Passover, or Pesach, is a Jewish and Samaritan holy day and festival commemorating the biblical event of Hebrews’ escape from enslavement in Egypt.
Passover begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan (equivalent to March and April in Gregorian calendar), the first month of the Hebrew calendar’s festival year according to the Hebrew Bible, the Torah.
In the narrative of the Exodus, the Bible tells that God inflicted ten plagues upon the Egyptians before Pharaoh would release his Hebrew slaves, with the tenth plague being the killing of all of the firstborn, from the Pharaoh’s son to the firstborn of the dungeon captive, to the firstborn of cattle. The Hebrews were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord passed over these homes, hence the term “passover”.
When Pharaoh freed the Hebrews, it is said that they left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread to rise. In commemoration, for the duration of Passover, no leavened bread is eaten, for which reason it is called “The Festival of the Unleavened Bread”. Matza (flat unleavened bread) is the primary symbol of the holiday.
Together with Shavuot (“Pentecost”) and Sukkot (“Tabernacles”), Passover is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Shalosh Regalim) during which the entire Jewish populace historically made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Passover is a spring festival, so the 14th day of Nisan begins on the night of a full moon after the vernal equinox. To ensure that Passover did not start before spring, the tradition in ancient Israel held that the first day of Nisan would not start until the barley is ripe, being the test for the onset of spring. If the barley was not ripe an intercalary month (Adar II) would be added. However, since at least the 12th century, the date has been determined mathematically.
In Israel, Passover is the seven-day holiday of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, with the first and last days observed as legal holidays and as holy days involving abstention from work, special prayer services, and holiday meals; the intervening days are known as Chol HaMoed (“festival days”). Diaspora Jews historically observed the festival for eight days, and most still do. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews and Israeli Jews, wherever they are, usually observe the holiday over seven days. The reason for this extra day is due to enactment of the Sages. It is thought by many scholars that Jews outside of Israel could not be certain if their local calendars fully conformed to practice of the Temple at Jerusalem, so they added an extra day. But as this practice only attaches to certain (major) holy days, others posit the extra day may have been added to accommodate people who had to travel long distances to participate in communal worship and ritual practices; or the practice may have evolved as a compromise between conflicting interpretations of Jewish Law regarding the calendar; or it may have evolved as a safety measure in areas where Jews were commonly in danger, so that their enemies would not be certain on which day to attack.
Passover is a biblically mandated holiday, indicating that it was already old and traditional by the time of the redaction of the Pentateuch:
In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month between the two evenings is the LORD’S Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the LORD; seven days ye shall eat unleavened bread. In the first day ye shall have a holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of servile work. And ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD seven days; in the seventh day is a holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of servile work. (Leviticus 23:5)
The biblical regulations pertaining to the original Passover also include how the meal is to be eaten: “with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the LORD’s passover” (Exodus 12:11).
The Biblical commandments concerning the Passover (and the Feast of Unleavened Bread) stress the importance of remembering:
And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt; and thou shalt observe and do these statutes.” (Deuteronomy 16:12)
Modern observance and preparation
Removing all chametz
Chametz (“leavening”) refers either to a grain product that is already fermented (e.g. yeast breads, certain types of cake, and most alcoholic beverages), or to a substance that can cause fermentation (e.g. yeast, sourdough or high fructose corn syrup). The consumption of chametz is forbidden during Passover in most Jewish traditions. According to Halakha, the ownership of chametz is also proscribed.
The specific definition of chametz varies among religious and ethno-cultural traditions. In Ashkenazic and certain Sephardic applications of Jewish Law, chametz does not include baking soda, baking powder or like products. Although these are leavening agents, they leaven by chemical reaction whereas the prohibition against chametz is understood to apply only to fermentation. Thus, bagels, waffles and pancakes made with baking soda and matzo meal are considered permissible, while bagels made with yeast, sourdough pancakes and waffles, and the like, are prohibited. Karaite Jews and many non-Ashkenazic Jewish traditions do not observe a distinction between chemical leavening and leavening by fermentation.
The Torah commandments regarding chametz are:
To remove all chametz from one’s home, including things made with chametz, before the first day of Passover. (Exodus 12:15). It may be simply used up, thrown out (historically, destroyed by burning, since there was no weekly garbage pickup in ancient times), or given or sold to non-Jews (or non-Samaritans, as the case may be).
To refrain from eating chametz or mixtures containing chametz during Passover. (Exodus 13:3, Exodus 12:20, Deuteronomy 16:3).
Not to possess chametz in one’s domain (i.e. home, office, car, etc.) during Passover (Exodus 12:19, Deuteronomy 16:4).
Observant Jews typically spend the weeks before Passover in a flurry of thorough house cleaning, to remove every morsel of chametz from every part of the home. Jewish law requires the elimination of olive-sized or larger quantities of leavening from one’s possession, but most housekeeping goes beyond this. Even the cracks of kitchen counters are thoroughly scrubbed, for example, to remove any traces of flour and yeast, however small. Any item or implement that has handled chametz is generally put away and not used during Passover.
Some hotels, resorts, and even cruise ships across America, Europe and Israel also undergo a thorough housecleaning to make their premises “kosher for Pesach” to cater to observant Jews.
Due to the Torah injunction not to eat chametz during Passover, observant families typically own complete sets of serving dishes, glassware and silverware which have never come into contact with chametz, for use only during Passover. Under certain circumstances, some chametz utensils can be immersed in boiling water (hagalat keilim) to purge them of any traces of chametz that may have accumulated during the year. Many Sephardic families thoroughly wash their year-round glassware and then use it for Passover, as the Sephardic position is that glass does not absorb enough traces of food to present a problem. Similarly, ovens may be used for Passover either by setting the self-cleaning function to the highest degree for a certain period of time, or by applying a blow torch to the interior until the oven glows red hot (a process called libun gamur).
Search for chametz
Traditionally, Jews do a formal search for remaining chametz (bedikat chametz) after nightfall on the evening before Passover. A blessing is read (על ביעור חמץ – al biyur chametz, “on the removal of chametz”), and one or more members of the household proceed from room to room to check that no crumbs remain in any corner. In very traditional families, the search may be conducted by the head of the household; in more modern families, the children may be the ones who do the search, under the careful supervision of their parents.
It is customary, although we have never done it, to turn off the lights and conduct the search by candlelight, using a feather and a wooden spoon: candlelight effectively illuminates corners without casting shadows; the feather can dust crumbs out of their hiding places; and the wooden spoon which collects the crumbs can be burned the next day with the chametz.
If we had to do this I could see modernizing and using a flashlight, table brush and dustpan.
Burning the chametz
On the morning of the 14th of Nisan, any leavened products that remain in the householder’s possession, along with the 10 morsels of bread from the previous night’s search, are burned (s’rayfat chametz). The head of the household repeats the declaration of biyur chametz, declaring any chametz that may not have been found to be null and void “as the dust of the earth”. Should more chametz actually be found in the house during the Passover holiday, it must be burnt as soon as possible.
Unlike chametz, which can be eaten any day of the year except during Passover, kosher for Passover foods can be eaten year-round. They need not be burnt or otherwise discarded after the holiday ends. The sole exception is the historic sacrificial lamb, which is almost never part of the modern Ashkenazi Jewish holiday but is still a principal feature of Samaritan observance and non-Ashkenazi Jewish observance. The meat of this lamb, which is slaughtered and cooked on the evening of Passover, must be completely consumed before the morning.(Exodus 12:15)
Sale of chametz
Chametz may be sold rather than discarded, especially in the case of relatively valuable forms such as liquor distilled from wheat, with the products being repurchased afterward. In some cases, they may never leave the house, instead being formally sold while remaining in the original owner’s possession in a locked cabinet until they can be repurchased after the holiday. Although this practice dates back many years, some contemporary rabbinical authorities have come to regard it with disdain – since the supposed “new owner” never takes actual possession of the goods (so he can’t drink all the booze during the 8 days of Passover).
The sale of chametz may also be conducted communally via a rabbi, who becomes the “agent” for all the community’s Jews through a halakhic procedure called a kinyan (acquisition). Each householder must put aside all the chametz he is selling into a box or cupboard, and the rabbi enters into a contract to sell all the chametz to a non-Jewish person (who is not obligated to observe the commandments) in exchange for a small down payment (e.g. $1.00), with the remainder due after Passover. This sale is considered completely binding according to Halakha, and at any time during the holiday, the buyer may come to take or partake of his property. The rabbi then re-purchases the goods for less than they were sold at the end of the holiday. This I have done! We grew up with this tradition.
The main symbol of the Passover holiday is matzo, or unleavened bread. This is a type of flatbread made solely from flour and water which is continually worked from mixing through baking, so that it is not allowed to rise. Matzo may be made by machine or by hand; the latter type of matzo, called shmura matzo (“watched” or “guarded” matzo), is the bread of preference for the Passover Seder in Orthodox Jewish communities.
The Torah contains a Divine commandment to eat matzo on the first night of Passover and to eat only unleavened bread (i.e., matzo) during the entire week of Passover. Accordingly, the eating of matzo figures prominently in the Passover Seder. There are several explanations for this.
The Torah says that it is because the Hebrews left Egypt with such haste that there was no time to allow baked bread to rise; thus, flat bread, matzo, is a reminder of the rapid departure of the Exodus.
Matzo has also been called Lechem Oni (Hebrew: “poor man’s bread”). There is an attendant explanation that matzo serves as a symbol to remind Jews what it is like to be a poor slave and to promote humility, appreciate freedom, and avoid the inflated ego symbolized by leavened bread.
In the weeks before Passover, matzos are prepared for holiday consumption. In Orthodox Jewish communities, men traditionally gather in groups (“chaburas”) to bake a special version of handmade matzo called “shmura matzo”, or “guarded matzo”, for use at the Seder. These are made from wheat that is guarded from contamination by chametz from the time of summer harvest to its baking into matzos five to ten months later. Shmura matzo dough is rolled by hand, resulting in a large and round matzo (like a medium sized pizza crust). Chaburas also work together in machine-made matzo factories, which produce the typically square-shaped matzo sold in stores.
The baking of shmura matzo is labor-intensive, as only 18–22 minutes is permitted between the mixing of flour and water to the conclusion of baking and removal from the oven; however, most are completed by 5 minutes after first being kneaded. Consequently, only a small amount of matzos can be baked at one time, and the chabura members are enjoined to work the dough constantly so that it is not allowed to ferment and rise. A special cutting tool is run over the dough just before baking to keep the matzos flat while baking; this creates the familiar dotted holes in the matzo.
The Passover seder
It is traditional for Jewish families to gather on the first night of Passover (first two nights in communities outside the land of Israel) for a special dinner called a seder (סדר—derived from the Hebrew word for “order”, referring to the very specific order of the ritual). The table is set with the finest china and silverware to reflect the importance of the meal. During this meal, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold using a special text called the Haggadah. Four cups of wine are consumed at various stages in the narrative. The Haggadah divides the night’s procedure into 15 parts:
Kadeish קדש – recital of Kiddush blessing and drinking of the first cup of wine
Urchatz ורחץ – the washing of the hands – without blessing
Karpas כרפס – dipping of the karpas in salt water
Yachatz יחץ – breaking the middle matzo; the larger piece becomes the afikoman which is eaten later during the ritual of Tzafun
Maggid מגיד – retelling the Passover story, including the recital of “the four questions” and drinking of the second cup of wine
Rachtzah רחצה – second washing of the hands – with blessing
Motzi מוציא – traditional blessing before eating bread products
Matzo מצה – blessing before eating matzo
Maror מרור – eating of the maror
Koreich כורך – eating of a sandwich made of matzo and maror
Shulchan oreich שולחן עורך – lit. “set table”—the serving of the holiday meal
Tzafun צפון – eating of the afikoman
Bareich ברך – blessing after the meal and drinking of the third cup of wine
Hallel הלל – recital of the Hallel, traditionally recited on festivals; drinking of the fourth cup of wine
Nirtzah נירצה – conclusion
These 15 parts parallel the 15 steps in the Temple in Jerusalem on which the Levites stood during Temple services, and which were memorialized in the 15 Psalms (#120-134) known as Shir HaMa’alot (Hebrew: שיר המעלות, “Songs of Ascent”).
Maror, one disallowed type and two acceptable kinds (L to R): “chrein” (Yiddish)- grated horseradish with cooked beets and sugar, not acceptable maror due to its sweetness; romaine lettuce; and whole horseradish root, often served grated.A commandment to eat Maror, bitter herbs (typically, horseradish, romaine lettuce, or green onions), together with matzo and the Passover sacrifice Exodus 12:8. In the absence of the Temple, Jews cannot bring the Passover sacrifice. This commandment is fulfilled today by the eating of Maror both by itself and together with matzo in a Koreich-sandwich during the Passover seder.
Recounting the Exodus
On the first night of Passover (first two nights in communities outside Israel), a Jew is required to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt. This commandment is performed during the Passover seder.
Four cups of wine
There is a Rabbinic requirement that four cups of wine are to be drunk during the seder. This applies to both men and women. The Mishnah says (Pes. 10:1) that even the poorest man in Israel has an obligation to drink. Each cup is connected to a different part of the seder: the first cup is for Kiddush, the second cup is connected with the recounting of the Exodus, the drinking of the third cup concludes Birkat Hamazon and the fourth cup is associated with Hallel.
The four questions
Children have a very important role in the Passover seder. Traditionally the youngest child is prompted to ask questions about the Passover seder, beginning with the words, Mah Nishtana HaLeila HaZeh (Why is this night different from all other nights?). The questions encourage the gathering to discuss the significance of the symbols in the meal. The questions asked by the child are:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights, we eat either unleavened or leavened bread, but tonight we eat only unleavened bread?
On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but tonight, we eat only bitter herbs?
On all other nights, we do not dip [our food] even once, but tonight we dip twice?
On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, but tonight we only recline?
Often the leader of the seder and the other adults at the meal will use prompted responses from the Haggadah, which states, “The more one talks about the Exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy he is.” Many readings, prayers, and stories are used to recount the story of the Exodus. Many households add their own commentary and interpretation and often the story of the Jews is related to the theme of liberation and its implications worldwide.
The afikoman — an integral part of the Seder itself — is used to engage the interest and excitement of the children at the table. During the fourth part of the Seder, called Yachatz, the leader breaks the middle piece of matzah into two. He sets aside the larger portion as the afikoman. Many families use the afikoman as a device for keeping the children awake and alert throughout the Seder proceedings by hiding the afikoman and offering a prize for its return. Alternately, the children are allowed to “steal” the afikoman and demand a reward for its return. In either case, the afikoman must be consumed during the twelfth part of the Seder, Tzafun.
After the Hallel, the fourth glass of wine is drunk, and participants recite a prayer that ends in “Next year in Jerusalem!”. This is followed by several lyric prayers that expound upon God’s mercy and kindness, and give thanks for the survival of the Jewish people through a history of exile and hardship. Some of these songs, such as “Chad Gadiyah” are allegorical.
 Holiday week and related celebrations
Passover rea;;y is a time for family and strange lunches of matzo, hardboiled eggs, fruits and vegetables, and Passover treats such as macaroons.
The prohibition against eating leavened food products and regular flour during Passover results in the increased consumption of potatoes, eggs and oil in addition to fresh milk and cheeses, fresh meat and chicken, and fresh fruit and vegetables. To make a “Passover cake,” recipes call for potato starch or “Passover cake flour” (made from finely granulated matzo) instead of regular flour, and a large amount of eggs (8 and over) to achieve fluffiness. Cookie recipes use matzo farfel (broken bits of matzo) or ground nuts as the base. For families with Eastern European backgrounds, borsht, a soup made with beets, is a Passover tradition.
Make sure with your increase consumption of matzo that you eat some fibre, like prunes, as matzo in large quantities can be binding.
Common Foods in our house
Because the house is free of chametz for eight days, our household typically eats different foods during the week of Passover. Many meals include leftovers from the initial seders. Other foods are also prepared, these include:
Matzah brei – Softened matzah fried with egg and fat; served covered lightly in jam
Matzah Cereal – We tried eating this growing up; A fine matzah meal, boiled in water and often served with milk – but now we just buy kosher for passover cereal
“Matzah Kugel” – Kugel made with matzah instead of noodles.
“Charoset” – a sweet, dark-colored, lumpy paste made of fruits and nuts
“Chrain” – horseradish and beet relish
“Gefilte fish” – poached fish patties or fish balls made from a mixture of ground deboned fish, mostly carp or pike
“Chicken Soup with Matzah balls” – Dumpling made from matzah meal served in soup
“Rice – nearly all Sephardic Jews and many Mizrachi and Ashkenazi Jews consider rice to be an essential food for the Passover table. There is much controversy, however it is to be noted from the Talmud (Pesahim 114b,) “What are the two cooked foods served at the Seder table? Rab Huna said, ‘spinach and rice.’” Thus, the accepted tradition, as confirmed in the commentary of Rashi is that rice is not Chametz. The concern arises from worries that in storage, rice may have been contaminated with even one kernel of wheat or other chametz. Therefore, rice must be carefully inspected prior to cooking.
Christian celebration of Easter
The holiday of Easter, which is the most important annual feast in the Christian religion, occurs around the same time of year as Passover. Unlike the dates of most Christian holidays, Easter’s date is calculated based on a lunar calendar originally derived from the Jewish calendar. In many European languages, the words for “Easter” and “Passover” are identical. Easter’s rituals and symbolism derive from a fusion of Jewish Passover traditions with pagan celebrations of spring. According to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified and resurrected on Passover, and the Last Supper was a Passover meal. Christians link Jesus’ crucifixion to the priests’ sacrifice of the Paschal lamb in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. Easter marks the end of Lent, a season of fasting, prayer, and penance, and commemorates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
If you made it this far, you deserve some matzo with butter and jam on it. Now that’s a Passover treat!