Pesach – Passover
Perhaps one of the most beautiful, yet most complicated Jewish festivals to celebrate is Pesach, or Passover. Celebrated from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan, Passover is eight days of remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, or the liberation from slavery by G-d. The first two days and the last two days are days of holy rest. By the same token, on these four days, the meals need to be sumptuous in order to celebrate that we are not starving slaves anymore. However, the first day is a day of fasting for all Jewish firstborns to thank G-d that the Jews were spared death during the 10th plague. This fast is broken at the first humongous dinner in the evening when Pesach actually begins.
Preparation for Pesach begins weeks in advance due to the need for ridding your house of Chametz. Chametz (the “Ch” sounds like the Spanish “j”) is anything that is made of certain types of grains, or can be leavened. Practically, this is a type of spring cleaning for your house. You need to scrub just about everything where there may have been anything containing flour, oatmeal, and other grains. So this means that during the year, you could have eaten in the living room, the bedroom, the computer room, etc. so you must “sterilize” the whole house. The kitchen needs to be rid of any food containing Chametz, even utensils that came in contact with them. Most Jews gather what they can, put it in boxes and “sell” them to a non-Jewish friend they have. You cannot give it away if you intend to get it back, so it has to be sold. I say a non-Jewish friend because most people just “sell” their boxes for a couple of dollars and then buy them back for the same price or an extra dollar, for the trouble, when Pesach is over. Kinda funny, but kinda not.
On the first evening of Pesach, there is a magnificent dinner called a Seder (SAY-der), the word Seder means “order,” so there is an order to this special meal. By the way, this special dinner is one that many Jews travel to from one side of the country to the other, or the world, to be with relatives and celebrate the first two days of Pesach, kind of like Thanksgiving in November, as it is extremely important to celebrate this festival with relatives and loved ones. I just read on one of the websites that approximately 30% of Jews in the USA carry a membership in a synagogue, but more than 70% celebrate Pesach at home or go to a synagogue to celebrate.
As I mentioned, the Seder has an order to follow, and this is very well written and explained in a book called the Haggadah, which is more like a script for the whole night. This book recounts the Exodus, which is the main reason of the Seder dinner. Step by step, the Haggadah takes us by the hand as if we were the slaves escaping from Egypt. Please re-read Exodus 12:14-17, only three verses so you can now actually put your knowledge to work as to why we celebrate Passover.
14 This day shall be a memorial to you, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord. Throughout your generations you shall keep it a feast by an eternal ordinance. 15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day there shall be a holy convocation, and on the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation for you. No manner of work shall be done on them; but that which every man must eat—that only may be prepared for you.17 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For on this very day I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as an ordinance forever.
These words are the meat and potatoes of the Passover celebration. G-d commanded it, so we have obeyed for millennia. Now, there is also another scripture that comes out of Deuteronomy 6:20-23 where it tells us what to do during the Seder:
20 “When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the Lord our God commanded you?’ 21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 Moreover, the Lord showed great and distressing signs and wonders before our eyes against Egypt, Pharaoh and all his household; 23 He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers.”
The Haggadah is a very interesting book to read, and you can find it for free online. One of the purposes of the festivity is mostly for the children so that they will learn, know, and pass along the teachings of what Passover is about. The Mitzvah is to tell the story to another person.
During this Seder, the youngest children are in charge of asking the main question of the Seder four times, as it has four different answers: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The host answers to each time the question is asked are as follows:
- On all other nights we eat bread or matzah, while on this night we eat only matzah.
- On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables and herbs, but on this night we have to eat bitter herbs.
- On all other nights we don’t dip our vegetables in salt water, but on this night we dip them twice.
- On all other nights we eat while sitting upright, but on this night we eat reclining (reason being as if we were royalty and not slaves)
If you have a Seder plate in your house and if you look at it, you will understand this better. The plate is formed with the six concave indentations so you can follow with the Haggadah and “feel” the Exodus. In the indentations, you put a vegetable such as lettuce, for example so you can dip in salt and remember the tears our ancestors shed during slavery; then you put a shank bone. Sephardim put a chicken bone to remind us of the 10 plagues, especially the death of the firstborn. It also reminds us of the sacrificial lambs; Then a hard-boiled egg to remind us of the two fallen Temples. We eat hard-boiled eggs when in mourning. Then you put Charoset which is a sort of sauce made with apples and nuts, and other spices to remind you of the mortar the slaves used to set the bricks during slavery; Then come bitter herbs, such as horseradish, to remind us of the harshness of servitude; and lastly, a bitter vegetable, such as Romaine lettuce, or any bitter veggie, or perhaps a beet? Watercress?
At different intervals of the reading of the Haggadah, there are stops so you can drink a total of four heaping glasses of wine, representing the drink of royalty, which slaves never tasted.
So, the meal, the Haggadah, the questions, the Seder plate, Matzah, and the wine all tell the story of the Exodus and the words that G-d commanded us to tell generation after generation.
The Matzah comes into place because the Haggadah mentions about the dough that had to be taken out of Egypt without giving it a chance to rise. There is even a game to play with the children to find the Afikoman, which is a broken piece of Matzah that a parent hides somewhere in the house and the children have to find it and eat it as dessert.
Remember, most if not all Jewish Holidays are for the education of the children so they can learn, enjoy, and pass on the traditions when they grow up. And of course, there is a lot of singing, Dayenu being the most popular song to sing. Oh, and in the end, you open the door for Elijah to come in. There is so much more to the celebration!
The second night of Passover is a complete and total repeat of the first one. Remember to light up candles on both nights. If the first night falls on Friday night, you only do the Shabbat candles. In the intermediate days, eat Matzah, not bread, and eat Kosher, take a short trip on your newly clean car (yup, even the car gets cleaned from Chametz).
Have a Happy Passover!!