Passover Seders During the Civil War

For American Jewry during the Civil War, the Passover story was especially powerful. However, creating a seder in a war zone requires flexibility and creativity.

Print this page Print this page

(Image below:  Weighing and Delivering of the Matzos or Unleavened Bread, from Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly magazine, August 1877. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society.)

Weighing and Delivering of the Matzos or Unleavened Bread
On the eve of the fifth day of Passover (April 14), 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot, and he died of his wounds in the early morning of April 15th, which had already been scheduled as a national day of prayer to mark the end of the Civil War. Jews across the land were gathering in synagogues to give thanks. When news of Lincoln's death arrived, Korn notes, the synagogue altars were quickly draped in black and, instead of Passover melodies, the congregations chanted Yom Kippur hymns. Rabbis set aside their sermons and wept openly at their pulpits, as did their congregants. Lincoln had been protective of American Jewry, overturning General Grant's infamous General Order #11 expelling Jews from the Department of Tennessee and supporting legislation allowing Jewish chaplains to serve in the military. The Jewish Record drew the analogy between Lincoln not having lived to see the reconciliation of North and South and Moses dying on Mount Pisgah before he saw the Israelites enter the Promised Land.

It is easy to forget how difficult it can be for Jewish soldiers to serve their country while maintaining the traditions that beautify Judaism. Northern soldiers saw clear parallels between the Union freeing the South's slaves and Moses leading the ancient Hebrews out of Egypt. Nevertheless, for Jewish Union soldiers fighting between 1861 and 1865 to free others from slavery, the Passover parallels must have made each seder particularly sweet and meaningful.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Michael Feldberg

Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.