis have determined cooking time for matzah should be precisely 18 minutes because, after that point, the bread will begin to rise.
What Is the Significance of Leaven?
When Jewish people celebrate Passover today, they will clean their homes of all leavening agents like yeast. Removing yeast from the house has become symbolic of removing sin.
In the New Testament, leaven and yeast were often a symbol of sin. “Leaven in Scripture, with the single exception of the Parable (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20-21), is always a symbol of evil (1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Galatians 5:9), especially insidious evil, as it is for the most part also in the Rabbinical writers.”
Jesus warned his followers about Herod and the Pharisees by using yeast as a metaphor for sin. “‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod’” (Mark 8:15)
Paul the Apostle compared leavening to malice and wickedness.
Your boasting is not good. Don't you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch — as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthian 5:6-8).
What Is the Significance of Unleavened Bread to Christians?
As Christians, we see additional significance of unleavened bread during Passover. Our communion ceremony comes from Jesus’ final celebration of Passover with his disciples.
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me (Luke 22:14,15, 19).
Jesus broke unleavened Passover bread and gave it to his disciples, and he commanded them to do this in remembrance.
In a traditional Jewish Passover Seder dinner, “It is customary to have three pieces stacked on the table. Two are traditional for Sabbath and festivals (when we usually use two challot), as a reminder of the double portion of manna (food from heaven) the Israelites gathered before every day of rest in the desert (Exodus 16:11-22). We need the third on Passover to break at the beginning of the [seder] service.”
Some Christians see the significance of the three pieces of matzah. The two traditional pieces of matzah are for God and the Holy Spirit. The third piece is symbolic of Jesus.
Just as unleavened bread does not have yeast, Christ lived a life without sin. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Many Christians see the significance of the stripes and holes in traditional matzah crackers. Just as Christ suffered beating, his brow was pierced by the crown of thorns, a sword pierced his side and nails were driven in his hands and feet, matzah is pierced.
Surely He took on our infirmities and carried our sorrows; yet we considered Him stricken by God, struck down and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-5).
What Does This Mean?
At the beginning of a traditional Jewish Passover meal, there is mention of the bread of affliction. Later in the dinner, the unleavened bread is referred to as the bread of freedom. Christians believe that Jesus suffered affliction because he bore our sins and failures on the cross.
He has taken our sin and slavery through his sacrifice. Through his suffering, Christians can celebrate in the freedom that He bought with his body and blood.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36).
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).
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Penny Noyes, M.Ed. is the author of Embracing Change - Learning to Trust God from the Women of the Bible and two books about Hezekiah. You can follow Penny on her blog and on Instagram @pennynoyes.