Passover is also called Pesach which is derived from the Hebrew word pasach, which means "passed over". It is named for the tenth and final plague in the Passover story when all the Egyptian firstborn were killed, but the Israelites were spared.
You probably know at least the basics of the Passover story which tells of the Exodus from Egypt. For most of us, the image of Charleton Heston parting the Red Sea is a movie classic. Jews retell this story every year at their seder tables in order to make sure to never forget that we were once slaves in a foreign land.
Here’s the synopsis of the story:
We read in the Torah that the Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt by Pharoah, and after being oppressed for many generations, God speaks to an Israelite man named Moses. God instructs Moses to go to Pharoah and ask him to let the Israelites go free. Pharoah refuses, and Moses, acting as God's messenger, brings down a series of 10 plagues on Egypt. These plagues were:1. Turning the River to Blood 2. Frogs 3. Lice 4. Flies 5. Cattle Disease 6. Boils 7. Hail 8.Locusts 9. Darkness 10. Death of the Firstborn
During this last plague, Death of the Firstborn, God went through Egypt and killed each firstborn Egyptian male, but passed over the houses of the Israelites leaving their children unharmed. This plague was so terrible that Pharoah relented and let the Israelites leave Egypt. The Israelites packed up quickly and departed.
Pharoah quickly regretted his decision and chased the Children of Israel until they were trapped at the Sea of Reeds. But God instructed Moses to stretch his staff over the Sea of Reeds and the waters parted, allowing the Children of Israel to walk through on dry land. The waters then closed, drowning Pharoah and his soldiers as they pursued the Israelites.The Israelites broke into song upon reaching the opposite shore safely. The Jewish women, led by Moses' sister, Miriam, danced and sang with musical instruments in praise of God. We are told that in heaven, the angels also broke into song. But God chastised the angels and said, “How can you sing when my people are dying?” referring to the Egyptian soldiers. As the Passover story ends, the Israelites' 40 year journey through the desert to the Promised Land begins.
The seder, a festive holiday meal, actually means "order." It is called this because the meal is done in a certain order which takes us from slavery to freedom. The Haggadah - which means "the telling" - is the book used at the Passover seder. The Haggadah explains the foods on the seder plate, recounts the highlights of the Exodus, and includes songs, prayers, questions and stories. Seders are meant to be low-key and fun. Questions are welcome and a lighthearted spirit is in order.
Usually there is one person who is the leader of the Seder. This person will usually ask people to read various parts of the Haggadah. The good news is that the Haggadah is written to take us through the seder in the proper order. You don't have to memorize anything ahead of time.
On the table, you will see the seder plate with the symbolic foods, and three matzot (plural of matzah) wrapped up together. Toward the beginning of the seder, the leader hides the middle of the three matzot. This is called the afikomen. At the end of the festive meal, the children search for the afikomen and once found, present it to the seder leader for often gives them a small reward.
Throughout the seder, four cups of wine (or grape juice) will be drunk to remind us of the four promises of redemption. You can drink just a little each time! There will also be a cup of wine that is filled for Elijah the prophet. There is a tradition that Elijah visits every Jewish home on Passover to witness the celebration, and perhaps to bring us this time into a messianic age (a time of peace and freedom for all).
There are Six Parts of the Seder Plate
The Roasted Egg is symbolic of the festival sacrifice made in biblical times. It is also a symbol of spring - the season in which Passover is always celebrated.
Lettuce is often used in addition to the maroras a bitter herb. The authorities are divided on the requirement of chazeret,so not all communities use it. Since the commandment (in Numbers 9:11) to eat the paschal lamb "with unleavened bread and bitter herbs" uses the plural ("bitter herbs") most seder plates have a place for chazeret.
The Shankbone is symbolic of the Paschal lamb offered as the Passover sacrifice in biblical times. Some communities use a chicken neck as a substitute. Vegetarian households may use beets.
Apple, nuts, and spices ground together and mixed with wine are symbolic of the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build Egyptian structures. There are several variations in the recipe for charoset. The Mishna describes a mixture of fruits, nuts, and vinegar.
Parsley is dipped into salt water during the seder. The salt water serves as a reminder of the tears shed during Egyptian slavery. The dipping of a vegetable as an appetizer is said to reflect the influence of Greek culture.
Bitter Herbs (usually horseradish) symbolize the bitterness of Egyptian slavery. The maror is often dipped in charoset to reduce its sharpness. Maror is used in the seder because of the commandment (in Numbers 9:11) to eat the paschal lamb "with unleavened bread and bitter herbs".
Many Jews in North America and all Jews in Israel observe seven days of Passover as the Torah commands. Orthodox and conservative Jews outside of Israel celebrate Passover for eight days. The addition of a day dates back to 700-600 B.C.E. At that time, people were notified of a holiday’s beginning by means of an elaborate network of mountaintop bonfires. To guard against the possibility of error, an extra day was added to many of the holidays for Jews living in the diaspora. In our modern times, a dependable calendar exists, allowing Jews to know when holidays start and end. However, the process remains ingrained in Jewish law and practice for some Jews living outside of Israel today.
According to the Torah, there are five grains that can ferment and become chametz (any food that is leavened or has a leavening agent). These are wheat, barley, spelt (also known as farro), oats, and rye. Traditional Jewish law forbids eating, owning, or deriving benefit from these five grains in any amount and in any form throughout the holiday except when they are baked into matzah.
There is also a category of prohibited Passover food called kitniyot, from the Hebrew word katan (little). For Ashkenazic Jews (of Eastern European descent), the tradition on Passover has been to not eat foods considered kitniyot. Sometimes referred to generically as legumes, this includes rice, corn, soy beans, string beans, peas, lentils, mustard, sesame seeds and poppy seeds. Even though kitniyot cannot technically become chametz, traditionally, Ashkenazic Jews do not eat them on Passover. Because the products of kitniyot appear like chametz products, in the 13th century the Jewish communities in Europe decided that all kitniyot were prohibited so as to prevent any confusion. Sephardic Jews (of Spanish or Arab descent) did not adopt the practice of avoiding kitniyot.
In 1810 the Reform Movement removed any restriction against eating kitniyot during Passover as it was determined that this prohibition is in direct contradiction to the opinion of all but one of the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, it detracts from the joy of the holiday and it emphasizes the insignificant (legumes) while ignoring the significant (the avoidance of chametz). There are still Ashkenazic Jews who want to stick to the custom of their ancestors and are drawn to that tradition, even though they know that it is permitted to eat kitniyot on Passover. Remember, this too is permissible, especially in light of Reform Judaism’s openness to all aspects of Jewish tradition.