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What is Passover?

July 16, 2024

Passover is brimming with symbols of slavery and freedom.

Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is known as the “holiday of freedom,” commemorating the Jewish Exodus from Egypt following 210 years of slavery. Passover is regarded as the “birth” of the Jewish nation, and its lessons of struggle and identity continue to form the basis of Jewish consciousness 3,300 years after the event.

Passover is an 8-day holiday (in Israel, seven days). The name derives from the fact that during the final plague—the slaying of the firstborn—God “passed over” the Jewish homes.

Seder Night: The holiday is marked by the celebration of an elaborate Seder on the first two nights (in Israel, on the first night only). The Seder is designed to give each Jew the experience of “going from slavery unto freedom.” As recorded in the Haggadah, we tell the Exodus story and recount the Ten Plagues. We eat symbols of slavery and freedom, and the festive meal includes many delicious recipes for foods that people look forward to all year (think matzah balls!). We recite the Hallel prayer of praise and end the Seder with the hope of “Next year in Jerusalem!”

The Seder is a special tie of family bonding and children are a particular focus of the night. They enjoy a variety of Passover songs like the Four Questions (Ma Nishatana), tell of the Four Sons, sing theDayenu” song, try to “steal” the Afikoman, and open the door for Elijah the Prophet.

MATZAH – At the Seder, it is a special mitzvah to eat matzah, the Seder’s main symbol. Everyone should try to eat 2/3 of a square matzah (or 1/2 of a round matzah) within 4 minutes while leaning to the left. The most common reason for eating matzah is that on the morning of the Exodus, the Jews were so rushed in getting out of Egypt that the bread didn’t have time to rise. At the end of the festive meal, the special “dessert” is another piece of matzah, called the Afikoman.

Four cups: At the Seder, we drink four cups of wine – corresponding to the four expressions of freedom mentioned in the Torah (Exodus 6:6-7). Everyone should have their own cup, which holds minimally 98 cm (3.3 oz). Try to drink the entire cup for each of the Four Cups (or at least drink a majority) within 4 minutes. And as an expression of freedom, we lean to the left and back while drinking the Four Cups.

KARPAS – Toward the beginning of the Seder, we eat karpas – a vegetable (e.g. celery, parsley, potato) dipped in saltwater, to commemorate the tears of hard labor.

BITTER HERBS: Later in the Seder, we eat Marror, the bitter herbs. Though many have the custom of using horseradish, Romaine lettuce is also used. (“Red horseradish” in jars bought from the stores should not be used, since it’s a mixture of mostly beets with some horseradish.) The Marror is dipped into Charoset, a bricks-and-mortar mixture of dates, wine, nuts, and apples.

SEDER CHECKLIST: Seder means “order” because there are so many details to remember. Your Seder table should include:

  • a Seder plate with:
    • Celery, parsley, or potato (Karpas)
    • Lettuce (Marror)
    • Horseradish (Chazeret)
    • Charoset
    • Roasted chicken wing (Zero’ah)
    • Hard-boiled egg (Beitzah)
  • matzah cover with 3 matzot (and extra matzah)
  • wine and grape juice
  • Haggadahs
  • cup for Elijah
  • saltwater
  • Kiddush cups
  • pillows for reclining
  • Afikomen prizes

CHAMETZ-FREE ZONE – During the week of Passover, Jews are forbidden to eat or possess any chametz (leavened grain). For this reason, we dispose of (or sell) all bread, cookies, pasta, beer, etc. – and purchase only products labeled “Kosher for Passover.” (Ashkenazi Jews also refrain from eating kitniyot – rice, beans, etc.) To avoid any problems of residual chametz, we also have special sets of dishes and pots for Passover. As a practical consideration, many people begin cleaning for Passover weeks before the holiday begins.

SEARCH-AND-BURN – On the evening before Passover, we conduct a careful search of the home for chametz. It is done by candlelight and is a memorable experience for the whole family. Any remaining chametz is either burned the next morning (in a ceremony called Sray’fat Chametz), or is sold to a non-Jew for the week of Passover. The sale must be serious and legally binding; it should be done only through the assistance of a qualified rabbi. Any food that is sold must be put in a cabinet and taped shut.

About the Author:
Rabbi Shraga Simmons grew up trekking through snow in Buffalo, New York, enjoying summers as a tour guide at Niagara Falls. He holds a degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. He is the co-founder of Aish.com, and founder of the Torah study site, JewishPathways.com. He is also the co-founder of HonestReporting.com, and author of “David & Goliath”, the definitive treatment of media bias against Israel (2012). He lives with his wife and children in the Modi’in region of Israel.

 

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