Passover seder plate ©
Passover is one of the most important religious festivals in the Jewish calendar. Jews celebrate the Feast of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) to commemorate the liberation of the Children of Israel who were led out of Egypt by Moses.
Jews have celebrated Passover since about 1300 BC, following the rules laid down by God in Exodus 13.
The story of Passover
The story of Passover is told in the Book of Exodus.
The Children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for 210 years. God promised he would release them from slavery, but not before Pharaoh had refused their release and God had visited ten plagues on Egypt to demonstrate his power. (Exodus 3: 19-20)
The first nine plagues were:
The Plague of Blood: God turned the water of the River Nile into blood so that the fish died and the water stank. All the water in Egypt was turned into blood.
The Plague of Frogs: Egypt was overrun with frogs – there were frogs in the beds, frogs in the ovens, and frogs jumping on the people.
The Plague of Lice: Dust was turned into lice which crawled on people and animals. (The Bible calls this The Plague of Gnats, but in Judaism the accepted translation of the Hebrew word Kinim is lice).
The Plague of Flies: Swarms of flies arrived in Egypt and poured into Pharaoh’s palace, the houses of his officials, and all over the land. (The Hebrew word here is orov meaning mixture and in Jewish tradition this refers to a mixture of wild animals.)
The Plague on Livestock: All animals belonging to the Egyptians died – horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep and goats.
The Plague of Boils: Festering boils broke out on the Egyptian people and their livestock.
The Plague of Hail: The worst hailstorm ever to hit Egypt struck, beating down crops growing in the fields and even killing people and animals caught in it.
The Plague of Locusts: A swarm of locusts settled in Egypt and devoured anything left growing after the hail.
The Plague of Darkness: Egypt became totally dark for three days.
The plagues only affected the Egyptians – the Israelites were unaffected.
The escape from Egypt
The Tenth Plague – the plague on the firstborn
An avenging angel would go from house to house killing every first-born son. Israelite children would not be killed and thus God would show that they were his chosen people.
Home-made matzo. Matzo symbolises the Israelites’ unleavened bread ©
So that the angel would know which houses were Israelite homes, the Children of Israel were to follow very specific instructions:
- Each household was to take an unblemished, male lamb, look after it, and slaughter it at twilight four days later.
- Blood from the lamb was to be brushed on the door frames. This would tell the avenging angel that it was an Israelite home and to ‘pass over’.
- Then the families were to roast the lamb and eat it with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Every bit of the lamb had to be eaten and any remaining bones burned.
The Israelites were to perform this ritual dressed for a journey.
The Avenging Angel Arrives
At midnight every Egyptian firstborn – from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the prisoner in his cell – and even of the livestock – was struck down by the angel.
The Egyptians were terrified and demanded Pharaoh banish the Israelites there and then.
Shop-bought matzo ©
Pharaoh frees the Israelites
Pharaoh summoned Moses and ordered him to get his people out of Egypt immediately.
The Egyptians were so glad to see the back of the Israelites that they gave them silver and gold and other valuables to encourage them to go.
The Israelites took their unleavened dough with them – they hadn’t had time to add the yeast – and lived on this for the first few days of their Exodus.
Learning Zone video: The Passover Story
Table set for Passover with a Haggadah at each place ©
Every year, Jews celebrate the Feast of Passover to commemorate the liberation of the Children of Israel, as commanded by God in Exodus 13.
The celebrations last for seven or eight days, depending on where you live.
Learning Zone video: The meaning of Passover for young Jews today
Passover lasts seven days – the first and seventh days are observed as full days of rest (yom tov), and the middle five as intermediate holidays (hol ha-moed).
Passover lasts eight days and the first two and last two days are observed as full days of rest.
The Torah says to celebrate Passover for seven days, but Jews in the Diaspora lived too far away from Israel to receive word as to when to begin their observances and an additional day of celebration was added to be on the safe side.
Before celebrations can begin the house must be cleaned from top to bottom to remove any traces of chametz (leaven) from the home.
This commemorates the Jews leaving Egypt who did not have time to let their bread rise, but also symbolises removing ‘puffiness’ (arrogance, pride) from their souls. The day before Passover begins there is a ritual search for chametz in every home. The children usually join in with great enthusiasm.
A Jew may not eat chametz or derive benefit from it during Passover. He may not even own it or feed it to animals.
Any chametz in his possession, or utensils used to prepare food with chametz, have to be temporarily ‘sold’ to non-Jews. They can be bought back after the holiday. You can even sell your chametz online!
The Seder and the Haggadah
The Fast of the Firstborn
The day before Passover begins the Fast of the Firstborn is observed. All first born males fast on this day to celebrate their escape from the Plague of the First Born.
The highlight of Passover observance takes place on the first two nights, when friends and family gather together for ritual seder meals.
Seder means ‘order’ and the ceremonies are arranged in a specific order. Special plates and cutlery are used which are kept exclusively for Passover.
Learning Zone video: Buying kosher food for Pesach
The Haggadah is a book which tells in fourteen steps the story of the Jewish experience in Egypt and of the Exodus and revelation of God.
As the story of each of the ten plagues is read out a drop of wine is spilt to remind Jews that their liberation was tinged with sadness at the suffering of the Egyptians.
The Four Questions
The haggadah also contains songs, blessings, psalms and Four Questions. These four questions are:
Why do we eat unleavened bread?
Unleavened bread or matzo is eaten to remember the Exodus when the Israelites fled Egypt with their dough to which they had not yet added yeast.
Three types of herbs: horseradish and beetroot paste, lettuce and a whole horseradish root ©
Why do we eat bitter herbs?
Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, are included in the meal to represent the bitterness of slavery.
Why do we dip our food in liquid?
At the beginning of the meal a piece of potato is dipped in salt water to recall the tears the Jews shed as slaves.
Why do we eat in a reclining position?
In ancient times, people who were free reclined on sofas while they ate. Today cushions are placed on chairs to symbolise freedom and relaxation, in contrast to slavery.
Usually the youngest person present will ask the questions and the father will respond. The paradox of this is that these four questions should be asked spontaneously, but celebrations cannot happen unless they are asked!
Learning Zone video: A Jewish family discusses the Four Questions of Passover
Children are central to Passover proceedings and symbolise the continuity of the Jewish people. Customs are designed to hold their attention. There’s the hunt for the afikomen, where a piece of matzoh is hidden which children have to find and hold ‘ransom’ until a reward is given.
The Passover meal
The seder meal: clockwise from top, lettuce, lamb bone, charoset, horseradish and beetroot paste, celery and roast egg ©
Each of the components of the meal is symbolic. The food is eaten in ritual order and its meaning and symbolism is discussed.
- Matzo (unleavened bread) which is eaten symbolically three times during the meal.
- A bone of a lamb to represent paschal sacrifice. When the Temple at Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life, Jews would go there at Pilgrim Festivals to sacrifice a lamb or goat.
- An egg, also to represent sacrifice, but which also has another symbolism. Food usually becomes soft and digestible when cooked, but eggs become harder. So the egg symbolises the Jews’ determination not to abandon their beliefs under oppression by the Egyptians.
- Greenery (usually lettuce) to represent new life.
- Salt water to represent a slave’s tears.
- Four cups of wine to recall the four times God promised freedom to the Israelites, and to symbolise liberty and joy.
- Charoset (a paste made of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine) to represent the mortar used by the Israelites to build the palaces of Egypt.
- An extra cup of wine is placed on the table and the door is left open for Elijah. Jews believe that the prophet Elijah will reappear to announce the coming of the Messiah and will do so at Pesach.
The concluding words of the Haggadah look forward to this: “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Symbolism of Passover
Passover is also called The Festival of Freedom and is a celebration of freedom, not just in Biblical times, but its importance to the individual today and throughout history.
Jews believe freedom to be one of the basic human rights. Readings about contemporary slavery or oppression to show solidarity with the oppressed may be included in some traditions (although not in Orthodox Jewish households).
Jews living under oppression often use Passover to express their own desire for freedom.
Ingredients of charoset: walnuts, wine, cinnamon, honey and apples ©
Festival of Spring
Passover can be called the Festival of Spring and was an agricultural festival which marked the beginning of the cycle of production and harvest during the time the Jews lived in ancient Palestine.
It symbolises hope and new life and the importance of starting afresh.
Passover is also a pilgrim festival. It is one of the three occasions in the year when, according to the commandments of the Torah, Jews were to go to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Passover began as a ceremony celebrated in the home, but once the Jews settled in Jerusalem they constructed the Temple and the celebrations moved there.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Passover celebrations returned to the home.
Today, Passover celebrations continue to be focussed on the home. This makes Passover the most popular Jewish holiday. Families travel great distances to be together at Passover.
In the synagogue there are special readings for each day of the festival.
On the first day of Passover the story from Exodus is told.
On following days, readings tell of the celebrations after the Children of Israel had crossed the River Jordan; of Moses receiving the 10 Commandments and God’s covenant with the Israelites; of the resurrection of the valley of dry bones symbolising the spiritual rebirth of Israel; of the departure from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea; and a summary of the laws and rituals for Passover.
On the last day of Passover a passage from the Book of Isaiah is read which tells of the Messianic era or ‘Passover of the Future’.