A Guide to Passover

The EssenceThe StoryThe SederThe Seder Plate

The Essence

  • Pesach is the festival of redemption and freedom commemorating the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
  • It marks the beginning of the Covenant between God the liberator and the Jews as a people redeemed.
  • It celebrates the birth of the Jewish people as a free nation under the leadership of its greatest teacher and prophet, Moses.

Pesach Is the Holiday of Spring

It illuminates the possibility of renewal—as intrinsic to human nature as blossoming trees to the natural world.

Pesach Is the Feast of Matzah/Unleavened Bread

  • Matzah allows free people to experience, through food, the privations of slavery. Matzah is the most central symbol of the Passover festival.
  • Telling the story of Israel’s liberation through the Haggadah is the heart of the Passover celebration.
  • The manner of telling and means of celebrating, in the Seder, touch the heart of what Jewish living is all about.
  • Pesach (Passover) begins this year on the evening of April 22, 2016, and concludes on April 30, 2016.
  • Pesach commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jewish people were freed from slavery in Egypt and began their journey through the wilderness to the Land of Israel.
  • The Seder (Hebrew word meaning “order”) is a ritual meal and the main observance of Pesach. The Haggadah is a book used at the Seder which recounts the dramatic story of the Exodus and the redemptive movement from slavery to freedom.
  • The Seder is designed to be a pedagogic and sensory ceremony in observance of the instructions to teach the story of the Exodus to our children and to feel as if we ourselves have experienced the Exodus from Egypt. For example bitter herbs are eaten in order to “taste” the experience of slavery.
  • Matzah is a fundamental symbol of Pesach which represents the hasty departure from Egypt which did not allow time for the bread the Israelites took with them to rise. The removal of all hametz (leavened products) from the home during Pesach results from this distinction between matzah and hametz.
  • The story of the Exodus is seen as a paradigm of redemption and freedom and emphasizes the idea that everyone should be free. This has also informed a commitment to social justice throughout the generations.
  • Seven weeks are counted between Pesach and Shavuot (the “Omer” period) which highlights the connection between Pesach (freedom) and Shavuot (the receiving of the Torah). Jewish tradition teaches that the purpose and privilege of freedom is commitment to the teachings of the Torah which provide the guidelines for building a just society.

The Story

The Israelite community was in Egypt for four centuries and enslaved under the Pharaohs for more than two centuries. Moses, the son of a Levite who was raised as a prince of Egypt, fled to the wilderness after killing an Egyptian taskmaster. He received a divine “call” at the burning bush and returned to Egypt, with his brother Aaron as spokesman.

During Moses’ confrontations with Pharaoh, ten plagues were visited on the Egyptians. The Israelites ate roasted lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs in the first observance of Passover, and put lambs’ blood on their doorposts before the final plague—death of firstborn sons as God “passed over” the Jewish homes—was unleashed on the night of 15 Nisan. Pharaoh agreed to Moses’ persistent demand to “Let my people go.”

With no time to wait for leavened bread to rise, the Israelites took unleavened bread with them and followed Moses on a perilous journey toward the promised land of Canaan.

Pesach as a symbol of freedom, deliverance, and defiance of restrictive regimes has always captured the American imagination. The story of Passover inspired Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams when they proposed “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God” as the motto for the seal of the United States. Almost a century later, the refrain of the spiritual calling for freedom from slavery began with “Go down, Moses,” and ended with “Let my people go.” Throughout the ages, Jews have responded to the command to see themselves as the slaves liberated from Egypt by identifying Passover with hope for oppressed Jews, as well as for others suffering from oppression.

The Seder

Passover begins with a Seder on the eve of 15 Nisan, and continues for seven days in Israel, and seven or eight days in the Diaspora, depending on family custom. The first two and last two days are sacred holy days. The Seder is the quintessential Jewish family event, a sacred family meal conveying tradition directly from one generation to the next and encompassing games, ceremony, song, food and drink, praise of God and high drama. Its components are unique: specially baked matzah, four cups of wine, eating bitter herbs, and the all important asking of the four questions by the children.
The evening is highlighted by the reading of the Haggadah, a special prayer book for the occasion. Haggadah means “retelling” and is derived from Exodus 13:8, which calls for a reliving of the Passover experience: ”You shall tell your child in that day, saying: “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt.”

Each Seder participant symbolically experiences the bitterness of slavery (by eating the bitter herbs) and feels the joy of being redeemed by eating the other symbolic foods, drinking four cups of wine, eating a sumptuous meal, and singing traditional family songs.

Matzah: Why We Eat It

Matzah is called the “bread of affliction” because it symbolizes the hardship and deprivation experienced by our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt. When eaten during the Seder, matzah allows us to relive and remember our ancestral Egyptian experience.

Hametz (Leaven): Why We Do Not Eat It
Exodus 12:20 mandates: “Seven days you shall eat (only) unleavened bread… Whatsoever contains leaven you shall not eat.”
Hametz, with its power of raising dough, is a symbol of inflated human pride of the king that led the Egyptians to enslave our people. Removing it from our homes and refraining from it during Passover reminds us of our need to remove overweening pride from our lives.

The Seder Plate

  • Haroset/ חרוסת is a reminder of slavery and is meant to look like the mortar and bricks the slaves were forced to make.
  • Maror/ מָרוֹר –bitter herbs, usually horseradish root, represents the bitterness of slavery.
  • Shankbone/ זרוע (z’roah) symbolizes the lamb that was a Passover offering at the Temple.
  • Karpas/ -כרפסgreens or parsley that remind us of the coming of spring.
  • Egg/ ביצה (betzah)—a roasted egg represents the cycle of life and also symbolizes a special holiday offering made at the Temple on holidays.
  • Hazeret/ חזרת is bitter lettuce and another reminder of slavery. This does not appear on all Seder plates.
Seder Plate
Produced by: JWB Jewish Chaplains Council: © 2009 JWB Jewish Chaplains Council
Rabbi Ira Kronenberg, Chairman; Rabbi Harold L. Robinson, Director
A service of the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America
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Want to chat about Jewish hoidays or Jewish life? Debbie Goodman would love to answer your questions either via email or by phone at 303.316.6317.
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