What Is Passover, and How Is It Celebrated?
Passover — or “Pesach” in Hebrew — is one of the major Jewish holidays. The holiday lasts for eight days and begins on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan (usually in April, but sometimes in March). In addition to celebrating the emancipation from slavery of the Israelites in ancient Egypt, Passover marks the beginning of the spring season.
The celebration of the holiday itself takes place around a series of rituals, all of which relate to the retelling and remembering of the story of the Israelites in Egypt. In telling the story in a ritualized way each year, Jews ensure that they remember what happened; in this way, they’re reminded to praise God. They’re also reminded that suffering is still happening in the world, and that it’s important to remain vigilant in the fight against that suffering.
The Story of Passover
At the center of Passover is the story itself. As the Bible tells it, God sees the Jews are suffering under the weight of slavery and appears to Moses in a burning bush. God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and to demand that the Jews be released from slavery. Of course, Pharaoh refuses, and God begins to send a series of terrible plagues against the Egyptians.
Throughout these plagues, Pharaoh often relents and agrees to free the Israelites, but then either Pharaoh himself or God “hardens his heart” and changes his mind. The 10th and final plague is the killing of the firstborn sons of all Egyptians; God tells Moses to have the Israelites make marks above their doors in lamb’s blood so the Angel of Death will pass over their houses. This passing over is where the holiday gets its name.
After the 10th plague, Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go, but then changes his mind a final time and sends his chariots in pursuit. When the Israelites reach the Red Sea, God has Moses raise his staff and part the sea, and the people are able to cross on dry land. When the Egyptians try to follow, the sea floods back in, and they are engulfed.
Matzah and the Removal of Chametz
One of the most famous elements of Passover is matzah, an unleavened flatbread. This bread is, like nearly every element of the celebration, symbolic. As the story goes, in their rush to flee Egypt, the Israelites didn’t have time to let the bread rise, so they ate the bread unleavened instead.
In the days leading up to Passover, tradition asks Jews to remove all chametz — foods with leavening agents — from their homes. Additionally, during Passover, the telling of the story begins with the Hebrew phrase “Ha lachma anya,” or “This is the bread of affliction.” This phrase gives the matzah a symbolic power — the unleavened bread stands in as an object representing the entire story itself.
Traditionally, families or communities take part in a Passover Seder to mark the start of the holiday. “Seder” comes from the Hebrew word for “order” and refers to the carefully constructed system through which the telling of the Passover story is ritualized. The Seder is the fulfillment of God’s command in Exodus 13:8: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ ”
There are 15 parts of the Seder, but they can be grouped into preparing for the ritual, telling the Passover story, eating the meal, and hoping for the future. Again, symbolism is everywhere. Maror, or bitter herbs — parsley, for example — are eaten to symbolize the bitterness of slavery. Each person must drink four full cups of wine — one as a blessing to sanctify the holiday, one during the telling of the story, one as a blessing over the meal, and one as an act of praise at the end of the Seder. In the middle of the Seder, the leader must break in half a piece of matzah and hide one of the pieces — called the afikoman, or “that which comes after” — for the children to find at the end of the meal.
Perhaps most famously, there is also the reciting of The Four Questions. Traditionally, the youngest member of the community recites these, a series of questions all around the central question: “Why is this night different from other nights?” In foregrounding the difference, the rituals of the Seder are set apart and made more special.
Alternative and Non-Traditional Passover Seders
While Passover involves quite a bit of ancient tradition, more recently there is a rich tradition of rethinking the possibilities of its celebration. Because Passover is in many ways a holiday about human rights, it makes sense that Jews and non-Jews alike have found themselves thinking about how to update the traditions to respond to contemporary examples of slavery and suffering around the world.
Seders focused on feminism, ecology, humanism, and lots of other important contexts have sprouted up in recent history. The Haggadah — the word means “telling” in Hebrew, and refers to the text that describes the order of the Seder — is a traditional document, but there is also a long history of its being a living document, with people updating it in response to the local concerns of their communities. The many symbols of Passover more generally are also constantly being reconsidered.
Ultimately, the lessons of Passover are both simple and profound. We need to remember the difficult parts of the past so we don’t forget them, and remember to feel grateful for our lives. We perform rituals because they help us in remembering. We consider the past in the hopes that it might open us up to a better understanding of the world around us here and now, and into the future, too.